This neighborhood mainstay has always been The Tonic, no matter what the sign out front said. In this month’s Know Your Venue feature, we welcome back The Tonic Lounge and explore its owners’ future plans.
Way up in North Portland, the Kenton neighborhood has a feeling of Portland’s working class past. The neighborhood originated from a meat-packing company and held the Vanport community. It sits between industrial areas and the interstate, and holds an international raceway. Old buildings now hold new businesses, but the history resonates. Walking towards the glowing lights and wood panels of The World Famous Kenton Club, I pass young people in vintage clothes, smoking on their stoops. For a moment I wonder if I’ve slipped into another decade.
So why is the Kenton Club “world famous?” It has to do with a film called Kansas City Bomber, a movie finding Raquel Welch donning a number 11 jersey as a roller derby champion in Portland. It was filmed in entirety here, with many of the delectable B-quality scenes inside the Kenton Club.
But aside from the roller skates and movie posters on the wall, the bar is famous (or infamous) because it’s been around since 1947. It was predominantly a biker bar before being purchased by Scott and Doreen Waitt a little over a decade ago. It really hasn’t changed much, but The Waitts restored all of the geometric diamonds and teardrops of the original woodwork and built a comfortable, pup-friendly patio. They also started having shows.
“The no-nonsense attitude of the Kenton Club has always appealed to me as a customer and performer, as well as bartender and booker” says new music booker Toby Edelhart, “Part of what makes the Kenton Club unique is it is a bar that has shows, not a music venue that has a bar.”
Upon entering, there’s a pool table, a well-curated jukebox, and usually a very long (but fast-moving) line to get famously stiff cocktails, craft pints, or perhaps a lemon ginger CBD soda. At night you can order up a corndog or some other fried food to take into the dining room, where people hold hands in dark corners or fill the tables under a huge Spanish-style chandelier. The Kenton also holds early hours, with Chef Nik Nice (also of Liberty Glass Bar & Restaurant) running brunch out of the KC kitchen on the weekends.
As for the performance area, there’s lots of room to move. February is shaping up to host shows with Bubble Cats, Drunk Dad, The Lovesores and Whisper Hiss.
“The hardwood interior gives bands a warm sound and the open space makes the shows very intimate,” says Edelhart. “The Kenton Club has always hosted a wide variety of shows, being home to country, americana, punk, rock and indie. We are also home to many birthdays, tour kick-offs/homecomings, benefits, staff parties and even memorials. In this way the Kenton Club is as much a community space as it is a venue, and we try to make our space available to a wide variety of demographics and subcultures. I am just trying to keep my finger on the pulse of the ever changing Portland music scene, trying to bring in new acts and also trying to focus on diversity.”