The Sandy Hut used to be the kind of bar everyone knew and no one visited.
For decades, it was situated in a half-industrial tangle of inner Portland, Oregon infamous for heroin, homelessness, prostitution, and a string of murders in the 1980s. Its neon sign -- depicting a tiki hut emblazoned with “Bar & Lounge Since 1923” -- presided ominously above a windowless bunker you'd only find yourself if things had gone awry.
For decades, it was home to a gnarled mix of steel-hearted taxi drivers, people in the midst of crashing from benders, and folks who didn’t care if they lived or died. You’d only eat if you needed to put something in your body that wasn’t dope. At the turn of the century, it took on a new life as the “Handy Slut” -- the unofficial moniker emblazoned on t-shirts and women’s underwear sold behind the bar -- adding a slightly more vibrant crowd but keeping the fistfights and notoriety.
But by the mid-2000s, the neighborhood, and the city of Portland, was in the middle of a massive transformation. New restaurants, new apartment blocks, and a new wave of young people were flocking to the city. The former hardscrabble backwater became the artsy, techy city it is today. And it was time for the Hut to evolve.
In 2015, Warren Boothby and Marcus Archambeault -- owners of around half a dozen other Portland bars -- bought the Sandy Hut. They replaced a stage that hosted punk shows with a shuffleboard table and a Big Buck Hunter console. A new menu of Instagram-friendly bar food was introduced alongside a weekend brunch -- brunch! Craft beer joined PBR. Inexpensive booze-plus-mixers cocktails joined the drinks menu. For the first time, daylight graced the interior: A chunk of the exterior was carved out and rewalled with glass tiling.
On a dreary Sunday afternoon in 2018, I stopped in for a beer. I expected it to be empty. Instead, I walked into a cheerful bar teeming with art kids laughing over mimosas and young, attractive bartenders waltzing eggs Benedict to tables of stylish punks.
It looked and acted and felt like a dive, but the experience was as pleasant and professional as a fine cocktail bar. PBR was on tap, but my beer was from Pfriem, one of Oregon’s most celebrated breweries. The people around me didn’t look or act rich, but they looked and acted cool. I felt as though I was having a beer in the uncanny valley’s premier dive.
"The old Sandy Hut… was gnarly. There were hidden cameras; all kinds of weird ass shit," says Ashley Frutiger, a bartender who has been working the Hut since 2015. “We still have regulars that have been coming in here for the last 20 years, and they like the change. We cleaned up all the smoke and gave it a little bit of a facelift. The owners wanted to keep the essence of what Sandy Hut was, but not make it so it's just a bunch of drunk people fighting all the time.”
Now, it is as though a poltergeist that had haunted the place for decades has finally been exorcised. The Sandy Hut has become a post-dive bar.
And it is not alone.
From Portland to New York, Cleveland to New Orleans, San Francisco to Minneapolis, the American dive bar has been changing into a new kind of urban drinking institution. These new-old bars are rooted in the past but exist in a cultural omnipresent where high and low are one.
The post-dive is here to stay, and it is coming to a city near you -- whether you like it or not.