'Last Call' for Sellwood's Penguin Pub & Eatery
On June 9th, DeAnn Carpentier – owner of the iconic Penguin Pub and Eatery on the southeast corner of Tacoma Street and S.E. 17th Avenue – will serve her last drink, stuff her last taco, and listen to her last karaoke song. As previously did Mike's Drive In across the street, another of the neighborhood's longtime businesses closes to make way for more apartments.
After 44 years as waitress, bartender, and all-around customer pleaser, DeAnn and her Penguin Pub and Eatery will hold a final goodbye party for those who called the place home.
Westmoreland and Sellwood have had more than their share of changes lately – high rise apartment complexes, the increased traffic on the streets, installation of MAX light rail down McLoughlin Boulevard, and building of a new Sellwood Bridge.
It's in with the new, and out with the old. Some of the storefronts like the Black Cat Tavern, Dral's Cleaners, the Skybox Pub, Mike's Drive In, and even the Taco House on S.E. Powell Boulevard have had their final adieu.
The Penguin Pub has been a mainstay in the community for over 75 years, and has a unique history that I think you'll find interesting.
As Portland was gradually attempting to recover from the tail end of the Great Depression and was facing World War II, more jobs began opening up for men who had been unemployed for years. New stores and large businesses on the west side of the river offered opportunities to attract the majority of the available workers, who lived on the east side.
Workers commuting to work downtown, came across new cafés, diners, and small eateries. Small food joints offered cheap noontime meals, coffee and soft drinks, and an early breakfast or occasional late night dinner.
The corner of S.E. 17th and Tacoma in Sellwood became what it still is today – a busy commuting route. In those days passing motorists would stop, buy gas, have a slice of pie, or stop and chat with fellow workers at the local café.
Commuters usually traveled to Portland via the then-new [original] Sellwood Bridge, coming from the outskirts of Clackamas County on the newly opened Highway 99E (1933). Even residents from the town of Milwaukie traveling north on 17th Avenue would have to pass this intersection, and proprietors wanted to make sure they spent their money there.
Chevron and Hudson Oil gas stations graced the corners of this busy intersection back in the 1920's, while Barto's Confectionary stood for many years on the northeast side of the block. The Sellwood and Pioneer Auto repair shops were located north of the service stations for major repairs, and a small grocery store offered amenities for busy drivers in a rush to get back on the road.
It was the small lunch counter establishments that began showing up along the street that caught the eye of motorists when they stopped to fill up their gas tanks.
In 1937 George Andrews, opened a small café next to the Flying A gas station on the southwest corner. It stayed just a little corner café through a succession of owners until 1939, when Marie C. Whatley purchased the restaurant and gave it the identity of the Penguin Café. Whatley gave it that woman's touch that had been missing – good home cooked meals, a cheery smile, and clean and decorative tablecloths helped make it a destination for the commuters as well as the local residents.
The Penguin Café stayed busy all day and in the evening, and began acquiring new customers when Henry J. Kaiser established a pre-war ship building company in the north section of Portland. Over 97,000 industrial workers were employed in the shipyards in the 1940's, many emigrating from the southern region of the United States.
Rooming houses and vacant rooms were in dire need, and with the influx of new workers temporary housing developments were built by the city of Portland at Guilds Lake and Vanport for their convenience. But it wasn't all North Portland; just east of the Garthwick District at the south end of Sellwood, the Kellogg Park housing development was built by the City of Milwaukie, offering 600 units for hundreds of families to live in. The Penguin Café then became a favorite gathering place for those workers passing by northbound for their early morning shifts in the shipyards.
Competition along the Avenue was stiff. Mrs. Whatley and her staff competed against other small food venues and restaurants. Kenneth Adams opened his own eating establishment on the next block, and meals were available at Frank and Jacks Café. All of these cafés were within two blocks of each other, including the Dollhouse Restaurant. Family style dinners were offered at the well-known Gottschalk Café just down the street (it's now the Sellwood Inn).
Prohibition was enacted in 1920 in the State of Oregon, and taverns, bars, saloons, and restaurants were banned from serving or selling alcoholic beverages of any kind. Many bars continued providing alcoholic drinks for daily private parties behind locked doors during prohibition times. These "speakeasies", as they were called, were usually not raided by the Portland Police Bureau if there weren't complaints, and if unsavory celebrations were kept to a minimum.
Local folklore has rumored that there were a few "speakeasies" in the Sellwood and Westmoreland neighborhood, and DeAnn Carpentier recalls when Marsha Ewing brought in a photograph of the Penguin Café during this period. The picture revealed blinds across the windows, so passing pedestrians couldn't see what was happening there, and hinted that the Penguin might have been serving (gasp) forbidden spirits. If anyone knows where that photo is, or knows a relative of the Ewing's, DeAnn would love to have a copy as a memento.
Fred A. Pasquale bought the café from Mrs. Whatley in the 1950's, by which time Prohibition long gone, and beer and wine could be served with few restrictions. Mrs. Whatley's café then became known as the Penguin Tavern. Freddie kept the customers happy serving drinks, sponsoring semi-pro baseball and football teams, and attracting new patrons into the bar to watch boxing matches and basketball events on their new RCA color TV.
Television was still a luxury many people could not afford at home, let alone an expensive color set, and anyway it was always more exciting to watch the big games with your fellow sports enthusiast with a cool pitcher of beer.
In October of 1974, the Penguin Tavern was sold to Robert and Marcella Corbin, and their daughter DeAnn began working as a waitress at the bar in her early twenties. In a recent interview, DeAnn revealed that her brother Dennis Brown back then had been looking for a sports bar to sponsor the semi-pro baseball team he was playing on; and when none of the merchants stepped up to help support his baseball team, the family decided to buy the tavern and sponsor the team themselves.
DeAnn worked full time at the Safeway Bakery, so her mom worked the morning shift, and after she got off her day job DeAnn helped out during the evening hours. Over the course many years the Penguin kept sponsoring baseball teams each summer, even after Dennis stopped playing. They even supported the ladies' baseball league for a few seasons.
In a recent visit to the Penguin Pub, Kathy Logan Ferris was showing off a photo of the ladies' baseball team that had been sponsored by the Pub around 1974. There's also been a framed picture of the 1947 Sellwood Penguins men's baseball team on view above the kitchen for interested sports enthusiasts.
Games were played at the Sckavone Baseball field in Westmoreland Park, and afterwards many players and fans gathered for a rollicking good time at the Penguin Tavern. Trophies won by the teams have lined the south wall, and DeAnn pointed out that the weekends were so packed that customers had to stand and wait for a table, or lined up outside waiting for a place to sit.
The original Penguin was half the size it is today; a horseshoe-shaped bar with just a few tables provided minimal sitting for customers. Most of the tavern and the entryway were overshadowed by the presence of gasoline pumps and the garage that dominated the corner, and was still in operation in the '70's.
Over the course of their ownership, the Corbins enlarged the tavern – especially when they converted a vacant section of the former gas station into more seating for customers. With an up-to-date kitchen, DeAnn began offering tacos on Saturdays for 75 cents – and 35 cents bought you an ice cold mug of beer, or a large pitcher for $1.50 for a large pitch. The success of her Saturday nights led to her offering Taco Tuesdays for patrons who didn't want to battle the busy weekend crowds.
Tuesday Taco evenings have become such an institution that DeAnn remarks that if a regular doesn't show up she knows there's something wrong, and she calls and checks up on her absent weekly visitors.
Other customers stopped by to rekindle the past celebrations or recall the times when they grew up in the community. Susan Heft's parents, John and Flora Heft, once lived on Spokane street and her father had a part time job pumping gas at the Flying A service station that sat in front of the Penguin. John worked as a tube bender for the Neon Sign Service Company during the day, and spent his evenings at the gas station, with a visit to the Penguin after he was through for the day.
In 1999 the Tavern became licensed to serve hard liquor, and the Penguin Pub and Eatery was the newly dedicated name complete with a plywood cutout of a painted Penguin on the front of the door to greet customers to "the coldest beer in town".
At the end of 2017, DeAnn received notice that the property on which her Pub sat had been sold to investors – and before long, another mixed-use apartment complex will be taking its place.
But residents and baseball players who once patronized the Penguin will have one last chance to return for a cold beverage and maybe a taco until June 9th, when it will close for good.