Much like the vintage 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia for which it is named, Old Bus Tavern is full of quirky charm, with an emphasis on quality. The restaurant and bar is a labor of love from partners Jimmy Simpson, John Zirinsky and Bennett Buchanan, long-time pals, avid homebrewers and lovers of old VW buses.
The trio has been hard at work combining those interests to create a neighborhood spot filled with beer and great food, as well as a tribute to their beloved buses. When it first emerged, the concept for the tavern was focused on chili and beer— after pulling in chef Max Snyder (Le Marais, Saison) things got a little more interesting. Snyder's background in fine dining has expanded the menu beyond just chili, including more vegetables, bright flavors and creative techniques.
"The Old Bus guys were planning more of a chili bar, so I embraced that but also wanted to keep it balanced," said Snyder. On the chili front, Snyder has narrowed it to one: a straightforward version with no tomatoes or beans, only ground chuck, peppers and aromatics. It will be finished with ginger oil, which Snyder says extends the heat of the chilis, while cooling it with the addition of fat. Expect a menu full of of inventive dishes influenced by chili peppers, like an eggplant soup with pureed pasilla chilis and pluots, garnished with charred fresh peppers, raw pluots and toasted almonds.
Additionally, Snyder plans for the beer to play a large part in the constantly rotating menu whenever possible, though he says it will be more than just "beer battered something or other." One such dish includes cucumbers cured in the dead yeast from the fermentation of their lemon-basil saison, creating something akin to a miso pickle. It's then finished with lemon zest and basil, complementing its strong, hoppy beer flavor. "We want to make sure the beer is getting worked in wherever it makes sense," added Snyder. Similarly, he has been working on a cornbread that uses beer to activate the leavening agents. Check out the full menu here.
"The packaging is different than some of the fancier places I've worked, but the way we run the kitchen is the same," says Snyder. "It's almost more detail oriented because it can be— the menu is smaller and I'm right on top of everything." Dishes will change frequently, with the addition of specials like a ribeye that's been dry-aged for 32 days or single bone short ribs for two. "The kitchen has been turning out some pretty refined stuff, with a great response. It's important to be a place that fits into the neighborhood, but we want to exceed people's expectations," says Snyder. "It's really a restaurant hidden inside of a brewery."
On the beverage side, beer will obviously be a focal point, including a rotating selection of house-brewed American and Belgian-style ales, plus ten guest taps featuring locals like Faction and Fieldwork Brewing (full list here). Brewmasters and partners Buchanan and Zirinsky will do the brewing in their customized brewery from Portland Kettle Works, with plans to debut five rotating house beers at opening. That includes their Lemon Basil Saison, an interpretation of a classic farmhouse ale brewed with basil and Meyer lemon zest, and a Chili Porter, brewed with Fresno and Habanero chilis. Cocktails, from bar consultant Christina Cabrera (15 Romolo, Novela) and bar manager Ryan Linden (Maven, Michael Mina) are all about whiskey, tequila and mezcal (the Old Bus crew's favorite liquors). Expect easy drinking options like shandies and housemade sodas, alongside cocktails like the OBT Margarita, made with tequila, pasilla pepper syrup and firewater tincture. There'll also be a selection of creative boilermakers, like the Coal Miner's Daughter: Irish whiskey and Chili Porter.
The 49-seat space has a relaxed, but industrial vibe (considering the hefty amount of brewing equipment within), with lots of warmth from the rare collection of antique Navajo rugs adorning the taupe walls. The space is divided between a dining room, lengthy bar, and a standing bar that faces the brewing equipment, where beer lovers can nerd out with their favorite brew.
Also of note: there will be a real "old bus" associated with the restaurant. The crew has tricked out a 1971 VW bus with beer taps, cooking capabilities and a sweet sound system. It'll be ready for parties and catering sometime in August.
Old Bus Tavern will open Wednesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m., with plans to start weekend brunch in late summer.