To spend a little time — or a lot — at the Oakland Tavern is to get a colorful slice of the character, and characters, of Douglas County. Pull up a chair, grab a tall, cold brew and one of the best sandwiches around, and enjoy the scene.
Story by David Shroyer, Photos by Robin Loznak
On a rustic corner at the entryway of one of Douglas County’s most picturesque main streets sits a two-story, redbrick-and-wood building. Outside, it is a relatively nondescript structure from another time. Inside, however, it’s another story. And another. And thousands of others.
To step into this old-school roadhouse is to be immediately immersed in years of emotional effervescence and ages of love and laughter, not to mention wooden barrels of salted peanuts, lotto games, a pool table, cold beers and simplistically delicious sandwiches.
This is the Oakland Tavern, aka, “The O.T.,” established in 1898 and one of the most historic establishments in uber-historic Oakland, and this is my destination on a perfect fall Sunday afternoon.
Fueled by visions of a great sandwich and a cold beer, I make the 17-mile drive north from Roseburg along old Highway 99, winding around corners, weaving in and out of sunbeams blasting through the thick, lush canopy overhead.
As I emerge from the woods, bright reds and yellows and hazelnut browns illuminate the old town of Oakland. The autumn foliage melts into the aged, copper-colored, brick skyline of this village of fewer than 900.
Shops line the wide strip of pavement, ominously named Locust Street, that cuts through town. Antiques. Café. Winery. Tavern!
I push through the old farmhouse screen doors and they clank none-too-subtly behind me, announcing my arrival, like a parched trail hand stumbling through saloon doors after a long day’s ride. A harmonious hum of energy ripples through the submarine tube of a bar, and the accepting eyes of the patrons look up, quietly welcoming the newcomer.
SITTING AT THE BAR, ONE CAN GAZE AT THE SCORES OF THREE-INCH SQUARE GRIDS GOUGED IN THE WOOD SURFACE WITH BAR PATRON NAMES AND YEARS AND PROMISES — A LOVER’S CARVING TREE, A ROAD MAP TO THE PAST, PERSONAL MESSAGES AND ADVERTISEMENTS
Jovial folks — old and young, sipping, chewing, cackling, jiving and jostling — cast peanut shells indifferently on the floor. Faded and gnarled license plates decorate the walls. PBR and Budweiser signs hang suggestively. Lotto slots beep and whistle. Football games blink and flash on flat screens behind the long, sweeping bar. Balls are lofted. Referees signal scores that are met with groans, cheers, gasps and guffaws. Derisive celebrations and obligatory excuses follow.
Another Sunday afternoon breakdown at the O.T.
All the “of-age” generations come here to share their stories, their futures and pasts, celebrate insanely tasty sandwiches and enjoy cold and frothy beverages delivered by attentive and friendly tavern staff. The seasoned bartender Derrick speaks of infusions, recipes and bar-talk grandeur. He eases folks into comfort, handing out drinks and menu slips, upon which the hungry customer can simply check-mark whichever of the 15 various sandwiches sounds most appealing on any particular day. Another check for chips or coleslaw, pickles and peppers, and so on.
All on your time, at your leisure.
On this day I’m deciding between The JR Club, “A toasted roll with crispy pepperoni, turkey, ham, tomato, lettuce, mayo and melted pepper jack cheese;” the Buffalo Bill, “Buffalo chicken, Frank’s Red Hot sauce, diced pepperoncinis, olives, blue cheese dressing and blue cheese crumbles;” and the famed O.T. Grinder, “A toasted sandwich with olive oil and Italian seasoning, ham, salami, pepperoni, tomato, green pepper, onion, melted provolone and red wine vinegar.”
I mull the options for a bit and let a couple sips of beer help distill my thoughts. The O.T. Grinder it is.
A few short minutes and a half-pint of lager pass before the sandwich shows up. A thin sheen of oil coats the bun, and melted provolone sprawls out and onto the plate. A side of kettle-style chips sits idly by, waiting to be pilfered.
It’s love at first bite. Citrus notes explode. Oily, fresh and savory. The cheese is at optimum temperature, warm but not too hot to completely devour. Short work is made of this fine craft sandwich, and my day continues.
A seat at the bar affords the visitor the opportunity to gaze at the scores of three-inch-square grids gouged in the wood surface, committing to O.T. history patron names, years and promises — a lover’s carving tree, a road map to the past, personal messages and advertisements: “Here starts the life of Roberta and Rod 8-28-82, a 50-year commitment.” “Killburn Wood Products, Ronce, Alvin, John.” “Danny loves Loretta” features a cartoonish arrow splitting the two names.
Then there are your tragically short-lived squares: “Butch and (scratched-out name).”
Even some motorcycle outlaws have left their marks on this hardwood diary: “Outsiders — Portland, Oregon.” “Outsiders, Central Oregon.” “Hells Angels Oakland, California: Sonny, Irish, Marvin, Deacon, Big Al, John, 84.” The square just below, adorned with a double lighting bolt insignia, links in love “Sonny and Sharron,” as in Sonny Barger, former president of the Hells Angels from California’s version of Oakland.
Robert, a 60-something denim-and-leather-clad man with a gray billy-goat beard and salt-and-pepper buzz-cut, is here for a break from his solo motorcycle cruise. He talks about his grandchildren, the senselessness of the recent Las Vegas shooting, and the small patch of real estate, and piece of history, he owns on this storied bar top.
Robert tells me that he and his cousin Dave got together on one of their decade-or-so reunions and scrawled on the bar an outline of an open-ended wrench (an homage to a gift he had received) surrounding the bar’s name and location. Below the wrench they carved, “Callie Graham 1900-1981 — taught us to fish — 9-26-1984.”
This old roadhouse has life. It seems to breathe in and out. Its sounds and stories bounce around it like Roman candles.
A lone, 20-something redhead with neck tattoos hones his pool skills alone until he is joined by a local, also in his 20s, wearing a trucker hat, Wranglers and Nikes. The ginger is here from San Francisco to help his aunt and uncle on their farm. He and his pal talk about work, weekends, women and whisky.
A disgruntled Seahawks fan shouts something disparaging about Aaron Rodgers, and receives mixed responses from the crowd. In a state generally owned by the Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers have an unusually strong fan base here at the O.T.
The off-duty bartender, Jenna, a former professional boxer from Florida, jokingly flexes a bicep for some of the regulars, while her friend, fresh from Florida and just a few weeks into the Oakland Tavern scene, cooks up concoctions on the open micro-kitchen grill next to the bar.
Kelly, another bartender, also is off duty, but she dutifully makes her rounds anyway, chatting up and checking in with guests, making sure all are, and all is, good at the O.T.
Though they are out of sight on this Sunday, there are many other characters behind the scenes, all of whom contribute to the heart and soul and special flavor of this archaic establishment. Now on maternity leave, bar manager Jen is talked about in an almost ghost-like manner, with staff mentioning her comings and goings before the bar opens, making sure her fine-tuned crew has all the tools to keep this legacy tavern humming along.
And there’s Jeff — “Fro” they call him — the brains and grit and finesse behind those sandwiches. And Rick, the owner of the establishment, the guy who puts competent people in positions and entrusts them to do their jobs well. There’s no micromanaging at the Oakland Tavern, they say. It’s not needed.
The scene continues to unfold and evolve, as newcomers come and the day’s earlier visitors go. Bartenders switch shifts, and the dance continues.
Outside, the sun has turned a deeper shade of red, a sign it may be time for me to leave lest I become a permanent fixture. There are, of course, much worse places one could wind up permanently than here. But there will be other days and other visits. And every visit to the Oakland Tavern is a trip.