I walked in desperately wanting to love The TARDIS Room. After all, nerd theme bars are rare and precious beasts. If we don’t support the few we have, they’ll never live long and prosper enough to create the nerd-centric watering hole so many of us crave. I want The TARDIS Room to succeed so badly I almost talked myself out of writing about it.
The TARIDS Room is one half of The Fish and Chip Shop, located in a run down but potentially gentrifying part of north Portland. It’s trying to be a working class corner bar, but this isn’t the right neighborhood. Walking in, I heard a woman walking behind me ask, “What’s wrong with blinking?”
On my second visit, friendly locals who saw me pondering the weeping angel painted on the bar’s blacked out window tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Nothin’ but freaks in there, ma’am.”
As a second generation geek, I took that as a good sign.
Portland is already a grey city. I’m not sure why the owner feels a need to cover the front windows with blackout curtains. When you step inside, you’re not quite transported to another world. You’re just left squinting at the four small tables and wondering if there’s more.
Anyone expecting the BBC’s Doctor Who Experience will be gravely disappointed. This is a Classic Who kind of bar – put together with duct tape, colored lights, good intentions, and a lot of love. There are four rooms plus the loo, all tiny and cramped like a proper British space. The rooms are moderately decorated with Whovian retail merchandise gleaned from Etsy and Think Geek with a couple British imports and a scant handful of small home made items on a high shelf.
The main room has four tables – a two top, a four top, a four top booth, and a six top with benches, all facing a small stage which hosts local bands on weekends and a Doctor Who Trivia Night on Tuesdays. The flat screen TV was stuck on a loop replaying “The Curse of the Black Spot” on both my visits.
In addition to the main room, there’s a four top alcove for people who aren’t in the mood for whatever entertainment is going in the main room. Next to that is a pool room with a TARDIS bathroom door and life sized cutouts of a Dalek next to David Tennant’s Doctor. A hallway full of geeky typography posters from the Etsy Shop Out Nerd Me leads to a room where you can play a classic Doctor Who themed pinball machine under the watchful eye of a Dalek cardboard cutout.
The rest of the walls are hand painted with glow in the dark retro UFO’s. The bathrooms and part of the main room have TARDIS wall accents clearly printed out and laminated on a home machine. Much like the classic episodes of Doctor Who, the owner is doing his best with a big heart and a small budget. The cardboard cutouts and posters feel a little sparse in places, but speaking as someone with a Doctor Who themed bathroom at home, I know the official merchandise adds up fast. You won’t get the obnoxious decor density of a Cracker Barrel, but you will get a nicely curated selection of Whovian items picked with both love and continuity in mind.
The menu is a reminder that this is first and foremost a British Chippy. You can get battered and fried Cod, Haddock, Halibut, Red Snapper, Pollock, or Shrimp. For that matter, you can get a battered and deep fried Mars Bar, Lion Bar, Toffee Crisp, or Banana Fritter. For the hard core Anglophiles, there are also Scotch Eggs (make yours more nutritious by putting it on a salad!), Cornish Pastys, Beef Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers & Mash, and Sausage, Beans, Chips and Gravy made with Heinz Baked Beans.
The specialty menu for The TARDIS Room side of things added a Slitheen Salad, K-9 Dogs, Weeping Angel Onion Rings, Sycorax Wings on Fire, a TARDIS Burger, Davros Burger, Dalek Burger, and the obligatory Fish Fingers and Custard.
If you’re going to rename your menu items to match a fandom, either go big or go home. Slapping “Dalek” and “Slitheen” in front of unrelated items for half the menu then just giving up on the rest undermined the whole effort. Heck, if you really can’t come up with a geeky Doctor Who tie-in name for your battered and fried beet slices, create a naming contest during the weekly Doctor Who trivia nights.
The halfhearted menu matched the halfhearted service. The entire Doctor Who room was covered by one bored waitress wearing hipster glasses so large they were at risk of consuming her entire face. She had to wait on three leisurely tables with a total of seven diners, all of them people who clearly made a trek to The TARDIS Room just because it exists. Getting her attention was a challenge. Apparently, if you pretend customers don’t exist, eventually they’ll go away. Wait, that’s no joke. We all stuck it out due to Whovian loyalty, but you could tell no one planned to come back.
The menu warns all diners to allow at least half an hour for their food to be prepared from scratch, and they’re not kidding. We had a good 15 minute wait before we could place our orders, then a full half hour before our food arrived.
My dinner companion ordered a large house salad, which fresh and crisp, plus a massive large order of battered and fried beets for us to share. I wanted a full meal, so rather than just order the fish fingers and custard I ordered the cod and chips with a side of custard and jammy dodgers. I asked if they could cut the cod into strips instead of filets so I could get a picture of fish fingers and custard at the Doctor Who themed bar. Instead, I was charged for a large Cod Filet platter and served a small cod bites plate.
The cod itself was hot and light with no lingering fishy flavor. We had to ask for vinegar, lemon, and tartar sauce. A touch of lemon and salt were the perfect accent for a nice, wholesome fish dish. My chips, on the other hand, were centimeter thick, square, home cut strips of potato that were probably quite nice when they were fresh. That might’ve been yesterday. Mine were greasy, room temperature, and so limp they couldn’t stand up to a harsh word. It was a massive disappointment. I know the deep fryer was operational, because both my fish nuggets and the battered and fried beet root slices were fresh and piping hot. There’s no excuse for serving day old fried potatoes of any kind. Never.
That said, the fried beets were well worth trying. They were coated in the same light, tempura-style batter as the fish. In fact, the intrinsic sweeetness and texture reminded me of my beloved sweet potato tempura. (If you’ve never tried it, you’re missing out on life) but with an earthier initial taste and a sweeter aftertaste. The thinner slices were a perfect texture all the way through while the thicker ones were still a little raw in the middle. Overall, well worth trying. If you like sweet potatoes at all, you’ll love these. Plus, for the geeks out there, this is a food that looks like it bleeds when you bite it.
The Bird’s Custard was served warm, with the skin on. If you’re a Whovian who has never had real British custard before, you should give it a try. It may look a lot like a thinner vanilla pudding, but the British version is less sweet and somehow pleasantly heavier. It actually pairs surprisingly well with fish fingers. If you’re dubious, try adding a bit of salt and lemon or vinegar to your fish before dipping. Since the custard was freshly made (or at least freshly scooped out of a powder tin and whisked with some milk) I’ll forgive them for serving the most horrifically stale Jammy Dodgers I’ve ever encountered.
In addition to the main room menu and The TARDIS Room menu there’s a mediocre selection of Doctor Who named cocktails (though I give extra points to whoever invented The Companion: a PBR with a chaser of Jack) and a genuinely good selection of local Portland and regional Pacific Northwestern beers at pretty affordable prices.
In the 90 minutes we spent there, no one in the main room rose their voice above a whisper. Strangers were sitting too close with no real noise to mask their words. Anything you said would be shared with the entire restaurant, so I can vouch that all conversations stayed centered on, “Ooh, this is a neat lamp. Have you seen the pinball machine?”
I went back a second time for trivia night. I’ve had great fun with Geeks Who Drink trivia nights, which were advertised in the window. Both the waitress and a sign near the door said every Tuesday was Doctor Who trivia night, so I showed up ready to battle other fans. Instead, it turned out to be Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy night, which apparently interested no one.
People in the Pacific Northwest have been almost impossibly friendly. When I walked in, two tables were empty, one had two patrons, and another had one. Since it was trivia night and I didn’t know anyone, I asked if I could join the party of one. She said no, she was waiting on people. The party of two then developed an intense fascination with the wallpaper lest they risk making eye contact with me. I took the hint and sat at the lone two top table. The attitude really surprised me since I normally find both geek events and folks in Portland to be incredibly welcoming sorts.
I optimistically waited for more people to filter in. The lone diner was indeed joined by two more college students. Next came the trivia master. As soon as he asked the two top if they were staying for trivia, they promptly left the building. One more woman wandered in, looked at the room, and walked back out. This entire time, there was only one diner on the non-Doctor Who side.
Both the trivia master and the lone waiter seemed actively annoyed at my presence. It was clear the three college students were regulars. I had the impression my presence made them feel like they’d have to go through with something no one really wanted to do. After half an hour of hoping someone else might show up for trivia, I gave up and left the bar to the three unwelcoming folks who obviously thought it was their private living room.
Despite all this, I’m not ready to give up on The TARDIS Room. Bars like this are what you make of them. Right now, the only patrons seem to be a small cluster of regulars who don’t want to see their private space invaded by outsiders, but the owner can’t pay his bills selling 6 PBR’s every Tuesday night. If Portland is going to keep a Doctor who themed bar, it needs regulars.
I say unto you, if you’re a geek crafting group, take over the main room and help give this place some well needed color and an infusion of crafts. Bring your knitters, your chain mail crafters, your cosplayers, and set up a nice little meeting space on the big bench that can comfortably seat up to 8. (You could take over the entire main room with 16 people.) If you organize some kind of Geek Speed Dating, take over the restaurant on a weeknight. If you’ve thought about going to trivia night, grab four friends and give it a try. Even if it’s just the four of you playing against one another, you got out of the house and enjoyed some $4 beers along with a plate of fish fingers and custard. What else were you going to do on a Tuesday?
As I said before, I want this place to succeed. Right now, it seems to be coasting off tourist dollars from out of state Whovians, but that can’t be enough to sustain it forever.
What The TARDIS Room desperately needs is warm bodies. Cram enough people in there and I’m sure it’ll transform from a place where you feel like you have to whisper lest you interrupt the other diners into a happy geek bar full of outgoing nerds.