Keeper of the Bar

The irreverent, community-minded force behind the lovably raffish River Pig Saloon

The next time you’re on West Burnside, imagine it’s your job to move timber from the surrounding hills down to the Willamette River—and how that steep, east-west thoroughfare would have made your job easier. Ramzy Hattar began to conjure this image a few years ago while preparing to open a bar in the Pearl. “I had the concept of a saloon, but I didn’t yet have a name,” he recalls. “And while the Pearl has now become a fancy part of town, I knew I wanted to connect to the area’s gritty, tough history.”

Hattar, who grew up outside San Francisco in a restaurant family, moved to Portland, his then-wife’s hometown, in 2007. He’d been working in the tech industry, with stints in Germany and Dubai, and while he initially continued in this field in Portland, the restaurant industry beckoned. Following the birth of his son, Zedan Antonio—a.k.a. “Z”—he wanted a job that required less travel. And he’d been around hospitality his whole life, in his parents’ restaurants and working as a deck hand on a fishing party boat in high school.

“My parents always tried to steer me away from restaurants—they knew how hard it was,” he says. “But I was attracted to the social side of the service industry.” Hattar began to invest in Portland restaurants—among them Lardo, Oven and Shaker, and Kachka—but he knew he wanted to create a genuine neighborhood place of his own in the Pearl.

Hence the saloon concept, and his quest to name it. Digging around online, he learned of the loggers who once labored along Burnside Street—and that they were nicknamed “river pigs.” Hattar had found his name, his concept, and his brand.

“These lumberjacks were blue collar workers doing a dangerous job. And they also enjoyed their booze and good times—they were just brutes,” he explains. While these men had other nicknames—river rats, river jacks—“river pig” held extra appeal because it’s also a term fishermen sometimes use to describe an amazing catch. Hattar is an avid angler. “Fishing is my church,” he says. “I’m not religious. When I need to get away and reconnect to life, I get on the river.”

Plus, he says, the term “river pig” captures his style and that of his business partner and cousin, Shadi Hattar. “My cousin and I come from an upbringing where you don’t disrespect people unless you’re prepared to take a punch in the mouth,” he says. “There’s something to be said about that attitude. That’s what the Pearl used to be like when the river pigs worked it. We wanted to create a watering hole that felt connected to those workers.”

More than a name, the concept inspires the bar’s atmosphere: outdoorsy (complete with taxidermy), warm, and casual, with 300-year-old timber used throughout. And it informs the saloon’s ethos, which you can get a sense of from a saucy note on the menu that proudly proclaims the whole enterprise is brought to you by “two assholes and a ‘lil jerk” (an affectionate reference to the two cousins and 11-year-old Z, Hattar’s favorite fishing buddy).

Undoubtedly, this festive saloon is an updated take on the lumberjack mystique. The owner’s favorite dish, dubbed Oregon’s Finest Bowl, features quinoa and fresh veggies. Its name pays homage to Oregon’s Finest, a nearby marijuana dispensary. And instead of catering to people who work outside, River Pig Saloon draws many patrons who love playing outdoors—Hattar regularly organizes fishing and mountain biking excursions for his customers.

“The nice thing about having a bar versus a restaurant is that it’s casual enough for me to hang out and talk to people.”

“The nice thing about having a bar versus a restaurant is that it’s casual enough for me to hang out and talk to people,” he adds. These conversations have sometimes inspired ideas for River Pig’s many neighborhood-oriented fundraisers, including a New Year’s Eve party that benefited the David Campbell Memorial Fund (which honors the city’s fallen firefighters) and a lighthearted romp in early May in which pigs compete and proceeds go to the Oregon Humane Society. These charitable endeavors were a big reason Hattar earned the Pearl District Business Association’s Community Ambassador Award in 2016.

The term “ambassador” has turned out to be especially apt, as Hattar is planning to export his little slice of the Pearl District to Bend by opening a second River Pig Saloon there in September 2017. “Being a neighborhood bar in the Pearl has been so awesome,” he says. In Bend he hopes he can re-create the same uniquely gritty yet inviting sense of the neighborhood he cherishes. – Alison Stein // Photos by Stuart Mullenberg