Bubba’s Sulky Lounge is the best bar in Maine. Prove me wrong.
Seriously, send Mainer a letter or an e-mail describing the watering hole that you think is better than Bubba’s, and I’ll consider your choice with a fair and open mind. If you convince me, I’ll be glad to print a retraction and do a write-up about your place this spring.
But here’s the deal: we have to judge by objective standards. A bar’s sentimental value is worth a few points, but that’s too subjective a measure. And a local tavern can be your favorite hangout without also being the greatest bar in Maine.
Maine’s best bar must, almost by definition, be a successful business, or at least profitable enough to stay open for over a decade. How many years has your bar been around? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? The Great Lost Bear recently celebrated its 40th anniversary on Forest Ave. in Portland, and it surely belongs in the Top 5.
In 2019, Bubba’s marked its 60th anniversary. Owner Bubba Larkin opened his first place in 1959, on Lancaster Street in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, and moved to the current location — a couple blocks away on Portland Street, across from the city’s main post office — two years later. I can’t say for sure that this is true statewide, but I know there’s no other bar in the Portland area that’s been in the same location, under the same ownership, for seven consecutive decades.
Again, prove me wrong. But let’s also consider another key attribute: atmosphere. Is your bar stuffed from floor to ceiling with weird and wonderful antiques? Bubba’s is. Larkin sets up little tableaux in the corners and crannies of his bar’s numerous rooms — a soda fountain, a post office, a barber shop, even a (non-functional) bathroom — and is continually tinkering with them, moving stuff around, adding and replacing objects, in addition to all the seasonal decorations.
Maybe your bar is packed from floor to ceiling with entertaining ephemera. But is the ceiling also festooned with treasures? Bubba’s has over a thousand old-school lunch boxes strung up all over the place. Howdy Doody hangs with Knight Rider. A relatively new Tofurky box lunches next to Mork & Mindy. Model airplanes soar overhead among taxidermy birds, old-timey bicycles and scooters. A skylight over the function room in the way, way back of Bubba’s illuminates a figure in a flying canoe.
And this floor of yours — is it a light-up disco dance floor? Maybe your pick for best bar does have one. Bubba’s has three: the big one by the DJ booth, another on an upper level, and a third in the aforementioned function room. Bubba’s clearly wins the atmosphere category.
Of course, a great bar is a fun place to be. It has games and music and a jovial vibe. Which is to say, it’s just like Bubba’s.
As I noted, you can go freakin’ antiquing in the place, for hours. Play some pool and feed the jukebox stocked with classic rock, oldies and country CDs. Warm up by the giant fireplace and take your ease in the comfortable swivel chairs around the front bar, padded thrones with frayed armrests that roll and tilt back, too, just far enough to catch your fall.
These are the daytime pleasures to be had at Bubba’s, and by daytime I also mean morning. The lounge opens at 8 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. on Sundays. Back when the postal service had its big mail-sorting operation across the street, Bubba’s opened at 6 a.m. and the place was packed with third-shifters enjoying their happy hours.
These days, the daytime scene is much quieter. A dwindling community of friendly regulars, most middle-aged or older, usually has the joint to themselves. The TV plays classic movies and cowboy shows like Bonanza and The Rifleman. The hungry jukebox spins a song at random every half hour or so to tempt you into parting with a dollar. On a recent visit, it played me “Shangri-La,” a 1957 hit by The Four Coins. “A land of bluebirds and fountains / And nothing to do,” sang the quartet of Greek guys from Pennsylvania coal country. “You make my little world a Shangri-La / For anywhere you are is Shangri-La.” It’s easy to see how a person might decide to spend their life here.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Bubba’s transforms into a dance club. The bar booked live bands back in the 20th century — local country acts, in particular, recalled one old-timer — but that crowd often got rowdy, and the cops would be there almost every weekend, one bartender told me, most definitely not to dance.
That changed in early 2004, when local promoter Dori Hart began throwing her Zodiac Parties at Bubba’s. Hart’s monthly events featured many of Maine’s best DJs, including Jason Keith, Marcus Caine, Moshe and Laree Love, plus trippy projections and tarot card and astrology readings. The cover was cheap ($5), and admission was free if the sign being celebrated that month was yours, but the cover charge alone went a long way toward weeding out troublemakers, said bartender Nancy Nilsen.
Hart’s events brought in “a whole new clientele,” Nilsen added, as a younger generation (or two) discovered the wonders of Bubba’s. Hart also booked bands there — Maine rockabilly royals King Memphis packed the place to capacity, she recalled, and indie-psych band Citadel played a show that’s still causing flashbacks — but her most enduring contribution was the 80’s Dance Party that continues to this day. DJ Jon astounded the crowd, many decked out in period fashions, with his cut-ups of the decade’s hits, and the parties soon got so popular that they became weekly happenings. These days, DJ Tubbs spins ’80s music on Fridays and a more eclectic mix on Saturday nights.
The weekend-night crowds have always been diverse and multi-generational. (Full disclosure: I also DJ’d there about 15 years ago, spinning ’60s and ’70s soul and funk on Saturdays as The Soul Proprietor.) Last month I met 93-year-old Norm Jabar and his wife, Gerri, at the edge of the lighted dance floor. They’ve been boogying at Bubba’s every Friday night for many years.
Linda Mae, 86, is another regular. They call her Bubba’s oldest customer — she’s been drinking there since the ’60s, she says. One afternoon last month she showed me a video on her phone in which she’s on the lit dance floor, wearing a wig and warbling Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’” while accompanying herself on ukulele. That afternoon she was wearing her red-and-black striped “Jailhouse Rock” pajamas. (Linda knew Elvis, naturally, and Johnny Cash.) She posed for a portrait by the roaring fireplace, did a little dance (despite having arrived that day, as usual, with her walker), and sang a haunting, toothless version of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight,” which Linda Mae considers her theme song.
So yeah, be sure to tell me in your letter how your bar also has the best regulars.
Bubba’s lost a very special regular in November, James Dobson. Bartender Christine Arsenault, a single mom, wrote a moving piece about her friend, recalling how Dobson was always ready and able to help not only around the bar, but in her life. “Like the time he and Rusty shoved a bunch of 2nd hand insulation through a tiny window in my basement to help keep my house warm,” she wrote. “Climbing on my roof to fix my chimney, picking up [my daughters] at school and bringing them food when I was busy at work.”
“James was with me when the detectives told me [my husband] died,” Arsenault continued. “And I will never forget what he said. He said he believed people don’t die until all the memories of that person were gone or forgotten. If this [is] true, James will damn near be around forever because he was loved by everybody who knew him.”
So, to recap, Bubba’s slays your place when it comes to longevity, atmosphere, fun and regulars. It’s also got a decent amount of off-street parking.
But I’ll grant your place a few advantages. For example, the food at Bubba’s — pickled eggs and bags of chips — leaves much to be desired, though there’s a full kitchen in the back and Bubba used to sell one hell of an Italian sandwich, according to the old-timers. Bubba’s closes at 6 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, which isn’t convenient for thirsty 9-to-5’ers. And there’s nothing remarkable about the cocktails or the beer selection, just functional and affordable alcohol, though chances are good one of the regulars will buy you a drink if you hang around long enough. (Thanks again for the shot, Smitty!)
The generosity of spirit at Bubba’s emanates from its enigmatic creator. I met Bubba 20 year ago, shortly after I made the ignorant mistake of likening his place to Rockin’ Rickey’s Tavern (the dive bar next door that closed last month after a nearly 45-year run) in a nightlife column I wrote for Casco Bay Weekly. He called and invited me down to see all his antiques, and I ended up helping him move part of a 1950s-era ice cream shop from one side of the bar to another.
Bubba showed me snapshots from his days as a star basketball player at Portland High (he may still hold a few school records), and photos of his horses (Sulky refers to the two-wheeled cart used in harness racing; Bubba’s a third-generation racehorse owner, and used to have a stable for his “hosses” at Scarborough Downs).
Bubba’s always been proud of his establishment, and justly so. It’s not an easy business to maintain. (Nilsen said she thinks he keeps the place open on weekdays just to keep longtime bartenders like herself employed.) In the ’70s, when there were three floors of apartments above the Portland Street bar, a kitchen fire in one of the units consumed the entire building and Larkin had to rebuild from the ground up (while, according to legend, living in his office). The function room and the second bar in back are relatively new, having been added around the turn of the century.
A regular nicknamed Skully told me most of the upstairs was empty back in the ’70s save for “a bunch of shoes on the second floor.” Skully works on the waterfront, muckling big bait containers in the pre-dawn hours — “I’m up before the buzzards,” he joked — then heading to Bubba’s for a few late-morning, after-work beers. “‘Hey,’” Bubba said to Skully one day, decades ago, “‘you got nowhere to go? Here.’ Threw me the keys and said, ‘Go upstairs by the boots and go to sleep. Bring me back the key tomorra.’
“I said, ‘Alright,’” Skully recalled. “I stayed there for a good fuckin’ month.” He made some extra cash selling Bubba’s boots, too.
Linda Mae also told me Bubba has helped her out in a pinch, and the regulars often return favors by helping out around the bar. Dobson had hung the Halloween decorations shortly before he died. They left them up for the memorial service held there in early November. No one had the heart to take them down.
Bubba politely declined to be interviewed for this story. He’s in his 80s now, but even two decades ago Bubba had the aura of a man who’s seen and done it all. An ex-Marine, he’s unflappable, untouchable and unstoppable, living by his own rules, still driving his passenger van with a standard poodle named Marley (there’ve been several Marleys over the decades) riding shotgun. Hart likened him to Charlie, the mysterious boss on Charlie’s Angels who runs the show with an occasional phone call. One evening a couple years ago, I saw a van that looked just like Bubba’s parked in the fire lane right beside the Hannaford near the Maine Mall. I figured he just beached it there and went in to do his grocery shopping.
This is Bubba’s world. We just drink in it. And sometimes, maybe after a couple cocktails, we dance like angels atop rainbows of light.