A few different businesses have occupied the bar under the Wonder Ballroom on NE Russell Street. Since I have been in the neighborhood, it has been Trigger and Bunk Sandwiches. Cliff’s PDX is the newest tenant, but Josh Luebke has been around for all three of the recent iterations of this space.
Josh Luebke and his wife, Sierra Kirk Luebke, are the co-owners of Cliff’s. Josh was one of the original cooks at Trigger and also at Bunk. But let’s go back in time a little bit and learn about Josh and Sierra before they decided to open the bar.
Sierra Kirk grew up in the south, mainly in Louisiana and some other cities, before moving to New Orleans in 1994. She started working at the House of Blues in 1997 and started bartending full time in 2000. She went on to bartend at various neighborhood bars and music venues in the French Quarter and Marigny before moving to Portland.
In 2004 when she was bartending an 80s night in New Orleans, Josh Luebke asked her out. They soon got married and moved to Portland in 2010, so Josh could go to the Oregon Culinary Institute. They met fellow New Orleans transplant Nick Wood, who co-owned Bunk Sandwiches through some friends they knew from New Orleans. Nick hired Josh to cook at the Bunk on Water Avenue.
In 2012 when Wonder Ballroom wanted to sub-lease the bar space, the Under Wonder Lounge (formerly the Café Wonder), the Bunk Sandwich owners opened Trigger, a Tex-Mex themed bar serving creative southwestern dishes. Josh moved to this location as a cook and stayed on when it transitioned to Bunk Sandwiches at the Wonder. This Bunk’s location was different than the others with some additional menu items. Josh created specials that he has continued to offer now at Cliff’s. You might have had their amazing Smoked Fried Chicken Sandwich or Shrimp Po’Boy (one of my favorites).
Sierra, during this time, was working at a handful of different places. Her resumé includes Eat Oyster Bar, Pope House, and New Deal Distilleries. She was also one of the opening team of bartenders when Revolution Hall opened. Additionally, she was hired at Hale Pele and became the Assistant Manager there.
Between them, Josh and Sierra have years of food service and hospitality experience. So, when Bunk was anticipating pulling out of the Wonder Ballroom basement space in the fall of 2019, Josh and Sierra considered taking over the sublease and, as she said, “dip their toes into bar ownership. Sierra told me, “We had always been in the service industry, but did we really want to work for ourselves? We thought this is a pretty safe bet because we could take over the space for not a ton of capital, we were intimately familiar with this space and have been in this space working with the Wonder (Ballroom) and working with the neighborhood for years, and I have this great really steady job (at Hale Pele) that will pay our bills. This is a GREAT plan!”
After a 24 hour turnaround from Bunk, Cliff’s PDX opened on October 23, 2019. And then, you know, four months later, the pandemic hit.
Life was scary on so many fronts now. All bars closed for what seemed an interminable amount of time, the Wonder Ballroom (who they subleased from) was closed and unable to have shows, and Hale Pele was closed too, so they had to rethink their entire business plan.
Take out was an option, luckily, and between having some pop-up events and giving events, they were able to stay open. Since returning to in-person dining, they have continued the charity events, including the Orphan Bartender program, where an out-of-work bartender creates a cocktail. Then a portion of that cocktail’s sales goes to that bartender. There is a different bartender each month. What a creative way to give back and help out fellow service industry workers! They will continue this program, but as bartenders get back to work more consistently, they will still compensate a guest bartender for their cocktail creation, but a portion of that cocktail’s sales will go to a charity of their choice. In June, it was the Parkinson’s Foundation and the Brian Grant Foundation.
What was their vision for the bar? Sierra explained they wanted a “neighborhood bar that offers great food, fun and creative cocktails and is laid back and welcoming to all.”
They want it to be a place where you can have a great date night and family-friendly too, similar to the Midwestern supper clubs. Speaking of which, on Friday nights, Josh is offering a fish-fry with walleye, baked potato, and salad but in limited quantities, so get there early.
During the pandemic, they appreciated the support of their friends, regulars, and neighbors, some who ordered weekly and some of whom came from as far as Hillsboro and southwest Portland.
With all the new restaurants and the other restaurants opening up on Russell Street, there’s more activity on the street than even just a few months ago. And more good news, the Wonder Ballroom is opening back up in August, and Cliff’s will be open every night that they have a concert booked. They will also continue to be open during the regular hours posted below. Still, check their website and Instagram page for an up-to-date menu and hours.
So now the question I really wanted to be answered. Where did the name come from, and what’s the story of the logo design? Sierra explained, “The bar is named after Josh’s grandfather, Cliff. Cliff was a dairy farmer in Wisconsin. He also hunted and often hung antlers from deer hunting in the barn.” One summer, a bird made a nest on one pair of antlers and then laid its eggs. That pair of antlers hang in Josh and Sierra’s house to this day. What a sweet reminder of family and how unlikely and unexpected things come together at a perfect time to make something special.
128 NE Russell Street