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Story By Lindy Mechefske of Kingston this week

I arrive at The Ports, a.k.a., the Portsmouth Tavern, in the midst of a raging blizzard with near whiteout conditions. Snow is swirling down the street. Visibility is minimal. The 401 has just been shut down in both directions between Kingston and Napanee.

Inside the tavern it is warm and quiet before the lunchtime rush. Looking back out throught the windows, the scene outside appears almost quaint – like a snow globe – snow fluttering down on the harbour and dry-docked boats and the stately, impressive and newly empty Kingston Penitentiary.

Chuck Norris, who was born and raised on Howe Island, started working at The Ports as a bartender before going on to become general manager. But this is no flash in the pan success story. Chuck, like The Ports, has been around a while. “I started here in 1975. I’ve been here for 39 years and 4 months,” he says. He begins his days around 7 a.m. and works until 6 p.m, five days a week, and he opens on Saturday Mornings. He’s seen a few things in his time but seems cheerful and unfazed. “I love the place,” he says, completely matter of factly. He’d better. He’s at work 55 to 56 hours a week.

The Ports, in its various guises, is thought to date back to 1863 – almost a hundred years after the founding of the village – replete with numerous breweries, shipyards, sawmills, tanneries and, a bit later, the penitentiary and asylum, now known as the Kingston Psychiatric Hospital. It was home to the infamous “Portsmouth toughs” – gangs of boys who harassed women and others in the streets. According to Portsmouth Village, Kingston: An Illustrated History, by Jennifer McKendry – in 1873, Rev. Dobbs reported, shock and horror, “on a gambling den in a disreputable shanty.” Rev. Dobbs also concerned himself with the stricter enforcement of Sunday closures of taverns. And a petition by Angus Shaw recommended, “A library and reading room to migrate the evils of drunkenness.” Portsmouth was a liveley little spot.

In 1864, Edward Beaupre Junior, a grocer and tavern owner, and the son of a ship carpenter, bought the land and building at the corner of the Yonge and Grange streets for $600. By some time in the late 1860s, a two-storey frame building was erected on the site. Originally known at The Farmer’s Inn, it later became the Portsmouth Public House and stayed in the Beaupre family until 1974.

Over the years, The Ports has been a watering hole for workers, sailors, and students. “People are a lot better behaved now than they once were,” says Chuck. “You can’t get drunk in a bar anymore – there are rules and we could be shut down.”

These days, the clientele come from all walks of life, adding to the loyal group of regulars. People come because the place has a sense of history and community. During Advent, a large group gather weekly to sing traditional Christmas carols. On Friday nights, there’s karaoke, and on Saturday evenings there’s live music. They also come for the beer and the reasonably priced pub fare.

And while the Ports might not be a foodie’s fantasy, it does serve honest pub food. What it lacks in finesse, it makes up for with authenticity, atmosphere and a refreshing lack of pretentiousness. Ther burgers and wraps are made on site. The KP Burger (named for the penitentiary) is a firm favourite. The hand-cut french fries are arguably the best in town. The club sandwich is made with roast chicken breast rather than processed meat. And the Greek salad, loaded with tomatoes and feta and topped with a red wine vinaigrette, served with or without Cajun chicken, might just be one of the most attractive and tastiest Greek salads around.

Service is prompt but there’s no one rushing you to leave. Summer or winter, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more comfortable spot in Kingston than a table at the window of the old Portsmouth Tavern looking out at the boats and water.

The Ports is open seven days a week and serves lunch, dinner and munchies daily. On Saturday and Sunday, it serves the regular menu plus an all-day breakfast. There’s plenty of free parking across the road.