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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Best McMenamins Pubs

Seattle has Starbucks, Detroit has General Motors, and Portland has the McMenamins, a constellation of the funkiest places to drink beer in the world. Brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin began building the "kingdom" in 1974 with the purchase of the Produce Row Cafe in the industrial (and now hipster) Southeast. It wasn't exactly a false start, but after mixed success there, they tried again in '83 and bought a pub on 17th and Hawthorne they dubbed the Barley Mill Pub (named for a mill rescued from Cartwright, Oregon's first micro), and their luck changed.

In the following year, they and other brewing pioneers worked to pass a law to allow companies to brew and sell beer on the same property, laying the legal groundwork for the brewpub concept. No altruists, the McBrothers immediately opened the Hillsdale Pub, converting part of the building into a brewery and establishing the first Oregon brewpub in 1984. (The first batches were reportedly made from malt extracts and were of . . . varied consistency. But with help from brewers like John Harris, who cut his teeth at McMenamins, the beer improved quickly.)

In the intervening years, the McMenamins have become innovators many times over. They invented the concept of the theater pub when they opened the Mission Theater in 1987--a model that has spread not only throughout the city, but across the country. In 1990, they opened Edgefield, the first of their destination hotels; a 1911 poor house, it was converted into a European-style hotel, fully restored in the emerging McMenamin style--lots of funky artwork painted directly on the walls, antique fittings, and strange light fixtures. A cross between Dr. Seuss and Alice in Wonderland.

The McMenamins greatest innovation--and their greatest legacy--is in converting historic old buildings that would otherwise languish or get destroyed. The brothers have a knack for finding a property that no one can make use of--elementary schools, flophouses, train depots--and turning them into irresistable destinations. The old buildings all receive the McMenamins' artistic touches, but they are all fully restored to historic standards. What results is a chain with 55 unique links (at last count).

No visit to Portland is complete without a stop for a burger and beer, but since no one can visit every McPub, here are a half-dozen of the best.

Brief Orientation
After a decade where they were mostly run independently, the McMenamins now have a mostly standardized menu. Food tends to follow the ambiance of the pub/restaurant in question: downscale places may offer mostly burgers and sandwiches, while upscale outposts will offer lusher options (seared Ahi, steak, smoked duck, grilled sturgeon as some examples). Beers have also become standardized. At every pub you'll find:
  • Hammerhead - the McMenamin's most popular; it's a sharply hoppy ale that isn't in perfect balance (Rating: average);
  • Crystal - a beer they initially brewed to appeal to "regular-beer" drinkers, it's fine but lacks distinction (average);
  • Ruby - a respectable, light ale flavored with raspberries (good);
  • IPA - it may be that these vary somewhat location to location, but they're usually better than the Hammerhead (good);
  • Black Rabbit Porter - very nice interpretation of a brown porter (excellent);
  • Terminator Stout - the most varied depending on the brewer, but generally the best regular beer available and the McMenamin's only truly fine beer (excellent);
  • Nebraska Bitter - a wonderful summer pale ale, with lots of hop flavor without heavy bitterness (excellent).
There are also rotating taps that include some special regular seasonals (Irish Stout is a standout) and brews brewed by the local brewer that are unique and probably on tap one time only. (These are where the regular beers come from--they gained popularity and became regulars.) Always ask what they have and if you're interested, ask for a taster. They're happy to indulge you.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks for the best of the best.

Cellar Pub/Ringlers Annex - 1223 SW Stark
Even from the street, this looks like a cool place. A sliver of a building at the toe of Stark and Burnside, it was, when constructed in 1917, the smallest structure on the West Coast. It still has all its period detail and looks like it was flown in from Rotterdam. But the real joy awaits inside.

The main floor houses an espresso bar, and you think you may have wandered into the wrong place. (In my experience, it's usually unattended.) You can then head upstairs if you want to watch the buzz of Burnside (unbothered by waitstaff), or downstairs, where you're transported via an interdimensional fold into a dark, cozy niche a million miles from the world. It's essentially a basement, but it has the charm of a speakeasy--you really feel as if you've disappeared from the real world and vanished into a past epoch. There aren't too many cozy, mellow removes in downtown, which makes the Cellar all the more appealing. If there's a disadvantage, it's that smoking is allowed. (On the other hand, what's a speakeasy without cigarettes?)

Cornelius Pass Roadhouse - 4045 NW Cornelius Pass Road
Most of the McPubs in the 'burbs are pretty sterile affairs. Some actually inhabit--gasp!--strip malls. But Cornelius Pass is one of the more historic sites in Oregon, and even has a long history with the brewing industry. The background is worth repeating, but the real reason Cornelius Pass makes the list is because it's just a very cool place.

Brief history: The Imbrie family bought the property in 1850, and began construction of buildings that still stand today--the granary (1850s), and the centerpiece Italian-influenced country home (1866). During the 1930s, Frank Imbrie began grain production, selling his barley to the famous (and now sadly defunct) Weinhard Brewery. The McMenamins saved the property from developers in the '80s, and in 2001, opened the signature Imbrie Hall, which was designed to look like a historic building and crafted from recovered materials. Of special note, the brothers managed to salvage some rafters from the Weinhard brewery, which closed during construction of Imbrie--bringing the relationship full circle.

Cornelius Pass has many of the touches of the McMenamins' larger, destination hotels--wonderful landscaping punctuated by impressive architecture, hidey-holes, and fascinating little touches (a large photo gallery is here). In addition to the farmhouse and Imbrie Hall, there's the tiny little bar known as the Little White Shed--a characteristic McMenamins touch. It's a great place to hang out and wind down, especially in the summer, when you can sit outside and enjoy the grounds. There's even live music in the octagonal barn.

Mission Theater - 1624 NW Glisan
I don't know that the McMenamins actually invented the idea of a theater pub, but they introduced it to Oregon in 1987 when they opened the Mission. (They probably invented it.) So prevalent is the concept now (the McMenamins have four) that distinguishing the Mission may seem passe. But for a couple of reasons, it still sets the standard.

Most of the theater pubs in town emphasize the theater, but the Mission really feels like a pub. It's the only place that features a full menu, for example. But also, it has a pubby quality that encourages a raucous crowd. I specifically wait for some movies to appear at the Mission, knowing that the crowd will join in and enhance the experience (recent example: Borat). Second, they not only show movies, but special broadcasts like sports games (last year's Oregon State's College World Series run) and the Oscars. Forget sports bars--when you join a few hundred fans in a room with a movie-screen sized TV, it is amazing. We took my brother-in-law to see a Ducks football game last fall. As a diehard Bostonian and sports freak, he's not easy to impress, but eyes wide, he sat down and marveled, "This is tremendous!" Yes it is.

(I suppose I should also mention that the Mission, like most of the McPlaces, is an exquisite old facility--an 1890 church established by the Swedish Evangelical Mission. Also, from a purely sentimental standpoint, I had to include the Mission. When I was a starving college student in the late 80s, the Mission didn't even charge for movies, figuring that they'd make it up on beer and food. Deadbeats like me ultimately forced them to raise the price to a buck, and later three, but it still remains one of the nice cheap choices in the city.)

St. Johns Pub and Theater - 8203 N. Ivanhoe
The building that now houses the St Johns Pub has been through several incarnations and goes back to one of the most historic times in Portland history. We go back 102 years to 1905 when the City of Roses was vying to be the signature city of the Northwest (it was beating out Seattle at the time). As was the fad of the time, it staged a world fair--the Lewis and Clark Exposition, to celebrate the explorers' 100th anniversary. The building that became the St Johns Pub was originally the National Cash Register Company building. Almost all of the exhibits were destroyed after the Exposition, but this building managed to survive. It has been home to churches and the American Legion.

Old buildings are not, by dint of history, cool. Besides its amazing history, the SJP is a wonderful building. The pub proper has two levels, a downstairs, outfitted with dozens of Suessian lamps, feels like a slightly off English Pub, and the upstairs has a cozier, rumpus-room feel. The theater, which was formerly a live-music venue, features a stunning dome with a distinct ecclesiastical vibe--it's not surprising that it was formerly co-opted by churches.

It's also one of the few dual-duty pubs in terms of weather. I find it among the coziest spaces in winter, and in the summer, there's a lovely shaded garden sprinkled with fairly private picnic tables. It's cool and pleasant on a hot day. It's a bit out of the way for most people, but worth a visit.

White Eagle Saloon - 836 N. Russell St.
Unlike most of the McMenamin properties, the building housing the White Eagle has always been a bar. Located in a roughneck neighborhood on the edge of the Swan Island shipyards, it has a . . . colorful history. From rumors of tunnels under the bar where drunks were shanghai'ed to murdered prostitutes to prohibition moonshine--the White Eagle is the object of many legends. Some may be true.

In any case, it has the straightforward feel of an old American tavern--those smoky corner spots that predated light-filled brewpubs. It is long and skinny and close-feeling; the kind of place you can walk into and survey for familiar faces. These older charms translate well to modern tastes, from the exposed brick to the impressive bar. The McMenamins have a sixth sense about the trends of the city, too--they bought the White Eagle at just the moment that the sleeply little working-class neighborhood turned industrial hip in the late 90s. It's still a cool part of town and mostly off the beaten path.

As the McMenamins never do things simply, it has some add-ons, including a small stage for regular live music, outdoor seating, and a few hotel rooms upstairs. I have yet to speak to anyone who's actually stayed there--sleeping above a bar isn't everyone's cup of tea--but you can't argue with the prices, which range from $40-$60.

Kennedy School - 5736 NE 33rd Ave
There are a few places I always take visitors to Portland--the Rose Garden, Powell's, and the Kennedy School. If they're into beer, I take 'em to a brewpub or two instead, but for a purely Portland experience, you can't do much better than the Kennedy School. A transformed 1915 elementary school in Northeast Portland, it was an albatross for over 20 years between 1975 and 1997. No one knew what to do with it.

The McBrothers did. They adopted the model pioneered at the Edgefield and converted the classrooms into hotel rooms, turned the gym into a movie theater, scattered pubs and restaurants throughout. They even converted a few of the rooms into conference and ballroom space. On most weekends, you'll see a wedding in the second gym. I attended a conference and watched a political campaign get launched there. In fact, when they opened, they offered the space free to local groups.

But the real attraction is the harmony of space and art. It still retains its school-y feel, and the McMenamins enhance it with artwork celebrating the staff and students who walked the halls. It includes paintings, mosaics, and sculpture--all with a whimsy suiting both a pub and a school. One tiny nook has been converted into the "Detention Pub," and captures the illicit feel you find in all schools. It's one of the few smoking areas, is for adults only, and has a nice liquor selection. Part teachers' lounge, part behind-the-bleachers hideout.

The Kennedy School communicates, more clearly than anyplace in the city, what Portland is all about--innovation, relation, art, and community.

PHOTO CREDITS: Strawberry [Mission], Queenie Carly [Kennedy School], Oregon State University [Mike and Brian McMenamin], all others from the McMenamins.


  1. Who says you can't visit all of them? I've been to all of the Oregon ones and one of the Washington ones (Although the Oly Club was a lot cooler when they sold the now-discontinued Oly Stubbies). My new favorite is the Backstage on Hawthorne. Probably the tallest ceiling in a pub I've ever seen.

  2. I can't agree more. The experience and atmosphere you find in their places is like no other. I was introduced via The Mission about 9 years ago. Love the place. Just as a side-bar, I actually just published a book about the more famous and respected pubs and bars in the city, McMenamins included. I would welcome any comments on my blog:

    or if you want to check out the book and let me know what you think, it is sold here, but there is also a PDF preview of the first several pages:

    Great post.

  3. Wow, thanks for that write-up. It made me want to visit (or move) even more. No wonder it's Beervana out there.

  4. Nice article, Jeff!

    You hit all te high notes of the McM's. I love all the MCM's! Well... Some of the strip mall versions are a little out of place, but always friendly, even though they only have about 1/4 of groove. I have yet to make it to the Grand Lodge, Corneilus Pass or Washington pubs. Some mock the never changing menu's and average beer, but I find the atmosphere compensates for any misgivings. Plus, menu's have appeared to change a little and beer can be more fun when it's like playing russian roulette.... ;-}

  5. Thanks for the nice comments, folks. You CAN visit them all, Martin, but maybe not on your first visit to Oregon (priorities, priorities).

    Eli, you should come out for the Oregon Brewers Fest in July--and stay at one of the McMenamins hotels. It's not like going to Munich for Oktoberfest.

    It's better!


    Seriously, it's a great place to visit.

  6. After two years of living in Portland, I've got 21 McMenamins under my belt. Have you been up to Chapel yet? I really like it, it's got kind of the same small feeling of White Eagle, but it seems to me to be less noisy.

  7. I'm boycotting McMenamins. With the wide array of quality brewers in town, how can Portlanders think this beer is good? The service is almost always rotten (sometimes non-existent), and you can't drink atmosphere. You never know what you're going to get from one location to the next. Will there be an IPA, and if so will it taste half finished and overly malty? Might they have a pale ale or how about an ESB? Well, I guess you can always count on the sickly sweet Ruby, brewed to attract non-ale drinking women.

    Down with McMenamins!

  8. Ranger X's experience describes the chain in the mid-90s, but not anymore. I haven't had a poor beer for years.