In Oregon, Two Historic Hotels At The Coast And In Wine Country

Kathleen Nyberg/ McMenamins

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As someone born and raised in the Willamette Valley, who has now lived in and around LA for about a decade, it’s hard not to feel pulled between two subcultures. Sure, California and Oregon are next to each other on a map, and they share a distinctly west coast ethos, but SoCal and the Pacific Northwest (PNW) are also wildly different regions, culturally. Though Portland’s charming fussiness made it into the realm of national consciousness via the hit parody show Portlandia, there are plenty of unsung heroes in the rest of the state who deserve the same spotlight. And the more I write about travel, food, and hospitality in and around California and the southwest, the more admiration I have for one of Oregon’s finest purveyors.

That brings me to McMenamins, a company that’s easily in the upper echelon of hospitality brands in the country, and, strangely, one that only PNW natives seem to know about. As one booze publication, Spirited, recently put it, McMenamins has “virtually no footprint in the market outside of the Pacific Northwest.” In the greater Portland and Seattle area, though, there’s no local name that’s trusted more, whether it’s beer, wine, spirits, hotels, concert venues (my first real show was at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland), or even movie theaters. McMenamins is the industry standard, no advertising needed. So, with the emphasis on local and regional travel due to shifts that came from the pandemic, it’s about time Californians discovered the brand. 

Kathleen Nyberg/McMenamins

McMenamins itself was officially founded in 1983 by two brothers, Mike and Brian McMenamin, and the company initially began as just a single pub. Even prior to that, Mike was responsible for converting the Produce Row Cafe, formerly a cozy breakfast spot, into what amounts to one of the first craft beer bars in Portland. Opened back in 1974 — and located in the then “rough” Southeast Portland neighborhood, no less — the primary reason Produce Row isn’t part of McMenamin’s network today is because Mike couldn’t brew beer on site, so he sold it to the employees in 1978. That kind of decision-making, an ethos that puts the employees on par with the owners themselves, is at the heart of this company; it operates with the community in mind first and foremost, along with a mission to preserve historic institutions and buildings in the region. 

Quickly realizing that brewpubs were the future of beer, Mike and Brian founded Barley Mill Pub in southeast, filling it with tie dyed Grateful Dead memorabilia, pinball machines and murals. Open to this day, the spot epitomizes the company’s tried and true formula of burgers and other pub fare, classic cocktails and wine, and of course, McMenamins’ own brews. It’s a family style atmosphere that’s not too cool for kids or too earnest for twenty-somethings, leaning into music and historic memorabilia as a vernacular that brings everyone together — art and custom artwork is always a huge part of the McMenamins aesthetic. The next move was opening a microbrew of their own, and Hillsdale Brewery and Public House was established two years later in 1985. 

Before opening a brewpub, where alcohol was served on the same site it was produced, the brothers had to lobby state legislature to change laws that would’ve forbid them from serving beer in the same location it was brewed. Incidentally, the law change also paved way for the now ubiquitous winery tasting rooms, and it’s hard to imagine the wine economy in this area ever would’ve ever thrived the way it has if it wasn’t for the forward-thinking mindset of Brian and Mike. After opening another brewery, Cornelius Pass Roadhouse, and both the Mission Theater in downtown and the ​​Bagdad Theater & Pub in the Hawthorne district — each cinema housed in a historic building and offering the brilliant pairing of cheap beer and cheap movies — the brothers got into the hospitality game for real with the opening of their first hotel, Edgefield Manor, in 1991.

via Edgefield

It’s impossible to dismiss Edgefield as just a hotel though, and the company officially describes the 74-acre property as a “destination resort.” Before it was rescued and restored by McMenamins, the property was formerly a poor farm (where unhoused people could live for free and work the land in exchange), a county prison, and an assisted living home. After falling into disrepair, the stately 100-room building was scheduled to be demolished, until Troutdale’s local historical society interrupted the process, insisting the building’s historical context made it worth saving and restoring. This is important because preserving historical buildings quickly became a core part of McMenamins ethos, and remains a big part of what makes their restaurants and hotels so special and rare.

After buying the Edgefield property, the brothers began renovating it by installing a winery, a distillery, and revamping the original building into a hotel, where they purposefully chose old-fashioned decor and left phones and TVs out of the rooms to foster an environment of “tranquility.” Now complete with a golf course, fine dining restaurant (Black Rabbit), gardens, theater, concert venue (I once saw Fleet Foxes and the incomparable Alela Diane there!), soaking pools, spa, and of course, a brewery, locals sometimes call the resort an “adult” Disneyland. Except, instead of rollercoasters, it has an onsite glass-blower and potter — extremely PNW shit right there.

With the goal of restoring and preserving historic buildings as their new north star, the company continued to grow, and only became more beloved as they were able to preserve more local infrastructure in the process. With well over 50 properties across Oregon and Washington, including a number of hotels, the company was hit hard last year during the pandemic, as most hospitality companies were. To combat the lost revenue and debt incurred, they went public and invited supporters to invest in McMenamins, raising $6 million in their initial offering. This surprised me, even though I knew their impact, because watching the company expand as I was growing up, it didn’t occur to me just how influential they’d become.

Anyway, that should be enough of a mini-history to familiarize readers with the company at large, and explain why an ex-pat Oregonian might be emotional about their recent growth. That’s also why, on a recent trip back to my hometown this past spring, I decided to splurge and stay at two different McMenamins hotels. As a returning local, the least I could do was support a business that helps make the region feel like home, and spending money at independent hospitality companies is always a good investment. 

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Gearhart Hotel

Kathleen Nyberg/McMenamins

For a couple of years when I was in college, my parents lived in Astoria part-time, so when I drive up the coast, or have extra time, I like to go back and visit that mystical area (Goonies never say die!). There’s an absolutely beautiful bridge called the Astoria-Megler Bridge that connects Oregon and Washington, and it’s one of my favorite structures on the planet; just driving across it feels like a bit of magic, a grounding ritual reminding me where I came from. So I drove up to stay at the Gearhart Hotel for a night, a newish hotel named for its location, Gearhart, Oregon (population: 1,400), which is just a few miles down the road from Astoria.

Mostly a destination for golfers, the hotel is in close proximity to one of the oldest golf courses this side of the Mississippi, the ​​Gearhart Golf Links, which was first established in 1892. After not one, not two, but three hotels at the location were burned down (okay, the last one was purposefully torn down for condos), the current Cape Cod-style Kelly House was built in 2001. It was only converted into lodging by McMenamins and revamped a few years ago, around 2018, so it wasn’t even open the last time I visited Oregon. Right across the street from the dunes and the ocean, this spot is definitely for guests who don’t mind an outdoorsy feel (I mean, you are in Oregon after all), and one of the property’s bars is even located on the golf course itself.

Kathleen Nyberg/McMenamins

Room offerings range from bunk beds, to queen and king rooms, or larger suites with king beds that have balcony and patio options etc. But nearly (if not all) all the rooms at Gearhart have floor-to-ceiling wood paneling in them and a coastal feel highlighted by simple, ‘70s-style furnishings. It’s not a luxury property, but it’s sparkling clean and unlike some of their other properties, outfitted with TVs and iPod docks (sadly, already retro). The Sand Trap Pub is the hotel’s primary restaurant, located on the ground floor, and the Pot Bunker Bar is in the basement, so guest rooms are only located upstairs, which affords some nice privacy. Just outside the more tourist-y destination, Seaside, the on-site F&B means guests can skip town altogether if they’d like, and still have easy access to the beach. There’s plenty of outdoor space to sit and gaze, or eat and drink, and for the more active traveler the property offers free use of their beach cruisers to guests, too.

If you’re looking to visit the Oregon coast, I can’t imagine a cozier place to stay in the area, or one that will have better food and beverage options and overall hospitality. As is always the case with McMenamins beer, wine, and other products, they’re only available for purchase at McMenamins locations, so there won’t even be other pubs in the area with this kind of quality libations. A grain of salt warning for the foodies — the main goal of a McMenamins menu is to serve simple, standard pub fare with locally-sourced ingredients. There will be little reinventing of the wheel, trendy, updated dishes, or high-profile recipes. The food is solid, affordable pub food that tastes great, and that’s about it. To their credit, though, there are always lots of vegan and vegetarian options, another area they were ahead of the curve.

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Hotel Oregon

Kathleen Nyberg/McMenamins

One day and one night is usually all you need on the Oregon coast (well, I’m not a golfer, which might entail a longer stay), so after a customary crossing of the bridge with windows down and Jimmy Eat World blaring, I drove the 90 minutes inland to my hometown, McMinnville, Oregon, for a slightly longer stay at another McMenamins property, Hotel Oregon. This guesthouse opened as a McMenamins property in 1999, when I was 11, so I remember the excitement that the company’s interest in our town stirred up. It’s probably the property I’m most familiar with, just by virtue of popping in for drinks after I turned 21, or to grab food at their restaurant a few times while growing up. More history of the building can be found here. I’ve already run so long I won’t get into it, but the original structure is from 1905 (!).

All of McMinnville’s downtown area, along 3rd Street, is designated a historic district, so it’s the natural focus for tourists and those passing through Oregon wine country. Nestled right in the heart of the Willamette Valley, plenty of tasting rooms and farm-to-table restaurants popped up when it became clear that Portland visitors were being directed down this way for a chance to visit a “rural” area or an idyllic small town. Though I was eager to leave as a restless teen, I really can’t blame them — it is a super cute town. McMenamins lords over the corner of 3rd Street and Evans, situated directly in the center of the downtown area. Their pub is always bustling and there’s zero game in town that comes close to checking the boxes of a local and historic hotel with hospitality at the core.

Kathleen Nyberg/McMenamins

Gearheart aside, most McMenamins hotels offer a European-style or hostel setup, letting guests book a private bedroom (with a sink) that includes access to a shared bathroom on each floor. This usually isn’t the only option, rooms with en suite bathrooms are also available, but to save a little money I opted for the hostel-style setup. But what I liked most about actually staying at this hotel was the chance to explore areas of the building that are only available to guests. There’s an outdoor balcony with a massive table and chairs on the second floor, overlooking 3rd Street, where my parents and I caught up and chatted, happy to be both outdoors and away from other people. On the second floor, a potential ballroom or private event space called Mattie’s Room houses the generous complimentary coffee and tea cart, and would’ve been a great area for quiet coworking if my trip hadn’t been purely for leisure. 

More so than at the coast, the furnishings at Hotel Oregon are antique and eclectic, with large wooden wardrobes and colorful, wooden bed frames. Since it’s located right on the town’s main strip, things can stay loud a little longer, and because the building is so old, noise does carry between rooms. But for those who are looking for a little more character over modern comfort, or need a place to set up camp while perusing Oregon’s truly impressive wine country, there’s literally nothing that compares to this property. Along with the vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms, plenty of chic hotels, inns and bed and breakfast spots have cropped up around Willamette Valley, but these places simply don’t have the local appeal, the historic touches, or the affordable price point that McMenamins has constantly kept at the heart of their business model.

Their devotion to including local and original art in their preserved buildings, along with historic documents and artifacts, ensures that every location feels unique, special, and situated within the community. They also employ more artists and pay for more art than probably any other company in Oregon, not to mention creating the kind of music venues that fans always want to visit, thus boosting local music scenes. McMenamins has adopted a strict anti-brand policy, meaning every property has its own name and unique decorations. But now you know the marker of quality to look for throughout the Pacific Northwest, particularly, if you need a burger and a beer, or somewhere quaint to stay. There’s no place in the world that compares — or maybe that’s just my eternal Oregonian talking.

Learn more about McMenamins here.

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