Last Sunday Lindsay and I took a bike ride through North Portland to St. Johns. It was a glorious, crisp day, the kind we get here in Portland, Oregon, as the wet winter […]
If Portland, Oregon, is the city “where young people go to retire,” then McMenamins is our country club. The ubiquitous chain scattered throughout Oregon and Washington is akin to an adult Disneyland: playgrounds with booze, movies, and rock shows. Starting with their first location in 1985 (Barley Mill Pub on Portland’s Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard) the McMenamin brothers now operate almost 60 locations—historic buildings, hotels, theaters, and even a few strip-mall storefronts—decorated with their signature style: antique knick knacks, original psychedelic illustrations, European street signs, and rock-and-roll art posters. In addition to nursing a pint at one of their pubs, you can sleep at a McMenamins hotel, see a headliner at one of their music venues, relax at a movie theater, spa, soaking pool, golf course or cigar room, and a few locations offer all these amenities and more at one complex.
Sounds like heaven with a day buzz, right? Not always. Live in the Northwest long enough and you’re bound to hear people complain about the slow, surly service, the overcooked burgers, and the funky-tasting beer. Sure, they distill their own spirits and produce wine from their own vineyard, but they out-price higher-quality establishments in a city known for cheap drinks. And don’t expect a generous pour. McMenamins may be cool but they’re still corporate.
Still, we go. We bring our out-of-town guests. We take in a movie or a soak, and even a pint or two, and we enjoy it most of the time. While even the emptiest bars still have slow service and the beer is a little weird, McMenamins is still fun and, given their prominence, hard to avoid.
Here are some ways to get the most out of the McMenamins experience:
Stay at a hotel (AKA theme park)
For my birthday this year, Peter surprised me with a stay at McMenamins Kennedy School, a 1915 former elementary school in North Portland converted into a hotel (and pubs and bars and a movie theater and a soaking pool) that still retains a school-house theme. Yes, there is a Detention Room where you can smoke cigars and an Honors Room where you can bring your little honor-roll kids.
What I loved most about staying at Kennedy School was sneaking out of our room to watch a movie, then retreating as drunken patrons stumbled around, and then sneaking out again to sip a cocktail in the mostly empty bar, and then again to walk the dark halls late at night. It was like having a back-stage pass to a big-kid theme park and my own room behind the scenes.
Staying at McMenamins’ Kennedy School was an exciting and easy in-town getaway. Edgefield or Grand Lodge would be alternative options for Portlanders who want a mini-vacation including little more than hanging out, watching movies, and bar hopping. Yes, it is possible to pub-crawl at McMenamins without ever leaving McMenamins. Of course, you can check out any time you like.
Go see a show
Even if you hate McMenamins, if you love live music, they’re hard to avoid. Portland’s Crystal Ballroom hosts some of the bigger names in contemporary music and it’s a really fun place to see a live show. The dance floor actually bounces when the dancing gets going. If you’ve ever been out on a girls night or bachelorette party, you’ve likely Roger Rabbited to 1980s hip-hop at Lola’s Room, present company not excluded.
A few years ago, I went to see Neko Case play at the Edgefield Amphitheater. It was an excellent show and reminded me of hippy concerts in the park my mom used to take us too. When it’s sunny and warm, and your favorite band or chanteuse is on stage, the funky, overpriced beer ($7 at the show) somehow tastes better.
Soak on a weekday (and drink!)
I love taking Mondays off for many reasons, mostly because not many other people take Mondays off. It means the grocery store is quiet in the middle of the day and there are fewer crowds at the fun spots around town, including McMenamins soaking pools at Kennedy School, Grand Lodge, and Edgefield. Try to take a dip on the weekend and you’ll end up cheek to cheek with drunken millennials, but go on a Monday morning or a Wednesday at noon, you might have the whole pool to yourself. And of course (remember, it’s a theme park for big kids we’re talking about) you can take your booze with you to the pool. The only downsides are pruned hands and empty pints because unfortunately there isn’t poolside service.
Hit up a suburban spot
I don’t love Starbucks and prefer independent coffee shops, but on the stretch of Interstate 5 between Sacramento and Redding, I am Starbucks’ biggest fan. I love them on these and other rare occasions when there is nothing else consistent and reliable and caffeinated. I feel this way about the suburban McMenamins pubs. At the strip mall in Sherwood, Oregon, tucked in next to the Godfather’s Pizza and a mattress store (or something), the Sherwood Pub has food that tastes like McMenamins food (decent) and beer that’s priced at McMenamins prices (decent). Compared to overpriced chains or lackluster fast-food joints, McMenamins Sherwood pub is an oasis. It’s also where many of the hockey players who play at the nearby ice rink enjoy a post-game pint. Wink wink. Nudge Nudge.
When my favorite sushi restaurant in Hillsboro was closed, I opted for McMenamins Cornelius Pass Roadhouse. If I have to go to Target in East Portland, I might find myself at the Mall 205 pub. Why? It’s better than Mystic Exotic Lounge (formerly a Hooters). It’s my Starbucks in the mist.
Watch a cheap movie (and drink!)
Two words: cheap movies. Okay, four words: cheap movies and beer. When I first moved to Portland, I thought brew-and-views (our cute name for movie theaters where you can order alcohol) were the greatest invention known to mankind. Granted, I grew up in rural California and used to think Round Table Pizza was the greatest invention known to mankind, so it didn’t take much to impress me.
There are a number of brew-and-views in town and some have more screens and better selection. But there is something special about the McMenamins theaters, thanks to McMenamins need to make everything that much more fun and cute and cozy. The Mission Theater in Northwest Portland has excellent ambiance with its balcony seats and the Kennedy School provides a living-room feel with its couches, love seats, and armchairs instead of theater seats. There’s even a special showtime called Mommy Matinee where parents can take their babies and babies can drink for free!
McMenamins may not be where you go for the finest meal and quick attentive service. But they still offer us young retirees many fun activities between our yoga classes and farm-to-fork dinner parties.
Have you been to McMenamins? What do you think about McMenamins? Love them or hate them?
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The longer we travel, the more couples like us we discover or even meet. Like us they dreamed about traveling, like us they made the big trip happen, and like us they document their experiences online. In the Two Toothbrushes traveler interview series we introduce fellow traveling and blogging couples to share their story and draw inspiration from them. If you’d like to participate or know a couple who would, please visit the series page.
Kaspars Misinš and Una Baufala have been together for 8 years, traveling for 1.5. They are from Latvia and they document their travels, including a cross-India bike trip, on their blog, We Are From Latvia.
Where are your toothbrushes, where are they headed next, and why?
Currently [mid-February 2015] they are in Fuerteventura, which is one of the Canary Islands. We have come here to do our 4th Workaway volunteer work and escape the cold European winter. We like it here very much and we feel like we could stay here until the summer or even longer.
We know that we want go back to Asia in the winter.
What’s your definition of home?
It is a place where the two of us are together and where we feel good. You can’t really describe it, but you feel it. And for us it is as simple as that. Sometimes we need to rent an apartment or a hotel room, other times we just need our corner to lie down and put our backpacks.
It’s the same as, for example, with people. With some you work together every day for many years and you don’t really know them, with others you go on a road trip the day you meet.
How do you make yourself feel at home wherever you go?
We don’t do anything special. We don’t really think of it. It all comes naturally. If the place, people, and atmosphere are the right one, we start to feel like at home very quickly.
This also has a downside. Leaving your home is harder than leaving some hotel room. And when you are doing it every few weeks or months you experience it again and again. But, of course, you get used to it as well. As there is the next home coming…
Why this (or the most recent) trip, why now (then)?
It was summer 2012, we had just returned from our first trip abroad, and we were sure about one thing: in a year we will move to another country. We felt an urge to go and see what it’s like to live abroad. We felt that we would like that. But at that time we were not thinking that we could travel from one country to another and then to the next one. It felt like something rich people do.
Nine months later, we still had no plan, how we would do it and where we would go. But then an idea occurred to Kaspars and few days later we knew that during the summer we would save as much money as we can and we would go to India, to cycle across it. Why India? It’s big. It’s not expensive. It’s interesting. Why cycling? Cycling across such a huge country sounds like an interesting adventure.
We felt scared, but at the same time we felt much better because now we had a plan. And now, more than a year later, we can say that it has been the best decision we have ever made.
What were your greatest challenges in making the trip happen? How did you overcome them?
As our plan was last-minute, we were so busy making it happen we didn’t have time to worry too much. A month later we bought our one-way plane tickets and four months later we left Latvia. And in between we had to follow a schedule of vaccines needed. We had to upgrade our bicycles. There were a lot of things to do. At the end we also gave away or sold all our stuff.
Looking back, the biggest challenge was the plan itself. There was the initial moment when we didn’t know anything about long-term traveling. Then we started reading up about it and soon we were overwhelmed with information, with all the choices. So again we didn’t know what to do and how to do it. But after we had our plan, things went much more smoothly.
What do you enjoy the most about your traveling life?
We enjoy seeing different cultures. We enjoy learning new things. We love to see the world the way it is not the way it is shown on the news or in a travel agency’s brochure.
Share a moment from your travels that you will share with future generations.
We were cycling in the middle of nowhere in India. It was deserted all around. A police car drove by and stopped. Four policemen got out and gestured that we must stop. Had we done anything wrong? It was our second month of cycling through India, and the first time police stopped us. We stopped, the policemen approached us, and asked to take a photo with us. One of the policemen even knew what Latvia is. Usually Indians don’t know Latvia. In the five months we spent in India we met fewer than ten Indians who knew that Latvia is a country.
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