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.

McMenamins Guide - Romantic package

No shortage of branding with the romance package at Kennedy School.

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.

McMenamins Guide - Concert

Three hats, three chairs, three Neko Case fans. At McMenamins Edgefield, June 2012.

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 Guide - Drinking spots

At Kennedy School, you can enjoy a pint at the Courtyard or a cigar and whiskey at the Detention Room…or in bed (pint not pictured).

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?

8 Responses

  1. ASmartt1

    Nice post, Lindsay! I also have a love/hate relationship with McMenamins. I have visited more than half of their locations in Oregon & Washington. Definitely love the rehabbed old buildings; less so the food. An interesting “story” about the beer: When I started going to the Oregon Beer Growler Perfect Pints monthly tastings a few years ago, I generally thought that I did not care for McMenamins beer. Yet I consistently, almost without fail, would pick one of their beers as my favorite beer in the blind tasting. Mind you, these were rarely the “standard” beers, but more often seasonal or one-off beers. Still, it has been an eye-opening/palate awakening experience and I’m glad I didn’t write them off completely early on!

    Reply
    • Lindsay Sauve

      Funny about the beer, Alethea. I’ve noticed their beer has improved a bit in the past couple of years. I’m guessing it’s competition from the influx of microbreweries. And like you, while their house beers continue to disappoint, I’ve enjoyed their seasonal beers, like the Nut Brown (which I’m drinking in the photo) and their copper ale I had last summer when we visited with my parents. The food has always been sub-par, fine in a pinch but nothing special.

      Reply
  2. Jen

    Awww, I just got all nostalgic for the Bagdad and its grumpy staff and funky-tasting beer…

    What an excellent summary of the corporation we love to hate. Our return to Portland was planned around The Decemberists’ show at the Edgefield this summer!

    Reply
    • Lindsay Sauve

      You were lucky to get tickets to that show! I’ve been to McMenamins a couple more times since writing this post. I had a fantastic brunch at Grand Lodge served by an extremely friendly waitress. I think McMenamins is working hard to win us all back.

      Reply
  3. Jane Pellicciotto

    Nice post! Happy belated birthday! I kind of love, more than hate McM. They really need to upgrade some of their food. The prices keep going up but the quality doesn’t. For the longest time, the only vinaigrette on the menu was that raspberry stuff. I cheered when they added a normal one.

    My favorite is Edgefield. I’ve stayed a couple times mid week when it’s completely empty. The soaking pool is spectacular. The rooms are huge. Next birthday!

    Reply
    • Lindsay Sauve

      I had a fairly good brunch there recently, but generally I agree about the food. When Peter and I stayed at Kennedy School we opted to eat elsewhere on Alberta. Edgefield is impossible on the weekends!

      Reply
  4. Lauren

    Wonderful post highlighting many of the activities to take part in while visiting Portland. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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