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The McMenamins Brewpub Empire

If you drink beer and if you go out at night, you’re likely to run into a McMenamins brewpub during a trip to Portland. This highly successful local enterprise now has over 50 pubs and related businesses in Washington and Oregon, and whenever a historic venue goes on sale, there’s at least a large minority of Northwesterners who hope that it will become a McMenamins brewpub. The McMenamins are in fact brothers Brian and Mike, who are equally devoted to brewing quality beer, designing fun spaces to drink it in, and preserving distinctive buildings.

A beautiful chandelier made of colored glass in floral patterns holds candle shaped lights.
Looking up in the Crystal Ballroom. Photo © Ali Edwards, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The typical McMenamins pub features imaginative antiques, art, and architecture on a grand scale. In fact, the decor can be rather silly, but the desired effect is to create a space that doesn’t take itself too seriously. According to the McMenamins: ”Be wary of things too formal, too complicated, and too orthodox. Ultimately, the most important realization has been that the essence of a pub is its people. Trendy decor doesn’t attract a lasting clientele. It’s the other way around: The neighborhood clientele is the atmosphere — and that never goes in and out of style.”

Portland has the most microbreweries of any city in the world, and any short-list of pub destinations should include several McMenamins outlets because of their dedication to preserving historic structures (and the quality of the beer is just fine too).

The word unique gets tossed around a lot in travel writing, but in the case of the Crystal Ballroom (1332 W. Burnside St., 503/225-0047), it’s apt: This former dancehall is a singular place to catch a concert or have a beer. Constructed in 1914, the top-story ballroom was created as a spot for fashionable dances; its mechanical ”floating on air” dance floor (there’s a layer of ball bearings and springy rubber beneath the hardwood flooring) made it a popular spot for jazz performances. The McMenamin brothers bought the ballroom in the 1990s and refurbished the entire three-story building, which is now a major concert and brewpub showcase.

There are performances about three times a week at the Crystal Ballroom, and it’s worth going just to check out the floating dance floor, the massive Palladian windows, the grand murals and quirky paintings, and the impressive scale of the room — rocking out with 1,500 other people on the 7,500-square-foot, trampoline-like dance floor is an experience you aren’t likely to forget.

On the ground floor of the building is Ringler’s Pub (503/225-0627), a brewpub with casual dining, pool tables, live music Thursday–Saturday, and the hallmark animistic decor that personifies McMenamin projects. On the second floor is Lola’s Room, a smaller version of the Crystal Ballroom, open several nights a week for live concerts, DJ dance nights, and other performances. One block away is another extension of this massive entertainment citadel: Ringler’s Annex (1223 SW Stark St., 503/525-0520), a tiny subterranean bar in a Flatiron Building–like structure for in-the-know hipsters.

Crystal Ballroom
1332 W. Burnside St., 503/225-0047
HOURS: Box office daily 11:30 a.m.–6 p.m., later for shows
COST: Varies per show
[The Crystal Ballroom] has seen a lot of action in its 90 years: dance revivals, police raids, fabled rock concerts, and even near demolition. It is even rumored that Little Richard once fired Jimi Hendrix mid-concert on the Crystal’s stage. Despite all that, what people can’t seem to stop talking about is the floor. One of only a few like it in the country, the dance floor moves on ball bearings, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “dance on air.” —p.104, Nightlife, Moon Portland, 2nd ed.

Just across the Willamette from downtown, the White Eagle Saloon (836 N. Russell St., 503/282-6810) is one of Portland’s oldest still-operating bars (since 1905) with a lively late-night live music scene. The Chapel Pub (430 N. Killingsworth St., 503/286-0372), is a brewpub in a beautifully preserved mission-style funeral home.

The Kennedy School (5736 NE 33rd Ave., 503/249-3983 or 888/249-3983) is an unusual enterprise — a block-square 1915 grade school that’s been converted into a brewpub, restaurant, and hotel, plus a movie theater (think couches in the auditorium). In the suburbs of Portland are two of the grandest extensions of the McMenamins’ dream. On the way to the Columbia Gorge, Edgefield (2126 SW Halsey St., Troutdale, 503/669-8610 or 800/669-8610) began its existence as the Multnomah County Poor Farm. This vast 25-acre operation now contains multiple restaurants and drinking establishments, plus a delightful period hotel, movie theater, winery, and “pub golf” course. On the way to the coast, just south of Highway 26, is the Grand Lodge (3505 Pacific Ave., Forest Grove, 503/992- 9533 or 877/992-9533), completed in 1922 as a retirement home for Masons and Eastern Star adherents. This 13-acre property offers dining, drinking, hotel rooms, movies, and a 10-hole disc golf course.

Lest we forget, the McMenamins pioneered the notion of cinema brewpubs, where you can buy a microbrew, chow down on a burger, and watch a recent movie. Closest to downtown Portland are the Mission Theatre (1624 NW Glisan St., 503/223-4527), near the Pearl District, and the Bagdad Theatre & Pub (3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/236-9234), in the thick of the trendy Hawthorne neighborhood.

Bagdad Theater & Pub
3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/249-7474, ext. 1,
HOURS: Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–midnight, Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–1 a.m., Sun. noon–midnight
…the Bagdad Theater & Pub was built in 1926 with the help of Universal Pictures and was designed using Middle Eastern influences, which were popular at the time. It was intended to be a vaudeville house, but by the early 1930s, vaudeville was dead. —p.124, Arts & Leisure, Moon Portland, 2nd ed.

No one would claim that the food at McMenamins is cutting-edge or that they produce the most sophisticated ales in Portland. But overall the quality is just fine and a fine deal, and chances are that you’ll enjoy your pint and burger in a truly unique setting. For more info on locations and music and movie offerings within the McMenamins empire, visit them online or call 503/249-3983.

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