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Visitors from out-of-state often inquire, “What classic watering hole should we check out?” In Oregon, one will often hear the response, “The Helvetia Tavern.” This quaint rural bar was established in 1946 and has been a favorite of both locals and tourists ever since.
Whether one is from out-of-state, on a country ride by auto or cycling or just making a short stop off Highway 26 on the way to the Oregon Coast, it’s a destination with a reputation that draws robust crowds especially in Oregon’s good weather months.
So when our friends, John and Barb Senger, from Boulder, Colorado came to town recently for Barb’s and my wife, Janet’s 50th McMinnville High School Class Reunion, they asked for a Beerchasing recommendation. The Sengers immediately agreed that we should try the Helvetia Tavern although they’d been there before. Janet hadn’t been there since shortly after college.
I’m a bit embarrassed to say that although it’s been many years since I became eligible to raise a mug in its legendary quarters, I’d never been there.
The Sengers both had outstanding careers in educational administration and in retirement, we have visited them both in Boulder and Pueblo Colorado where John has relatives. His daughter, Cassy, is married to Kirk Taylor, the Sheriff of Pueblo County and they were wonderful Beerchasing companions in a pre-pandemic trip..
And besides the highlight of seeing the Oregon State Beavers beat the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder in a thrilling overtime victory for the Beavs on a perfect autumn day in 2018, we’ve visited some memorable bars and bistros together. (John is also known to make a great martini……)
Our favorite was The Sink, a famous, historic dive just off the University of Colorado campus, once visited by President Obama. His unannounced visit on a 2012 campaign trip resulted in a new pizza – The POTUS Pie. Although I digress, some info about this and some of the other bars is context for my comments on The Helvetia below.
Helvetia is a small unincorporated community in Washington County, Oregon along Highway 26 about forty-five minutes from Portland. According to Wikipedia:
“It was named by Swiss immigrants to Oregon in the 19th century. Notable features are the church, cemetery, the Rice Rocks and Minerals Museum, Helvetia Vineyards and Winery, Roloff Farms, and the Helvetia Tavern.”
When a cemetery and a church are enumerated as “notable features,” in a community, it makes one pause and I have to admit that the “prospect” of a mineral museum did not seem that exciting. The Rice Museum, however, is affiliated with the Smithsonian and after I investigated, it’s worth checking out (on a future trip……):
“The Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals houses a world-class collection recognized as the finest in the Pacific Northwest and one of the best in the nation….The Museum showcases not only fine rocks and minerals, but also fossils, meteorites, lapidary art, and gemstones from both the Pacific Northwest and all around the world.”
(# External photos attributed at the end of the post. #1 below)
And of definite historical interest – the Holcomb Creek Trestle, purportedly the highest (90 feet) and longest wooden railroad bridge currently in use in the United States, located only about a minute or two from in the Helvetia Tavern.
“This 110 year old beauty was used by the Portland Western Railroad! If you like railroad trestles, you’ll love this one! Built back in 1905 for the Oregon Electric Railway by United Railways, the timber stringer type bridge is a classic wooden trestle.
Since fire is always a danger with wooden trestles and bridges, this one was constructed with well spaced concrete partitions to prevent the uncontrollable spread of a fire, should one occur. No one really knows how many board feet of lumber is included in the 1168 foot long span of the bridge.” (https://trainfanatics.com/holcomb-creek-wooden-train-trestle-still-standing/) (#2)
One can’t help wonder if any inebriated patrons of the Helvetia Tavern have ever tried to scale the structure or walk across it – that’s almost four football fields. Obviously, it’s not one that you could make a fast exit over the side if a train appears like the classic scene in movies!
Okay, but let’s get back to the Tavern……
While we enjoyed our visit and the company was outstanding, based on my visits over the last eleven years – to almost 400 watering holes in Oregon, throughout the US and a few in Europe – I would not rate the Helvetia Tavern as a “classic” or one of the more memorable.
Now I will admit this assertion is based on only one visit – and that one shortly after a global pandemic, but hear me out…..This may shock some of its fans, but I’ll set forth my reasons below:
The Ambiance and Character – The inside is clean and spacious and has a long, attractive bars and numerous booths and a pool table. There are also some old beer signs and memorabilia. It reminded me of a typical sports bar without as many televisions. (#3 – right)
The main element of character is the ceiling which is bedecked with numerous colored baseball hats – obviously left by patrons over the years.
I asked a waiter about the origin and he thought it was because years ago, they had unmatched sections of the ceiling and decided that the headgear would “hide” the discrepancy.
There was nothing on the website which provided any insight and while it was an attractive and interesting touch, it doesn’t compare with the effect and the stories of some others I’ve seen in my journey – at least from the information available.
I would suggest that a number of other “ceiling accoutrements” I’ve seen overshadow the hats. Two examples are the bras that adorn the ceiling of the Dixie Tavern in Portland’s Old Town and the Bacaro Jazz – just over the Rialto Bridge in Venice. From my Beerchaser reviews:
At Bacaro Jazz:
“The tradition is all the women walking in who donate their bra to the collection tend to get a free drink and a rise from the crowd. The Bar has every drink you can think so if your intent is to walk in sober and leave the same way, forget about it.”
“Evidently, when female patrons dance on the bar – a tradition at The Dixie – they inconspicuously remove their bras and attempt to throw them on the antlers of the large moose-head hanging on the wall. Then each year, Dixie’s donates $5 for each bra on the ceiling to the Susan Komen Race for the Cure – a great cause.
(There were also about an equal number of baseball caps on the ceiling which I assume were worn by the male patrons chose not to wear a bra, but didn’t want to feel left out.”)
And it doesn’t have to be apparel – for example, the traditional Christmas lights – which have never gone out on the ceiling along with University of Portland students’ signatures throughout the years at the Twilight Room or the signatures, graphics and comments on the ceiling at Gil’s Speakeasy in SE Portland
The Deck and Patio – One of the best aspects of the Helvetia is both a covered patio and an adjacent deck area with large umbrellas which drew most people the night we were there. Although it was hot, the shrubs and trees around the deck provided some respite. On it’s website, it states “voted best patio” but it doesn’t quote the source. (#4 – left)
That said, given the weather during much of the year in Oregon, in my opinion, one can’t rely on the outside seating areas to provide the ambiance one needs to be considered a “classic” bar.
The Food – The menu is pretty much pub food and the prices are very reasonable. On its website, Helvetia prominently displays “Home of the Jumbo Burger,” and the burger has a reputation for excellence, as do the fries and onion rings. For example, this Yelp review:
“Old school tavern that my family has been visiting since the 50’s – when Fred and Boots owned it. Then it was a tavern, grocery, and gas station. The burgers are old school, fresh, simple, wonderful. The 1/2 & 1/2 fries and onion rings are simply a must.”
Willamette Week in its March Burger Madness in 2017 which evaluated 100 burgers from Portland bars and bistros, wrote of Helvetia’s offering (It lost to Mike’s Drive-in‘s burger in the first round):
“The famous Jumbo Burger – with two thin beef patties, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mayo stacked inside a giant bun – the whole thing is like a Big Mac the size of your face…if your face were maybe a little bigger.” (#5 – 6)
I’ve eaten at quite a few of the places in the competition such as Slow Bar, Interurban, Ecliptic, McMenamins, Grain and Gristle and Expatriate and a few not on the list such as Stanich’s which one reviewer called “a national treasure” and Thrilllist rated in 2018 as the “Best Burger in America.” And don’t forget The Sink Burger from Boulder. Helvetia’s Jumbo does not compare favorably
Most of the food reviews’ however, are good and the onion rings and fries were excellent with plentiful servings; however, my assessment of the burger was similar to the two below – (Yelp on 8/6/22):
“The food was ok and the service was excellent. Had the jumbo cheeseburger and it was OK. Don’t really understand the hype.”
Or from 12/27/20:
“Interesting concept of the larger burger. The burger was simple and good. It’s because there was no ‘wow’ in burger I got, seemed pretty basic.”
Our servers were courteous and efficient. By the way, Helvetia only takes cash or checks although there is an ATM located on site.
The Story – Perhaps the most disappointing (and lacking) element for an establishment that has been a community fixture since 1946, is any meaningful attempt to convey its history. The website is woefully deficient and in the “About” section has a scant paragraph – only revealing the 1946 inception date.
The last entry on the Facebook site is dated December 26, 2021 and states:
“Due to the snow..We will be closed today.”
The element may not be a priority of the owners or important to most patrons; however, to be considered a watering hole icon, the story needs to be conveyed. Regardless of whether the bar or brewery is relatively new or has a rich history (I assume) from having been around for almost eighty years like Helvetia, the legacy should be communicated on site and through social media. And the staff should be oriented on it when they commence employment.
Earlier, I mentioned our visit with the Sengers in Pueblo, Colorado for an outstanding weekend of Beerchasing. One of the highlights in visiting Gus’ Place, Eilers’ Place, Walter’s Brewery, the Greenlight Tavern, Shamrock Brewery and the Star Bar was that all of them emphasized the tradition and legends which preserve the sagas though narrative, photos or memorabilia.
One of my favorites from the eleven years of Beerchasing was from Eilers’ Pace (above) where after I mentioned my Beerchasing hobby to the bartender, she came back with the old photo below taken in the late 1940’s. The bar was a family place and mom’s often brought their infants for a visit.
She then said, “See that guy over there?” pointing to one of the guys in the booth by the door. “He’s the second baby from the end on his mom’s lap in the photo.” I went over to meet him and He stuck out his hand and said:
“I’m James “Horse” Mohorcich. But you should just call me ‘Horse.’ I live across the street and I’ve been coming here for at least forty years.”
Later when we joined the Sheriff and his family, I told them the story and showed the picture and Sheriff Taylor said, “Oh yeah, that’s Horse. I know Horse!”
So in Closing
I hope to return to the Helvetia Tavern at some point and the Lampros family who own it should be commended for maintaining a thriving small business through the years including during a pandemic.
They have a loyal following in the community and the region. I just hope they make some additional efforts so the full story is not lost in the future.
External Photo Attribution
#2. Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holcomb_Creek_Trestle_(15448696156).jpg) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Bob from USA 4 October 2014.
#3 – 4. (https://therealhelvetiatavern.com/)
#5 – 7. (http://(1) Helvetia Tavern | Facebook)