McMenamins’ Old Church and Pub

(Welcome back to Thebeerchaser.  If you are seeing this post through an e-mail, please visit the blog by clicking on the title above to see all of the photos and so the narrative is not clipped or shortened.)

Since starting Thebeerchaser blog in 2011, I’ve avoided reviewing bars or breweries that are primarily restaurants rather than neighborhood watering holes or dives.  I’ve made a number of exceptions for the McMenamin venues based on several factors. (See the end of the post for pictures and reviews of those exceptions)

First, the McMenamin venues I’ve reviewed are all historic structures or are significant in the development of Oregon’s Craft Brewing Industry.  Secondly, the McMenamin brothers have made incredible economic, cultural and social contributions to the Northwest.   

The fact that Brian and Mike are both fellow Oregon State University graduates also doesn’t hurt. (Photos #1 -2 below – attribution at end of the post.)

And I fondly remember working with their dad, Robert, at both the Oregon State Bar and the City Club of Portland when he was on the boards of those organizations. 

The late Bob McMenamin was an outstanding lawyer (he received the Bar’s highest honor – the Award of Merit in 1975 ) and wonderful man known for his contributions to his profession and community.

The elegant “Bob’s Bar” in the basement of McMenamin’s Grand Lodge is named his honor.  He loved Hammerhead Ale and once said:

“When you’re out of Hammerhead, you’re out of beer!”   (Bob can be seen holding his favorite beer in his namesake bar below. #3)

Their commitment to history is commendable as reported in The Oregon Encyclopedia article by Tiah Edmundson-Morton.  (How many breweries have their own historian on staff?):

“Historic preservation is integral to McMenamin’s business model. A small history department, led for nearly thirty years by historian Tim Hills, researches the buildings and neighborhoods and gathers community memories.

Their work is incorporated into each property’s art, food, and architectural details. The department also sponsors a well-established program of public talks, with presentations that range from science to social justice to Oregon history.” (#4)

The Oregon Encyclopedia provides definitive and authoritative information about the State of Oregon and its history.

The Wilsonville Old Church

As with Steeplejack Brewing in NE Portland in 2021, a more than century-old church was saved from demolition for condos or a shopping mall by transformation into a brewery and pub which retained the historic structure.

(When the congregation moved in the 1990’s, the property was sold to Fred Meyer Corp.)

“The simple, but graceful church, which literally celebrates its centennial during the same month of its opening as part of the new McMenamins’ location, was completed in  August 1911 by the Wilsonville Methodist Society. 

It’s just like poetry to learn that its first minister, John W. Exon, had formerly been (and would be again) a respected riverboat captain, whose career had taken him on many journeys up and down the Willamette River, with regular stops at Wilsonville.” (McMenamin’s History Flyer)  (#5)

I laughed when I read that the brewery is located in the church basement where the nursery used to be operated during Sunday services.  And the expansive structures and grounds are more than just a brewery and pub:

“Linking the old and new is a grassy amphitheater, ideal for quiet conversations and rollicking music performances…”

There is also event space for weddings, reunions and anniversary parties.  They haven’t had live music since COVID “but we’re working on bringing it back.”

I didn’t have the chance to explore the grounds in depth, but there is a wealth of nice patio space and the inner eating area – in a separate building in back of the church – is nicely maintained and comfortable. 

(You can see by the sign below at the entrance that hiring food and beverage industry staff is still a real challenge.)

My friend and former Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter, Dwight (The Godfather) Jaynes and I had lunch inside and the service was courteous and efficient.  Check out his new gig on Rip City Radio – 620 with Chad Doing in the afternoons from 3 to 5 PM.

What About the Food?

Dwight had a two-piece Fish and Chips ($20.50) and I had a large Blue Bayou Salad (romaine, bacon, chopped egg, blue cheese crumbles, tomato, blue cheese dressing)  – $17.50 – I took almost half of it home – for our lunches and both were very good and presented well.

A Tillamook Cheddar Cheese Burger is $17.25 and I was almost sorry I didn’t order it because I could have told my wife that in the interest of budgetary prudence, I got the Tator Tots as a side because a green salad was an extra $1.75!

Their Happy Hour is daily from 3 – 6pm and 9pm until close.  A pint of any of the McMenamins’ ales is $1 off and they have a good offering of bites and appetizers. (#6)

450px-Happy_Hour

Happy Hour – It’s always 5:00 somewhere….

I always check out the reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor just to get a sample of comments and with the realization that a number of people who do these ratings should have adult supervision when writing them based on the substance of their comments.  But I was impressed with the assessments overall.

McMenamins’ has sometimes been viewed as having good food and great beer, but service which is slow.  That doesn’t seem to be the case at the Old Church Pub and the majority of the reviewers appreciated the attentiveness of the servers – even during the pandemic.  

I’m always impressed when there are complaints on social media and Management responds (when they appear to be legitimate) and either apologizes or takes steps to remedy.  Such was the case with this McMenamins’. 

Cajun Tater Tots and Starters

The most emphatically positive comments on food were about the “Starters” and included the Soft Pretzel Sticks ($14.25) and Cajun Tots. ($10.25 and $15.25)

“I ordered the pretzel sticks as an appetizer just because I was starving, and man… they did not disappoint. The cheese sauce here is absolutely delicious! I ordered an extra order of the cheese sauce to go and took home the leftover pretzels.” (Yelp 5/8/22)  (#7)

Now, I learned something from the review below.  Although banks, schools and government offices aren’t closed, each February 2 is National Tater Tot Day:

“We stopped by to celebrate Tater Tots Day and a birthday dinner. We love the Cajun Tots and always split a Small basket between us; by the way a large Tot is 2 lbs of Tots! “  (Yelp 2/3/22)

Even going back to August 23 2019, people were effusive about the Cajun Tots:

“But what really stole the show, was the Cajun Tots. HOLY COW THESE ARE THE BEST TOTS IN THE WORLD IF YOU LIKE TOTS ORDER THESE RIGHT NOW BECAUSE ITS LIKE CRISPY HOT CAJUN HEAVEN IN YOUR MOUTH. Not joking guys. We shared a large order for the 5 of us and it was a large serving and even the pickiest eater of the group enjoyed them.”

So I plan to return to the Old Church and have a beer and some tots at Happy Hour in the Undercroft Bar which is in the basement and has been closed because of COVID.  One can’t go wrong at any of the McMenamins’ and the Wilsonville Old Church Pub certainly affirms that premise.

Previous McMenamin Establishment Reviewed by Thebeerchaser

McMenamins now has more than 60 establishments throughout the Northwest and I’ve been to a number.  The following are those I’ve reviewed with historic significance.  To see the review, click on the link over the name.

And I encourage you to visit them not only to enjoy the food and beer, but to grasp the historical import of these buildings that are preserved due to Mike and Brian’s efforts.

The White Eagle Saloon – 2012

We visited with friends Pat and Leona Green to see his brother, Beerchaser-of-the-Month Forrest Green, play a gig at the bar during JAM-O-Rama.

“The White Eagle originally opened in 1905 and is now on the National Historic Register. Did you know the White Eagle is called ‘one of the most haunted places’ in Portland?

……. Set in North Portland’s industrial neighborhood, underneath the mighty span of the Fremont Bridge, the legendary White Eagle Cafe and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel echoes with tall tales of resident spirits, poker games and Shanghai tunnels……”

The St. John’s Pub – 2015

Two former Beerchasers-of-the-Quarter, who both worked at the University of Portland nearby, joined me for an afternoon drink.   Dr. Sam Holloway, a professor of business and also an internationally recognized consultant on the micro-craft industry, and the late and critically acclaimed author, Brian Doyle and I enjoyed the historic ambiance with our drinks.

Built in 1905 as the National Cash Register Company’s exhibit hall for Portland’s Lewis and Clark Exposition, this spectacular building was barged down the Willamette River after the expo to its current location.

It’s subsequent incarnations included a Lutheran church, an American Legion post, a bingo parlor and a home for Gypsy wakes. The ever-evolving domed structure was later reinvented as Duffy’s Irish Pub and finally, St. Johns Theater & Pub.” 

The Fulton Pub – 2016

I didn’t review this historic pub opened in 1988 by the McMenamin brothers until 2016 although my initial visit in 2012 was the first time I met Brian Doyle for an interview and when we struck up a friendship.

Brian said it was his favorite bar, in part, because he loved Hammerhead Ale.  According to the McMenamin website, …..legend has it that the brew’s hallowed recipe (Hammerhead) was perfected here.”

“(The pub) dates back to 1926, when it was a Prohibition-era hangout serving home-cooked meals, pinball games, stogies, candy and ice cream. Speculation says that during Prohibition the pub might even have provided patrons the odd pint as an unadvertised special.”  

In Closing

Every time I reminisce about my Beerchasing exploits and interaction with Brian Doyle, it is with profound sadness that I reflect on how this remarkable human being left us far too soon in 2017 from brain cancer.   

His accomplishments transcend what most people could do in three lifetimes as does the impact he had on those who knew him.  My tribute to him was in the post: 

 https://thebeerchaser.com/2017/06/09/brian-doyle-beerchaser-eternal/

The post will give you an idea of his wonderful writing talent and sense of humor and I’ll leave you with the words of Fr. Mark Poorman, then President of UP, where Brian worked for twenty-six years.

“He was a man filled with a sense of humanity and wonder, who was interested in everyone’s story and who saw everyone’s potential. His warmth, humor, and passion of life will be deeply missed and his loss will be acutely felt here and beyond.”

External Photo Attribution

#1.  The Oregon Encyclopedia (https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/mcmenamins/#.YzeHvXbMKUk) Article by Tiah Edmundson-Morton.   (Oregon Historical Society)

#2.  McMenamins’ Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/mcmenaminsbreweries/photos/10159113704914864)

#3.  McMenamins’ History Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/McMenaminsHistory/photos/a./

#4.  The Oregon Encyclopedia Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=532027042257551&set=a.532027008924221)

#5. Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Methodist_Church_Wilsonville.JPG)  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.  Author:  M.O. Stevens 14 May 2009

#6.  Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Happy_Hour.jpg)  The copyright holder of this work, released this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.  Author: Hovev  2008

#7.  Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tater_tot_hotdish_8286689740_o.jpg) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Author: Tony Webster 9 March 2014

The St. John’s Pub – Beer and History

P1030763

While Thebeerchaser typically does not review bars that are directly connected with a restaurant, which means most of the McMenamen brothers’ lairs, there have been a few exceptions.   The White Eagle Saloon (see link to post in November, 2012) was of such historical significance that it made an interesting post.   The Buffalo Gap Saloon (see post in December, 2012 ) although not a McMenamin’s establishment, also has a very captivating story.

Brian Doyle at the Fulton Pub

Brian Doyle at the Fulton Pub

I recently visited the St. John’s Theater and Pub with two former Beerchasers of-the-Quarter – Northwest author, Brian Doyle and University of Portland Business Professor and noted micro craft consultant, Dr. Sam Holloway.

Brian is also the editor of the award-winning UP Magazine, Portland, and since both were on campus, the St. John’s is nearby, has a good line-up of beers and a rich history to check out.

I admire and respect what the McMenamins have done for the Oregon economy, historic preservation and beer in general since 1983, but going to their restaurants can often be kind of like going to the dentist – a nice receptionist or hostess gives a friendly greeting followed by what too often is a long wait and then either mouthwash or beer depending on which of the aforementioned venues you visited on that trip – you know the drill…..so to speak.

The entrance to the theater
The entrance to the theater

Most of their establishments get average ratings on sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp and the following from a Yelp review of the St. John’s back in 2008, albeit dated, still sums it up well:

“Like all good Portlanders, I have a snarky and somewhat ruthless attitude about McMenamins. But it serves its purpose at times…..It’s a natural for your visiting relatives.  The food is overpriced, predictable, but tasty enough.  Booze is available.  The patio at this location is actually quite pleasant.”

Although one guy named, Aaron, a California resident and whose choice of fine eateries thoughout the globe is somewhat questionable, raved on Yelp in February, 2014, “Literally one of my 5 favorite restaurants in the world.”   Really Aaron!!?  Have you ever been to San Francisco??

One of the five best in the word!!????

One of the five best in the word!!????

That said, both the tater tots and their beer generally get very good marks and we were at St. John’s that day just to drink and converse rather than eat.

And I have learned that any bar or tavern experience can be enhanced by your companions, which was the case that day.  So before I talk some more about St. John’s, let’s find out a little more about Brian and Sam.   They are both very smart and gifted individuals and we have a lot in common – they both have written books and I have read books.

University of Portland Professor Dr. Sam Holloway

University of Portland Professor Dr. Sam Holloway

The book Sam co-authored was entitled, Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management. Volume I: Managing Learning and Knowledge, and besides his extensive work on business model innovation, he has published numerous articles and spoken at many forums on the business of breweries.

And while the above volume sounds a little dry, Sam and his consulting firm (Crafting a Strategy) have just published a new book which is a must read for any potential or actual entrepreneur in the restaurant trade , an Ebook on “How to Make Money with Food.”  It is available for only $4.99.  (see the following link)

Holloway consulting firm - advising the craft brewing industry

Holloway consulting firm – advising the craft brewing industry

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/crafting-a-strategy-presents/id1045821669?ls=1&mt=11 

While I typically read escapist trash novels, Brian Doyle’s books have become a staple although they are more cerebral than most – quotes from English philosopher and poet, William Blake, detailed character development and meticulous descriptions of the Northwest environment that Brian loves.

As one Good Reads reviewer asked rhetorically about Brian’s most recent novel (Martin Marten), “Did Bryan Doyle’s high school yearbook say, ‘The guy least likely to be attacked by a bear due to his extraordinary capacity for observation?'” 

Martin MartenAs a brief example – the following from page 15 in which he describes the range of items that could be purchased in a general store in Zig Zag, Oregon – the setting for Martin Marten:

……(It) sells every single possible small important thing you could ever imagine you would ever need, if you lived on the mountain…..you can buy string of every conceivable strength and fiber. You can buy traps.  You can buy arrows.  You can buy milk and cookies.  You can buy tire irons and shoehorns.  You can buy false teeth and denture glue. 

You can buy comic books and kindling.  You can buy apples and pork tenderloin.  You can buy kale and rock salt. You can buy explosive caps for removing rubble from a precarious situation.  You can buy saws and drill bits.  You can buy nightgowns and shotgun shells.  You can buy old cassette tapes, and you can order iPads and iPods……

An Amazon review characterized this novel as a braided coming-of-age tale like no other, told in Brian Doyle’s joyous, rollicking style. Two energetic, sinewy, muddled, brilliant, creative animals, one human and one mustelid…come sprint with them through the deep, wet, green glory of Oregon’s soaring mountain wilderness.”    

Doyle - A "joyous, rollicking style" and a taste for good wine.....

A “joyous, rollicking style” and a taste for good wine…..

Note:   I had to look up “mustelid” and it is defined as a mammal of the weasel family (Mustelidae), distinguished by having a long body, short legs, and musky scent glands under the tail.”)

But we digress, now back to the St. John’s, but not before an appropriate William Blake quote on beer from his poem, the “Little Vagabond”:

“But if at the Church they would give us some Ale.       And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;                     We’d sing and we’d pray, all the live-long day;             Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray,” 

I got there early and was downing an outstanding Ruby Red, (“an ale light, crisp and refreshingly fruity…..processed raspberry puree is used to craft every colorful batch.”)when they arrived from the UP campus.  Both Brian and Sam, to my surprise, ordered wine.  Brian, possibly after the intense research for his book The Grail  (“A year ambling & shambling through an Oregon vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir wine in the whole wild world”) – admits that besides McMenamin’s Hammerhead, wine has become his drink of choice.

Wind drinkers Doyle and Holloway

Wine drinkers Doyle and Holloway

With Sam, it was a temporary gluten issue and perhaps he was anticipating his trip in the next two weeks to visit breweries in Germany.  I reminded them both  of an anonymous but pithy quote:

“Beer – because one doesn’t solve the world’s problems over white white wine…..”

As an aside, I was the winner that afternoon, because my second beer was also a great seasonal brew – Copper Moon:

“The upfront hop bitterness…..is relatively low, complementing the malts nicely without being overpowering. The hop flavor and aroma are another matter, as the Citra and Chinook hops used in the latter stages of each batch intermingle delightfully to generate a dazzling citrusy, flowery and slightly spicy olfactory experience. All these things blend into a refreshing, flavorful and organic Summer Pale Ale.”

P1030767The St. John’s pub is a spacious and comfortable setting with a great outdoor patio and a cozy second-floor balcony.  The dark wood interior has interesting knick knacks and art work – typical of most McMenamin watering holes.

The history of this building is also remarkable.  You should check out their website to get the entire story, but here are a few highlights:

“Built in 1905 as the National Cash Register Company’s exhibit hall for Portland’s Lewis and Clark Exposition, this spectacular building was barged down the Willamette River after the expo to its current location, where subsequent incarnations included a Lutheran church, an American Legion post, a bingo parlor and a home for Gypsy wakes. The ever-evolving domed structure was later reinvented as Duffy’s Irish Pub and finally, St. Johns Theater & Pub.”  NCR_Building,_1905_(Portand,_Oregon)

St. John’s Pub website (http://www.mcmenamins.com/226-st-johns-theater-pub-home)

One can read about church scandal with the First Congregational Church (the preacher was accused of being a “traitor and a wife stealer”) and then the chronology involving a Lutheran Church (1931) before becoming an American Legion Post (with a bingo scandal), in addition to the stories involved with “saloons, billiards halls and traveling evangelists.”

I have often experienced poor service (possibly more accurately described as “slow” because of inadequate staffing) at McMenamins, and maybe it was because we were there at non-peak hour, but our server, Jessica, was friendly, knowledgeable and efficient.

Mural in the St. John's Pub
Mural in the St. John’s Pub

The St. John’s Pub is a very comfortable establishment for a few beers, some reasonable comfort food if you are not in a hurry and some fascinating history for those who have an interest.

 

The St. John’s Pub

8203 N. Ivanhoe Street

Portland