When McMenamins announced in mid-March it was laying off 3,000 employees—nearly every single person on staff—the shock rippled like the first thunderclap of an approaching storm. As jarring as that news was, we still had no idea how destructive the pandemic was going to get.
The eclectic hospitality chain began to emerge from lockdown in April. Business is back, though it doesn't look quite like it used to.
A number of McMenamins are known for their sprawling lawns or gardens, making it easier to spread out seating. But the three bars and restaurants along with the Crystal Hotel that occupy a triangle of land sandwiched between West Burnside and Southwest Harvey Milk streets have only pavement on either side. So that's exactly where the company decided to expand.
"Definitely, it was a hassle at first," describes Zeus Cafe chef Alexander Diestra. "But we got the go ahead and started brainstorming a bunch of ideas about how to make it more hospitable for the guests and actually make sure they have enough privacy."
The first safety measure involved separating customers sipping Rubys and Hammerheads from one-way traffic zipping off Burnside. Through the Portland Bureau of Transportation's Healthy Businesses program, McMenamins was able to close down that entire stretch of Harvey Milk to Southwest 12th Avenue, creating an outdoor plaza it now shares with Jake's Famous Crawfish. The de facto boundary between the two is marked by the green strip of paint that also denotes a bike lane.
The space was simple at first. Managers set up some additional tables in the street along with a smattering of potted plants. But the Crystal Hotel kept finding different ways to enhance the pavement cafe. Edgefield lent some of its collection of black, wrought-iron tables and chairs. They also brought over some barrels to use as decorative statement pieces, which then evolved into miniature gardens.
Thanks to the farmers who normally cultivate the dirt at the Troutdale location, the barrels are now bursting with palm fronds and purple flowers as well as a usable pantry of herbs—rosemary, sage and thyme—for the kitchen. During a recent visit, an apron-clad employee wound his way through the cooperage harvesting green tomatoes.
"I think these were planted late in the season," he said of the mixed-quality crop. Some of the fruit was so invitingly plump you'd be tempted to eat it like an apple. Others were still small and would probably never ripen. "Chef was like, 'Go out there and see what you can do.'"
It's a fitting analogy for 2020—we're all just trying to make the best of the shriveling green tomatoes that have been dealt to us. But as the old saying goes, when life gives you tomatoes, make tomato mozzarella Benedict, which is what ended up on the menu for brunch the next morning.
Number of tables: 14
Distance between tables: At least 6 feet
Additional safety measures: Menus available via QR code or single-use paper handout; tables and chairs are sanitized after every use; only one person at a time is allowed in the restrooms.
Peak hours: 1:45-4 pm Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-3 pm Friday, 8 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm Saturday-Sunday
GO: McMenamins Crystal Hotel Zeus Cafe, 303 SW 12th Ave., 503-384-2500, mcmenamins.com. 7 am-10 pm daily.