One of the most highly recommended activities when visiting Portland is to take in a concert at the Crystal Ballroom. Now, with the new Crystal Hotel next door, concert-goers can have a place to stay that ties in the independent music scene experience. The Crystal Hotel is one of the newest installments of the vast McMenamins empire, a collection of entertainment venues spreading throughout the Pacific Northwest that can only be described as “very Portland.”
Created by brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin, the McMenamins world encompasses an awe-inspiring network of craft microbreweries, restaurants, hotels, golf courses, movie theaters, and meeting or wedding locations. Although the McMenamins chain is large in scope, with 58 total venues and over 1,400 employees, each venue retains the quirky, whimsical charm and comfortable, welcoming atmosphere that make McMenamins venues so popular.
A Hotel with a Past:
The Crystal Hotel retains the McMenamins feel, while adding a few exciting new elements. The wedge-shaped building that is home to the new hotel has a fascinating history that the Crystal Hotel honors with photos along the walls, and aspects of the architecture (be sure to take a tour!). The recent opening of the Crystal Hotel coincided with the 100 year anniversary of the building – and a lot has happened there in one century!
Starting in the 1850’s, the land surrounding the site was home to a pioneer settlement. It was also the birth of the Weinhardt’s brewery across the street. During the first few decades of the 1900’s, the area was known as Auto Row, and was home to multiple auto-related businesses.
In the 1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s, the spot figured in Portland’s shady underworld history (photo to look for on the walls: Little Rusty, an infamous – and infamously charming! – madam who figured prominently in Portland’s risqué past. Also look for the ominous 1955 extortion note!)
After World War II, the hotel – then known as The Majestic – was taken over by the Zakoji family, who had spent several years in an internment camp before their return to Portland (look for their photo as well!). The family cultivated a home-like feel in the hotel, and many of the brewery workers lived there full-time.
1968 saw the rise of several gay-friendly businesses – including a nightclub and bathhouse – and that was the beginning of Portland’s “gay triangle,” a queer-friendly nightlife zone which lasted until 2007 (Look for a photo of “Flossie” – aka Stephen Boden – who was central to creating a uniquely welcoming feeling to the gay community in Portland).
Music and History:
Each feature of the Crystal Hotel, such as the restaurant, the intimate music venue, and even the rooms themselves, pays homage to the multi-faceted history of the building.
Zeus Café—which retains the artistic feel of McMenamin’s eateries, but is slightly higher-end – was named for Nate Zusman, the owner of the former venue, the Desert Room. Zusman’s motto for the joint was “whatever you want, you can get.” And that included anything – to eat, drink, or even to enjoy as company for the evening.
Zeus Café’s décor is relaxing and elegant, with people-watching windows on all sides, chandeliers from Egypt, and a stained glass masterpiece which is actually comprised of musical notes from the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star.” In the center, there is an open kitchen with a large copper wood-burning oven. The menu is centered around farm-to-table ingredients. Many dishes are made from scratch on-site, including the must-try “house potato chips,” served with a variety of dipping sauces. The full bar includes not only McMenamins microbrews, but also an extensive wine list and house-roasted coffees. “Pre-prohibition era” cocktails are made with fresh juices and hand-crafted syrups. You can’t get “whatever you want” now, but everything you can get is house-made, fresh and likely from a local farm.
Downstairs is the dimly lit, mysterious Al’s Den, an intimate live-music venue named after the infamous vice overlord Al Winters, a close friend of Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Al Winters owned Club Mecca, which occupied the space in the 1940’s (Winters later opened The Sahara in Las Vegas). Al’s Den features “musicians-in-residence,” artists who play multiple gigs there. There are also DJ’s each week, and “Poison Waters & Friends,” a once-monthly drag show to show respect to the “gay triangle” of Portland’s past.
Upstairs, each rock-and-roll themed hotel room is centered around lyrics from a song by a past Crystal Ballroom performance. For a downtown Portland hotel, the rooms are incredibly reasonably priced, with king-size rooms which include their own bathroom starting at $143; queen sized rooms, which include a sink, and share a hallway shower and latrine with 3-4 other rooms, start at just $85. Room occupancy includes early entrance to music shows next door, and can even include tickets to sold-out shows (all hotel guests have the option to purchase 2 tickets to the show, up until 48 hours in advance of their stay). Additionally, staying in a room entitles you to use of the soaking pool downstairs – a large, salt-water (not chlorine) hot tub in a soothing, bamboo-lined room. Don’t forget the comfy robe from your room!
The Crystal Hotel sits in the hub of many of Portland’s must-see activities, including the McMenamins Mission Theater (enjoy microbrews and pizza or burgers during the film!), Powell’s City of Books, downtown shopping, the Pearl District, and JELD-WENField – home The Timbers, Portland’s new Major League Soccer team.
McMenamins Crystal Hotel:
303 SW 12th Ave.
Photos courtesy of Liz Devine, McMenamins.