May 23rd, 2018

The Taste of Place: Outdoor Dining in McMinnville Makes Everything Taste Better

Here comes the sun, everybody, and with it, one of those seriously Oregonic behaviors that are rooted in the intelligence of pure science:

Eating outside makes food taste better.

McMinnville has a king’s share of outdoor dining options, from the corner two-top tucked into the front of a restaurant to a long table at a hopping brewery.

These are the places that thrust dining into the realm of pure sensorial delight, where a simple meal becomes the equivalent of a full-body experience. The feathery touch of a light breeze, the changing light patterns as the clouds move across the sky, the tiny drama of a few ambling pedestrians walking by, the quietly shifting leaves of a plant growing right next to you.

Just look what happens to the perception of these signature dishes at restaurants in McMinnville when consumed al fresco. You might never be able to eat with a roof over your head again.

Bistro Maison, Burger

It is a burger that bites you back: Perfect ground sirloin molded into a disc and charbroiled to medium out-of-sight while you wait in a secret garden set on the right side of the train tracks. This burger comes with a warning: So much juice when you wrap your mouth around it the juices fly. Out of the corner of your eye, a hydrangea has unfolded its puffs like summer’s true cheerleader and at tables all around you, couples and families lean back in their chairs and speak in soft whispers. The crack of walnuts, a hearty laugh, the clink of wine glasses, it’s the soundtrack to that first big chomp into a burger to test your mettle. Are you a man or a mouse? Are you a woman or a wombat? In the shade, nothing is more sacred than the moment where you guard your lap from a burger that will ruin all others for you.

Valley Commissary, Chop Salad

Are you in, or are you out? You can be both. The garage doors are rolled up for tables set in sun or shade, the lunch scene a place where winemakers and town leaders pop in and out. A flurry of silent hands toss salads right in front of you, if you wish, and it is a salad of style and substance, no simple side but a full textural adventure in cured meats, chopped hazelnuts, pristinely boiled eggs, chickpeas, tangy sun-dried tomatoes, pickled red onions and blue cheese. Have you ever truly lunched before? Is salad the right name for this? Never before has a bed of greens held such contrast between soft and hard ingredients, nor been brought to life in a tiny mountain of flavor, color and texture. There it is, prepared with the intention of a monk, set before you, as casual as a picnic.

Pizza Capo, Margherita        
You know it as soon as you smell it: The old adage about even bad pizza being good pizza is wrong. You’ve lived your entire week for this. Maybe it wasn’t blood, sweat and tears. Maybe it was more like mild irritation, 20 too many emails and a flat tire. All is forgotten. The sun has nothing on the heat coming off the wood-fired oven where dough rises and crisps and sauce and cheese bubble just for you between thin strips of aromatic basil. What came first, the pizza or the dry-hopped sour? They do not compete, they work together, they take turns, on a patio where people like each other, where milling around feels like the point of it all. In the moment of tasting, you know it completely: To eat is to linger, to linger is to live, to live is to know, now and forever, that most other pies should fold themselves in half in shame by daring to take the name “pizza.”

1882 Grille, Onion Rings
Imagine for a moment what has had to happen for you to be here, on the edge of Third Street, just atop the treeline, not alone but with two families. Even in a town where it can be difficult to travel impromptu as a large party, 1882 Grille accommodates. Yes, there is room on the patio. Meanwhile, it is happening out of sight, behind the scenes. For the past 24 hours, plate of lowly onions has been bathing in a bath of buttermilk. Think of what magic might exist in a world where all vegetables are worthy of a trip to the spa! A thing of peasants becomes a dish for royalty. The crunch of breadcrumbs into the soft and savory beer-batter fried ring is proof enough: There is room in this life for every single ordinary thing to find its moment of glory.

Local Flow, Green Acai Bowl
From your perch on an orange Fermob chair tucked under an awning you have a perfect view of the scarf-swathed women moving in and out of Third Street’s tiny two-store Champs-Élysées, Mes Amies and Accessory Appeal. In a bowl before you,  so much more refined than a smoothie — cupped hands of of ice-cold, thick spirulina, apple, spinach and kale base with plump blueberries, thin-sliced bananas and the definitive crunch of granola. It is as if the Pacific Northwest took a South American vacation. Taste and texture, acid and sweetness, Oregon in a parfait. For a moment, you forget that you don’t actually know how to pronounce acai.

McMenamin’s Hotel Oregon, Tots
The path to the fourth floor of the Hotel Oregon exists to test you and your companion’s linguistic prowess. Take the test: Define McMenamin’s decor style in two words. Is it Vaudeville Eclectic? Casual Dream? Somnabmulist Whimsy? No matter, you are upstairs already and there is room on the top deck, the very top, where the view of the hills towards the Coast Range and across the farmland patchwork to the east remind you that you have made it to the Willamette Valley. Here the wind is like a caress, the street life a distant murmur. Order some tots and a beer and know the true meaning of feeling like you are on top of the world. The tots arrive fried crisp to a golden hue, piled high in a basket. Time stops as they move across the patio on the hands of your server. Everything goes silent until they are there on the table. Tots! It is as if gold has been mined from the deep caverns of the McMenamin’s kitchen and presented to you to marvel at as the sun warms your shoulders.


Emily Grosvenor is the voice behind Tiny Travels and the Editor of Oregon Home magazine.