Amid the river otters and the red-tailed hawks, between the outstanding art and history exhibits, there's another visit-worthy element of the High Desert Museum south of Bend.
The Rimrock Cafe is not fancy. It's not gourmet. But the salads are fresh, the sandwiches are generous and the house-made soups are tasty. There's no reason that a museum patron, with or without the kids, should feel any need to leave the museum merely for the purpose of dining.
Although the museum has been a part of the Central Oregon landscape since 1982, when it was founded by Don Kerr, there was no cafe here until late 1995. Its 15-year lifespan has seen a lot of changes, notably a brief stretch in 2006 and 2007 when the museum hired an executive chef to upgrade its culinary image.
Now, the Rimrock seems to have matured. Diners order at the counter, are given number markers, than wait for a short time for meals to be delivered to their tables. It's an efficient operation that keeps prices down and seems to keep everyone — patrons, staff and chipmunks — happy.
‘Please don't feed'
The chipmunks are not a part of the museum exhibits, but the indigenous rodents, who live beneath the surrounding aspens and pines, are at home on the Rimrock's outside patio. Despite signs that ask, “Please don't feed the chipmunks or squirrels,” the little animals seem to have no problem finding french fries and other snack items that may have “accidentally” fallen beneath tables.
The patio seats 60 beneath a retractable canvas awning. Indoor tables accommodate another 50 in chipmunk-free surroundings.
Here, a handful of framed event posters add a glimmer of atmosphere to a room dominated by the cafeteria-style kitchen.
When I first visited the Rimrock, I sensed a lack of organization in that kitchen area, as if some undeclared crisis had befallen the staff. The woman who took my order was unnecessarily brusque. On my return visit, this was not the case, and the cafe workers were all smiles.
The menu is simple: sandwiches and wraps (served with Sun Chips), soups, salads and cheese-and-pepperoni pizza by the slice. Several half-sandwiches for “Little Buckaroos” cater to the younger-than-12 set, as do cookies-and-ice cream desserts.
I've had the opportunity to try several items on the Rimrock menu, dining twice with companions. If none of the dishes were “to die for,” they were at least fresh and tasty.
A number of the plates have a Mexican flair. Chicken tortilla soup was a special one day. Like a mildly spicy gumbo, lacking only the okra, it was generously seasoned with fresh thyme and featured chunks of chicken breast meat along with onions, celery, carrots, bell peppers and tortilla strips.
The Rim Rockin' Chili is an everyday menu item. My order combined ground beef with kidney and pinto beans, tomatoes, green peppers, diced red onions and a shredded cheddar-cheese topping. It was very flavorful.
I think that this same chili was spooned into my taco salad, rather than having the ingredients cooked independently. That took the novelty away from a dish of which I had higher expectations. Big leaves of green lettuce were presented with meat and beans, black olives, minced onions, tortilla strips and melted cheddar cheese.
My friend's Rimrock salad suited her perfectly, however. Slices of applewood-smoked bacon were served with chopped ham, tomatoes and Swiss cheese upon a bed of green-leaf lettuce. Her choice of blue cheese dressing was presented on the side.
I enjoyed a daily sandwich special, a Santa Fe grill. Ham and Swiss cheese were grilled with red bell peppers and mild strips of Anaheim pepper on sourdough bread, dressed with a light chipotle mayonnaise. I would order this again.
A veggie wrap, in a spinach tortilla dressed with pesto mayonnaise, delighted my dining companion on another visit. It was stuffed so full of ingredients — lettuce, tomatoes, black olives, red onions, shredded carrots, roasted red peppers and Swiss cheese — that she took half of it away for a late-day snack.
Nothing on the Rimrock Cafe menu is priced higher than $8, making it excellent value for museumgoers.
It's also a stop worth considering by those passing by the entrance to the High Desert Museum on U.S. Highway 97. The museum waives its admission fee ($15 for adults, $9 for children) for anyone stopping by merely to dine at the cafe or visit the gift shop.
The Jackalope Grill now offers outdoor seating on a first come, first served basis. Hidden in a strip mall off Division Street and Reed Market Road in Bend, the restaurant specializes in Pacific Northwest cuisine, including elk, lamb and nightly seafood specials. Chef-owner Tim Garling hosts frequent special dining programs, regularly updated on the Jackalope website. Open 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday (closed Mondays beginning in October). 1245 S.E. Third St., Bend; 541-318-8435, www .jackalopegrill.com.
The Spice Box (A-): This new family-friendly cafe is operated by three women of East Indian heritage who serve “the same things we have on our Sunday dinner table.” There's no buffet table here; the short menu features mild vegetarian curries as well as chicken dishes and, occasionally, lamb. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday. 133 S.W. Century Drive, Suite 204, Bend; 541-419-2542
Thyme at FivePine (B+): T.R. and Jennifer McCrystal, the same couple who own Jen's Garden, have revamped the dining room at the FivePine Resort. Some dishes are superb, but preparations are inconsistent; service and ambience are fine but not outstanding. Open 4 p.m. to close every day through late September; same hours Wednesday to Saturday through May. 1011 Desperado Trail (FivePine Resort), Sisters; 541-588-6151, www.thymein sisters.com.
Dandy's Drive-In (B+): As they did when Dandy's opened in 1968, smiling servers roller-skate up to car windows to take orders for cheeseburgers and shakes. Other sandwiches pale in comparison to the burgers. The only menu is posted on boards above the covered 18-car parking area. 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. 1334 N.E. Third St., Bend; 541-382-6141.
The Original Kayo's Dinner House and Lounge (B+): Conjuring memories of 1982, when Kayo Oakley first opened a Bend restaurant, the new Kayo's opened May 1 in the former location of Rustic River Bar and Grill. It offers old-school service and ambience, along with solid preparations of steak-and-seafood favorites. The daily happy-hour menu is a real bargain. Open 3 to 11 p.m. every day (dinner from 5:30 p.m.). 145 N.E. Third St., Bend; 541-323-2520.
Location: 59800 S. Highway 97 (High Desert Museum), Bend
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, May through September (remainder of year, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day)
Price range: $3.50 to $8
Credit cards: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
Vegetarian menu: Several items; try the vegetarian wrap
Alcoholic beverages: Deschutes Brewery beers
Outdoor seating: Yes
Contact: 541-382-4754 or www.highdesertmuseum.org
Food: B+. Dishes are not gourmet nor especially innovative, but they are fresh and tasty.
Service: B. Busy staff takes orders at the counter and delivers food to tables.
Atmosphere: B. Indoor dining area is nondescript, but chipmunks add “life” to patio.
Value: A. Portions are generous and nothing on the menu is priced higher than $8.