Expenses

Mileage, Bend-Medford-Ashland (round trip), 373 miles @ $2.30/gallon, $34.32

Hotel (two nights), Econolodge, Medford, $103.60

Dinner, Porters, Medford, $43

Breakfast, Punky’s Diner, Medford, $13.25

Lunch, BricktownE, Medford, $15

Dinner, SooRah, Medford, $25.99

Breakfast, Buttercloud, Medford, $14.09

Lunch, New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro, Talent, $38.25

Dinner, Alchemy, Ashland, $67.70

Hotel (one night), Timbers Lodge, Ashland, $66.48

Breakfast, Morning Glory, Ashland, $20.33

TOTAL: $442.01

MEDFORD — For a city whose population is only slightly less than Bend’s, and whose downtown sprawls across a much larger area, Medford’s dining scene has been anything but dynamic.

That has always seemed odd to me, as Medford sits at the heart of the Rogue Valley, Oregon’s second largest agricultural region after the Willamette Valley.

The Rogue has scores of farms producing all manner of leafy greens, root vegetables, fresh herbs, even organically grown livestock. There have been orchards here for well over a century, and more recently, vineyards have thrived. Harry & David, the largest direct marketer of fruits and food gifts in the United States, is based in Medford.

The long growing season is marked by hot midsummer temperatures. Farm-to-table production should be a natural.

In Medford, it hasn’t been. At least, not until recently. Even nearby Ashland, whose population of 20,000 is about a quarter of Medford’s, has more fine-dining establishments. No doubt, that’s due in part to the thriving tourism industry that has grown around the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But business travelers also appreciate fine dining, and Medford, as an important regional health care center, has more than its share of those. It’s taken the historic downtown area a little while to turn the corner on good restaurants, but recent urban revitalization — restored theaters, renovated hotels, a new home for Lithia Motors, one of the nation’s largest auto retailers — are paying dividends.

Medford dining

Porters Dining at the Depot is one of the city’s longest established fine-dining restaurants and arguably its best steakhouse.

Occupying the city’s historic 1910 train station, the mahogany-paneled restaurant still has the feel of an old depot, with a variety of room sizes for intimate dining. During warmer weather, Porters opens its tree-shaded patio that was once the platform beside the old railroad tracks. In an adjoining lounge, trivia contests yield $20 gift certificates for dining. My favorite entrée: ribeye steak with a green-peppercorn brandy-cream sauce.

Larks, in the renovated Inn at the Commons, combines modern twists on classic Americana fare with decor that recalls 1960s motor inns. Its scratch seasonal creations, from chefs working directly with local farms and foragers, include a winter squash ratatouille with wild-mushroom risotto. Executive chef Damon Jones oversees both the Medford Larks and another on the ground floor of the Ashland Springs Hotel, flagship of four regional properties owned and operated by the Neuman Hotel Group. (The others are the Lithia Springs Resort and the Ashland Hills Hotel.)

Elements Tapas Bar & Lounge, as its name might suggest, specializes in small plates. Located at the corner of Main and Front streets in the heart of the historic district, Elements serves Spanish-style tapas and paellas, complemented by an outstanding list of local and Spanish wines. I like the Sardinas de la Casa — large Galician sardines wrapped in house-smoked bacon and served on a tapenade of olives and almonds — and Basque artichoke hearts with Serrano ham and roasted garlic.

SooRah was my latest discovery, discreetly tucked into a too-easily-overlooked storefront. A dedicated Korean restaurant is something that Bend doesn’t yet have, but in just a couple of years, owner Paul Yeo and his chef wife have made this little cafe into something special. Most of the ambiance he provides himself, weaving between tables as he delivers savory kalbi ribs and bibimbap straight from the kitchen. I gorged myself on spicy pork bulgogi, a barbecue dish served with rice, kimchee and other side dishes, known as banchan.

The rustic, two-story 4 Daughters Irish Pub is always bustling with activity. To some regulars, it’s a sports bar, as football, basketball and hockey games seem always to be on the screens. To others, it’s a live music venue, with many of the region’s best musicians performing here on a regular schedule. To me, it’s a great place for a filling and modestly priced meal that reminds me of the British Isles. Irish stew, shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, and corned beef and cabbage are all on the menu, often to be enjoyed with a pint of Guinness.

The BricktownE Brewing Company — with a capital E — is a pleasant surprise. Perhaps Medford’s best brewpub, it’s a simple place comprising two low-ceilinged rooms flowing one into the next, in a historic building on Central Avenue. The microbrews (a dozen on tap) were great, like the Siskiyou Pass ESB and the Workin’ Gal BrownE that celebrates a brothel that once operated upstairs. And I was blown away by a daily appetizer special from chef Justin Haydock, a spicy shrimp plate with red and green peppers that was more than entree-sized.

A hip place for a drink is Jefferson Spirits, opened three years ago and named to honor the tongue-in-cheek State of Jefferson that would merge Southern Oregon with northernmost California. This is a whiskey bar whose mixologists are skilled in making craft cocktails. But the pub food is also excellent, from Caesar salads to chipotle meatballs, macaroni and cheese and other small plates.

Outside downtown

The Buttercloud Bakery & Café is across Bear Creek from downtown Medford, beyond Hawthorne Park, which means it’s well off the normal visitor routes. But locals know it for its light and fluffy buttermilk biscuits and for some of the best breakfasts in Southern Oregon. You may choose to go healthy here — a kale and avocado breakfast salad is topped with two eggs, sunny side up — or give your heart a jolt with “The Works,” a biscuit covered with ham, black pepper-bacon gravy and two eggs. Bacon-cheddar scones are also delicious.

Punky’s Diner offers classic American diner fare in the Medford Center shopping mall. From its hearty three-egg omelets to its Memphis breakfast grits, from the Fonzie burger to the Mustang Sally melt, its mood is reminiscent of yesteryear. Most of all, though, Punky’s is a pie shop. Patrons can preorder from a choice of more than three dozen pies, including cream and meringue pies, and Punky herself guarantees 2 pounds of fruit in every fruit pie.

Jaspers Café is one of a kind, as far as burger joints go. No fewer than 30 choices are listed on the menu, including the War Pony (peppered lamb and orange-coriander bourbon barbecue sauce), the Buffalo Bill (free-range bison), the Garlic Bleu (elk), the Bushranger (wild camel), the Jackaroo (kangaroo), the Charlie Prince (Asian axis deer) and the Jiffy Burger (peanut butter and raspberry chipotle). Other sandwiches, hot dogs and salads are not quite as adventurous, but Jaspers does serve Canadian poutine and 27 flavors of shakes.

Jacksonville

Just 5 miles west of Medford, the small town of Jacksonville — designated a half-century ago as a U.S. National Historic Landmark — has a variety of interesting restaurants in its 19th-century brick buildings. The Jacksonville Inn has a dozen bed-and-breakfast suites in its historic hotel and nearby cottages, along with an elegant dining room that for many years has been the region’s top choice for romantic dinners. But there’s now plenty of competition.

Brothers Gabriel and Jonoah Murphy own Gogi’s, located at the foot of the hill upon which the acclaimed Britt Festivals are staged each summer.

The menu here is decidedly upscale, designed to please diners who enjoy classical French stylings of farm-to-fork recipes like cider-brined pork chop and pan-roasted Pacific cod.

A new kid on the block is Onyx, a “refined gastropub” at the lovely Nunan Estate. Chef-owner Mario Chavez was raised on a ranch near Medford, but his Mexican heritage is perfectly folded into his menu, which includes chipotle sopes rojos along with prawns scampi.

The Frau Kemmling Schoolhaus Brewhaus is a wonderful example of historic adaptation. An authentically Bavarian restaurant with a biergarten and five outdoor patios, its menu features all manner of traditional dishes, from wursts to strudels, and its German-style beers keep pace. It occupies the basement of Bigham Knoll, a 1908 school on a 7.5-acre campus that is only now completing an eight-year renovation, complete with an organic garden and children’s playground.

Ashland area

My go-to restaurants in the Shakespeare-happy town of Ashland have long been The Peerless Restaurant, in the Railroad District, and Amuse, on a side street near downtown. The community also has several fine brewpubs, notably Standing Stone Brewing and the Caldera Tap House. Liquid Assets is a wine bar with an interesting small plates menu, and a series of cafes with patios overlooking Ashland Creek, where it flows from Lithia Park, make fine lunch stops.

On my most recent visit, I discovered two more spots where I had not previously dined.

The Alchemy Restaurant & Bar is located within the Winchester Inn, one of Ashland’s original, and still among its best, bed-and-breakfast inns. Owners Michael and Laurie Gibbs opened the inn in 1983; their son, Drew, born in Ashland a year later and now a certified sommelier, transformed the casual restaurant into Alchemy just a few years ago. He and executive chef Billy Buscher, also a Rogue Valley native, are now using sous-vide techniques in a menu that ranges from seared duck breast to house-made ravioli.

Morning Glory is a delightful breakfast-and-lunch spot opposite Southern Oregon University, less than a mile from downtown Ashland. Diners in the know will line up for a table or settle for a stool at the counter. With good art, good music and plenty of reading material available, this is a community gathering spot. My gourmet rock-shrimp omelet with a whole-grain pecan waffle was superb.

A short drive north of Ashland in the direction of Medford, but on Pacific Highway rather than Interstate 5, is New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro. Technically located in the little town of Talent, New Sammy’s has been a landmark restaurant since it was opened in 1989 by chef Charlene and wine-expert Vernon Rollins, and named to honor their 2-year-old son. Now, the 10-table restaurant and its kitchen gardens are being offered for sale. With a price tag of $1.3 million, it may not go fast — but diners who love the Rollins’ menu had better hurry over before their retirement is complete.

Other producers

Harry & David (now owned by 1-800-FLOWERS) is Southern Oregon’s largest nonmedical employer. Renowned for its food and gift baskets, the company employs 1,700 Oregonians year-round and 6,700 during the holiday season. Harry & David was founded in 1910 to sell Rogue Valley pears, and progressed to its mail-order business in 1934. Its baskets now include all kinds of fresh fruit along with wine, chocolates, flowers and plants.

The flagship Harry & David Country Village is located right next to the Medford-area visitor center, making it an easy stop for Southern Oregon visitors. In addition to fresh fruits and confections, the store has one of the area’s largest beer and wine selections, making it a great place to shop for Applegate Valley wines.

Harry & David has manufacturing facilities on the south side of Medford and more than 2,000 acres of orchards throughout the Rogue Valley. Visitors are welcome to tour the company’s candy kitchen — four times a day, Monday to Friday — to watch the production process.

You can meet the makers, as well, at the Rogue Creamery, on Pacific Highway in Central Point, just north of Medford. The first American cheesemaker to win Old World respect for its bleu cheeses, Rogue won World Cheese Awards for its Rogue River Blue in 2003 and 2012, and it regularly wins top awards in competitions with thousands of other cheeses.

The creamery offers samples of several varieties of bleu cheeses along with other cheese and additional productions. A display window looks into the small production facility, enhancing the experience with an interpretive video.

Across a parking lot from the creamery are a chocolatier (Lillie Belle Farms) that specializes in chocolate-covered bacon and a Rogue winery (Ledger David Cellars).

Indeed, there are more than a dozen wineries in the Medford region, not even including the Applegate Valley west of Jacksonville. If I have a favorite, it’s the Belle Fiore Winery east of Ashland. An elegant chateau tasting room is open Wednesdays to Sundays, serving a range of varietals that often show Italian influence, such as a montepulciano and a full-bodied barbera.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com .

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