It wasn't always like this in Eugene's Whiteaker neighborhood.
A former working-class district that later became a hippie haven, “The Whit” — named for Oregon's first governor, John Whiteaker — was once considered a dangerous area for the average person to wander.
Located west of the Washington-Jefferson Street Bridge and north of Eighth Avenue, about a mile northwest of downtown, the Whiteaker has recently become identified as Eugene's primary brewery district. Several craft breweries, including Ninkasi, Hop Valley and Oakshire, have established themselves within a few blocks of one another in The Whit. And more are on the way.
A mix of residential and commercial structures, the Whiteaker became a magnet for counterculture in the late 1960s. By the 1980s, it had attracted a significant homeless population as well, and with that an increase in drug arrests and violent crimes.
But a community council ignited local activism, which led to citizen vigilance in the district as well as the building of a spacious new park.
By the 1990s, the Whiteaker had earned a reputation as a center for radical politics and anarchism. Along with staunch environmental and animal-rights groups, anti-globalization and Occupy Eugene protests centered here, and over the years there have been several ugly confrontations with police.
But these same nonconformists have helped to make “The Whit” a vibrant hub of culture and the arts. Artists, musicians, writers, independent filmmakers, community gardeners, creative restaurateurs and others have established homes and studios on the quiet residential avenues north and east of Blair Boulevard. One can now safely wander the streets to see colorful murals on the outer walls of 1930s-era homes and an eclectic mix of small businesses, residences and private galleries.
Sam Bond and Papa Soul
One of the Whiteaker's early residents was Sam C. Bond, who owned and operated a garage on Blair Boulevard at Fourth Avenue from 1926 to 1972. Bond's grandparents had come to Eugene as 19th-century pioneer homesteaders, and he honored his heritage by serving 12 years on the Eugene City Council and guiding the Blair Boulevard Commercial Area (a designated historic district) through the Great Depression.
Today, Sam Bond's Garage — yes, that's its official name — is a casual restaurant and night spot famed near and far for showcasing regional musicians on an almost-nightly basis. It has been so since 1995, recently earning accolades from Esquire magazine as one of America's best bars:
“You're in the family room of one of the weirdest neighborhoods in America — a shady, overgrown co-op of artists, eco-anarchists, spirit healers, drug dealers and permanently circling vagabonds. ... The strong-limbed waitresses circulate the beers in mason jars and smile, but only if they really mean it. It's like a frontier dance hall in a mining town where the vein's gone dry.”
What Esquire didn't mention is that Sam Bond's soon will be leaping onto the brewing bandwagon with its own beer. Owner Mark Jaeger and brewer Jim Montgomery are converting a nearby 1895 warehouse space on Eighth Avenue, called The Foundry, into a craft brewery whose production will be pouring from pub taps early next year.
Across the street from the Garage is Papa's Soul Food Kitchen and BBQ, a blues joint established here by the late Ted “Papa Soul” Lee. He opened the restaurant in 2006, having first made his culinary mark at a bright-red food cart at nearby Seventh and Polk streets. His death three years later shocked the neighborhood.
“People who you wouldn't catch dead in Whiteaker would go down to Papa's and ... stand in line to eat,” one local told The Register-Guard, Eugene's daily newspaper. “He was really helping Whiteaker to turn around.”
Within three blocks of these businesses, up and down Blair Boulevard and intersecting Van Buren Street, a curious mix of restaurants and other businesses prevail.
There's a traditional Japanese bar and cafe (the Izakaya Meiji Co.), a vegan pizza restaurant (the Pizza Research Institute), two other vegetarian cafes, as well as Thai, Mexican-Salvadoran, Italian and a farm-to-table prix-fixe restaurant. Private residences are sandwiched between bakeries and ice-cream purveyors; the Red Barn Natural Grocery occupies a repurposed dairy barn, and around a corner is the lively Eugene Whiteaker International Hostel, which for years has provided budget lodging to travelers from around the world or up the block.
Amidst all this is the Serbian Orthodox church of St. John the Wonderworker, its bulbous golden domes rising above a rust-red building beside Vanilla Jill's Scoops and Soups Cafe. Built in 1997 — three years after the canonization of John Maximovitch (1896-1966), a clairvoyant and healer who led congregations in Shanghai, Paris, Brussels and San Francisco during a 40-year career in the priesthood — its location appears to be incongruous with its surroundings. But that is certainly in keeping with the diverse nature of the neighborhood.
Into this mishmash in 2007 stepped Ninkasi Brewing. Only a year before, partners Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge had brewed the first batch of Total Domination IPA inside a leased German restaurant space in Springfield. So immediate and complete was the reception to this initial brew, Ninkasi established a 15-barrel brew house in the Whiteaker — a system that, six years later, has grown to 50 barrels.
A small tasting room opened four years ago at the front of the brewery building on Van Buren Street. Adjoining is a large patio area, covered by an open tent in winter, that serves as a public beer garden. The brewery doesn't have a kitchen of its own, but a rotation of local food-cart operators set up here daily to serve patrons.
Ninkasi beers are available throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska, as well as in San Francisco. In addition to the flagship IPA, the brewery produces a popular double IPA, a double red ale and oatmeal stout. And its various seasonal brews fill out a substantial selection.
Hop Valley Brewing Co. established a 15-barrel brewery and restaurant in Springfield's Gateway District in 2009, then added its large new 60-barrel production facility in the Whiteaker. The new First Avenue facility, its emerald-green facade marked by hop vines climbing ropes beside an outdoor patio, opened this summer.
Brewmaster Trevor Howard, an Oregon State University graduate and ex-Rogue Ales brewer, controls a flavor profile that is specifically “hop-centric.” I sat in the German-style beer hall and watched as the tasting-room bartenders drew from 25 separate taps — two dozen for beers, including Hop Valley's 10 signature brews, and one for cider.
My favorites were Alphadelic IPA — an orange-hued ale with a citrus rose, employing several hops varietals and two malts — and Howard's original Vanilla Bean Porter.
Oakshire Brewing, launched by brothers Jeff and Chris Althouse in 2006, wears its public face at its Madison Street tasting room, four blocks east of Van Buren near Second Avenue.
Also filled with large communal tables, it is unique in serving a new single-batch beer every week (it was a pink pumpkin ale on my recent visit). The release parties take place on Tuesdays.
Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk and lead brewer Tyler West (formerly of Bend's Silver Moon) don't work here, however. Their production facility is in an industrial district near the railroad tracks in Eugene's Bethel district. On the first Saturday each month, by appointment, they're glad to show visitors around the brewery.
Falling Sky Brewing didn't start out in the Whiteaker. Partners Jason Carrier, a scientist who formerly owned a home-brew shop, and Rob Cohen, previously an upstate New York restaurateur, launched the business in a vacated, back-alley garage in downtown Eugene in January 2012.
Utilizing the creative skills of lead brewer Scott Sieber, once of Rogue Ales, Falling Sky offers a non-repeating menu of beers — between 15 and 17 at any one time, from pilsners to chocolate stouts, according to general manager Josh Evert. The small-batch beers are produced in a seven-barrel, twin-kettle system: “We're not production-oriented,” said Evert. “Instead, we're tied to the experience of the space.”
It didn't take long before Falling Sky expanded into the Whiteaker. In July, the Falling Sky Pour House and Delicatessen assumed the lease on a restaurant at Eighth Avenue and Blair Boulevard. Long and spacious, the room accommodates more rustic communal tables, from which chef Corey Wisun and his crew deliver fresh and authentic Jewish deli cuisine in the New York style.
I found myself with a plate of veal tongue with kale and fresh chanterelle mushrooms on Israeli couscous, and it was amazing. “It's a Northwest take on an East Coast deli,” said Cohen.
Counting Sam Bond's, there are now a dozen separate craft breweries in greater Eugene, including one of them — Viking Braggot, which retains a small unit in an industrial park — that specializes in Norse braggot, a fermented blend of beer and honey (or mead).
Brewing connoisseurs who want to sample as many beers as possible will find a remarkable selection at the Bier Stein, on 16th Avenue at Willamette Street in downtown Eugene. At any given time, there are 30 international beers on tap, and nearly 1,000 — yes, you read that correctly — available by the bottle. They come from all over North America and, indeed, from all over the world.
But few of them have their roots in a neighborhood as quirky as the Whiteaker.
If you go
Next week: Woodinville, Wash.
Downtown Inn. 361 W. Seventh Ave., Eugene; 541-345-8739, 800-648-4366, www.downtownmotel.com . Rates from $53.99
Eugene Whiteaker International Hostels. 970 W. Third Ave., Eugene; 541-343-3335, www.eugenehostels .com . Rates from $25 (dormitory), $45 (private room).
Executive Motel. 1040 W. Sixth Ave., Eugene; 541-683-4000, 888-851-0943, www.executivemotel.net. Rates from $42.99.
Hilton Eugene. 66 E. Sixth Ave., Eugene; 541-342-2000, 800-937-6660, www.hilton.com . Rates from $114.
The Secret Garden Inn. 1910 University St., Eugene; 541-484-6755, 888-484-6755, www.secretgardenbbinn.com . Rates from $99.
Grit Kitchen and Wine. 1080 W. Third Ave., Eugene; 541-343-0501, www.gritkitchen .com . Prix-fixe dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Moderate.
Izakaya Meiji Co. 345 Van Buren St., Eugene; 541-505-8804, www.izakayameiji.com . Dinner every day. Budget and moderate.
Sam Bond's Garage. 407 Blair Blvd., Eugene. 541-431-6603, www.sambonds.com . Dinner every day. Budget.
Falling Sky Pour House and Delicatessen. 790 Blair Blvd., Eugene; 541-653-9167, www .fallingskybrewing.com/deli/. Lunch and dinner every day. Budget to moderate
Hop Valley Brewing Co. 990 W. First Ave., Eugene; 541-485-2337, www.hopvalley brewing.com . Also at 980 Kruse Way, Springfield; 541-744-3330. Eugene tasting room and Springfield brewery and restaurant are open lunch and dinner hours daily.
Ninkasi Brewing Co. 272 Van Buren St., Eugene; 541-344-2739, www.ninkasibrewing .com . Beer garden open lunch and dinner hours daily.
Oakshire Brewing. 207 Madison St., Eugene; 541-688-4555, www.oakbrew .com . Tasting room open lunch and dinner hours daily.
Other Eugene-area breweries
Agrarian Ales. 31115 W. Crossroads Lane, Coburg; www.agales.com . Tasting room open 3 to 8 p.m. Friday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Claim 52 Brewing. 1030 Tyinn St., Suite 1, Eugene; 541-554-6786, www.facebook.com . Tasting room open 4 to 8 p.m. Friday.
Falling Sky Brewing. 1334 Oak Alley, Eugene; 541-505-7096, www.fallingskybrewing .com . Tasting room and gastropub open lunch and dinner hours daily.
McMenamins High Street Brewery & Cafe. 1243 High St., Eugene; 541-345-4905, www.mcmenamins.com . Open lunch and dinner hours daily.
Rogue Ales Public House. 844 Olive St., Eugene; 541-345-4155, www.rogue.com . Open lunch and dinner hours daily.
Steelhead Brewing Co. 199 E. Fifth Ave., Eugene; 541-686-2739, www.steelheadbrewery .com . Brewery and restaurant open lunch and dinner hours daily.
Viking Braggot Co. 520 Commercial St., Unit F, Eugene; 541-653-8371, www .drinkviking.com . Tasting room open 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Gas, Bend to Eugene (254 miles, round-trip, at $3.30/gallon): $33.53
Lunch, Laughing Planet Cafe: $11
Lodging (two nights, with breakfast), Secret Garden: $216.81
Dinner, Sam Bond's Garage: $14
Lunch, Papa's Soul Food Kitchen: $17
Dinner, Izakaya Meiji: $12
Lunch, Falling Sky Delicatessen: $22