New Venue

Crystal Gazing

McMenamins opens the doors to the Crystal Hotel

By John Chandler April 27, 2011


Mr. and Mrs. Portland—it’s a McMenamins!

Press folks and prominent rubberneckers got to kick the tires at the new Crystal Hotel on Tuesday, wandering hither and yon through one of Mike and Brian McMenamin’s most ambitious projects to date. The refurbishing of the former gambling den, psychedelic rendezvous, and gay bathhouse at SW 12th and Burnside is nearly complete, with artistic nods to the building’s checkered past festooning every square inch of real estate. It’s a bit overwhelming, but the unifying aesthetic throughout is thoroughly McMenamin: the whimsical, impressionistic paintings, calligraphied song lyrics, and rock posters are the decorative elements in what otherwise resembles a very dark-hued youth hostel. The 51 rooms are hippie spartan, with no TVs and mostly no loos (though guests are welcome to slap their iPods on the clock radios next to the beds). There are 17 rooms on each floor along with 4 communal baths, so between answering the call of nature and the narrowness of the hallways, guests will have plenty of opportunity to rub elbows and get to know each other a little better. "It’s a rock and roll hotel," announced one of the helpful tour guides. Indeed.

Speaking of which, each room has an artfully rendered song theme by an artist that’s played at the Crystal Ballroom at some point in time, all the way back from Little Richard to the Decemberists. I got a chance to check out the calligraphy and painted headboards in rooms dedicated to Junior Parker, Allen Ginsberg (he was here in 1967—I did not know that), Wilson Pickett, Built to Spill, Black Keys, Avett Brothers, and more, and I have to say that the overall effect is pretty damn charming—like spending the weekend with your rambling hippie uncle who used to be a roadie for Quicksilver Messenger Service. He tells the same stories over and over but at least he’s got good weed.

On the ground floor, the brand-new Zeus Cafe feels historic and homey, especially when the sun shines through the stained glass windows. It’s a welcome change from the polished sheet metal found in every other minimalist-industrial eatery in town. Again, it’s a very narrow walk through the room, so everyone should step lightly. Judging by the appetizers spread around the room, I can safely say the food is a several notches above standard McMenamins pub grub. The flatbread pizzetta with clams and prosciutto was a smoky-salty crowd pleaser and the crun-chewy flash-fried chips came with a trio of lively dipping sauces.

And now, on to the basement where you can find Al’s Den, a dusky grotto that’s like a subterranean speakeasy with a few tiki touches. Down the hall there’s a long serpentine soaking pool in a room lined with bamboo. If there is any justice in this world, guests should be able to drink from plastic cups while splashing about. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Final assessment: Hell yes, I’d stay here.

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