In Central Oregon's outdoor hot spot, the fun doesn’t stop when you come in from the cold.
Strictly speaking, bouillabaisse is a Mediterranean stew: tomato-based broth infused with fennel, herbs, orange zest, and saffron, usually containing an assortment of six or more kinds of fish. But calling such a divinely intoxicating dish a mere "stew" is gastronomic blasphemy. After all, Venus is said to have served bouillabaisse to her husband, Vulcan, to soothe him into a contented slumber while she slipped out to canoodle with Mars.
We mortals reportedly got the recipe from the Greeks, who brought it along when they founded the port city of Marseille around 600 B.C. To find the best bouillabaisse today, you could fly to Marseille and make your way to Chez Fonfon, a renowned seafood restaurant whose sunny dining room overlooks a picturesque fishing harbor. Or you could simply drive to Bend, Oregon, as I did on a ski holiday last winter, and head downtown to the Merenda Restaurant and Wine Bar.
There, in a renovated brick building that once housed the Periwinkle Home furniture store, executive chef Jody Denton puts bouillabaisse on the dinner menu every Thursday—and not just for his patrons. After the kitchen slows down, Denton has been known to pull up a stool at the long zinc-topped bar to restore himself with a steaming bowl of his own creation and a glass of rustic vin de pays from Merenda’s mind-boggling list of 90 different wines by the glass.
An innovative celebrity chef like Denton might seem a fish out of water in a town where haute cuisine once meant surf and turf, but in truth he’s just one of about 20,000 newcomers who’ve moved to Bend in the past six years, drawn by the opportunity to reinvent themselves in Oregon’s premier outdoor playground. Bend’s population now tops 70,000, roughly double what it was 15 years ago.
Not everyone regards such rapid growth as a boon, but the population surge has brought fresh ideas, energy, and investment capital that have revitalized Bend’s economy and its once beleaguered downtown. With a seven-story luxury hotel going up across from the old firehouse (reincarnated as Staccato, an upmarket Italian restaurant), and a proliferation of fine-dining restaurants, day spas, art galleries, and boutiques, the former mill town has attained a stellar reputation as one of the West’s vacation hot spots—a four-season, multisport haven where local diehards like to brag about being able to ski 25,000 vertical feet on Mount Bachelor before lunch and then go golfing or mountain biking in the afternoon.
Perhaps the most prominent symbol of Bend’s rebirth is the trio of now purely decorative silver smokestacks soaring above the old Brooks-Scanlon lumber mill. Outdoor gear retailer REI has transformed the mill’s brick powerhouse and boiler plant into a 28,000-square-foot emporium that’s a triumph of architectural preservation and a testament to the town’s outdoorsy obsessions. The store anchors the Old Mill District, a cosmopolitan mixed-use development with restaurants, shops, a 16-screen cineplex, deluxe townhomes, and the 96-room Ameritel Inn, whose stone-and-timbered lobby feels like the great room of a grand mountain lodge.
But the heart of Bend remains the historic downtown area alongside Drake Park, with its stately ponderosa pines and the still waters of Mirror Pond. Indigenous people used to congregate at this peaceful crook in the rushing Deschutes River before settlers found it a convenient crossing place on their journey westward. They christened the spot Farewell Bend, later shortened to just Bend.
In a 10-block area bordered by the one-way arteries of Bond and Wall streets, the city has taken pains to preserve landmarks such as the extensively renovated Tower Theatre with its neon-lit art deco marquee and a 1923 blacksmith shop that is now home to the celebrated Blacksmith Restaurant. Chef and co-owner Gavin McMichael, a Texas transplant, brought his "new ranch" cuisine to Bend in 2003—cowboy comfort food like wild mushroom bread pudding with seared tenderloin carpaccio and a supremely gooey flambéed dessert called fired-up s’mores: layers of peanut butter mousse, caramelized bananas, shaved chocolate, homemade graham crackers, and marshmallow.
Not far away, at Bond and Louisiana streets, the Portland-based McMenamins lodging and entertainment juggernaut bought the old St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School and cleverly transformed the campus into a hotel that includes a brewpub and restaurant, a movie theater filled with overstuffed couches, and an elaborately tiled Turkish soaking pool that’s open to the skies.
I shared the steamy pool one evening with a group of merry snowboarders, watching the snow swirl overhead, and afterward conked out in what was once Mrs. Julie Roberts’s second-grade classroom. Early the next morning, refreshed and ready for fun, I dressed for downhill skiing, noting that 30 inches of new snow had fallen overnight on Mount Bachelor.
The wind and snow never let up all day, nor did I. By 4 p.m. my legs were jelly—so thrashed that the following afternoon, I opted out of a three-hour snowshoe trek in favor of equal time at Jinsei, a day spa that opened in 2005 in a renovated church beside Mirror Pond. After soaking in a Japanese green tea and milk bath illuminated by a glowing chromatherapeutic light ("It has the same effects as acupuncture," says co-owner Katie Knotts), I wobbled upstairs for a facial and massage, and came out a new man.
Mount Bachelor was cloaked in the clouds for most of my visit but finally emerged on my last morning. Bathed in rosy dawn light, it loomed like a promised land of perfect ski conditions. I drove out the Cascades Lakes Highway toward Bachelor and, at the 14-mile post, turned off at the Virginia Meissner Sno-Park, named for a beloved cross-country ski instructor and naturalist. The skiing is free, and volunteers from a local Nordic club machine-groom 20 kilometers of separate tracks for skate-skiers, kick-and-glide duffers like myself, and snowshoers as well. All you need is a snow-park permit.
I started on the Pinedrops Trail and looped steadily uphill through the trees to the Meissner Shelter. I shared its crackling woodstove with local skiers ranging in age from 17-month-old Elliott, who’d arrived like a pasha in a covered pulk behind his dad, to 81-year-old Erling Elholm, a Norwegian-born marine surveyor who retired to Bend from Long Beach, Calif., 18 years ago and rarely misses a day of skiing.
It may have been their camaraderie, or perhaps an endorphin rush from my hard workout, but sailing effortlessly down Crybaby Hill toward my car, I felt a powerful surge of well-being—of having been renewed. Internationally flavored amenities like a Japanese spa treatment, Turkish soaking pool, and Marseille-style bouillabaisse may have amplified my buzz, but the newfound frills aren’t what brought Erling Elholm to Bend, nor what has kept him fit and young at heart.
The lifeblood of Bend is outdoor recreation, and that remains this boomtown’s main attraction.
This article was first published in January 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.