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Eugene's Counter Culture

Oregon's second-largest city serves up delectable restaurants, thought-provoking art, and vintage pinball.

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  • A cold pour from Ninkasi Brewing Company, image
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    Seasonal brews pour from Ninkasi Brewing Company's taps.
  • Blairally Vintage Arcade, image
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    Pinball bumpers flicker at Blairally Vintage Arcade.
  • chef barbecuing Papa's Soul Food Kitchen, image
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    Dig into barbecue at Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen in the Whiteaker neighborhood.
  • Eugene Oregon skyline with Spencer Butte, image
    Photo caption
    Spencer Butte watches over Eugene.
  • Gourmet waffles with strawberries and avocado at Off the Waffle, image
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    Strawberries and avocado combine at Off the Waffle.
  • Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History, image
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    The University of Oregon campus is the home of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
  • Waiter at Papa's Soul Food Kitchen, image
    Photo caption
    Papa's Soul Food Kitchen offers mouthwatering chicken and waffles.

The lady next to me at Izakaya Meiji, a new Japanese restaurant in Eugene, Ore., leans in to offer a secret. I stop slurping my sumo hot pot and listen, taking a sip of sake.

“There was never a reason for me to come to this side of town,” she confides. “I mean, I’m just not . . . alternative.”

No, Lisa Wald, a small-business coordinator in a sensible microfiber blazer, doesn’t sport a Mohawk. She’s never hugged a tree or dabbled in veganism. In fact, she looks pretty darn mainstream, which until recently would have seemed odd around here.

We’re deep in the Whiteaker, the neighborhood about a mile northwest of downtown once infamous as a cradle for anarchists. But more recently the Whiteaker has become the center of a gentler counterculture movement—a culinary one, the kind that involves diner-style counters and the culture of creative food and drink. New restaurants and bars are drawing new visitors, leading the area’s transformation and signaling a citywide change.

“I think it’s always been a cool neighborhood,” says Ashley Hawkins, a farmer who bought an eco-activist hangout on West Third Avenue in 2012 and turned it into a fixed-menu restaurant called Grit set to open in May. “But now people are coming from all over town.” That’s no mean feat, considering that the food revolution transforming the Whiteaker has consumed the rest of Eugene as well.

Last year, Rob Cohen and his partners opened Falling Sky Brewing in an airy tractor-repair shop downtown, serving house-made charcuterie, seared terrine of country pork, and some 15 beers—not including the eight-root root beer. The trendy breakfast joint Off the Waffle,a new bakery called Noisette Pastry Kitchen, and fine-dining spots such as Belly are also salting life into the once-bland downtown. Last year, boutique hotel Inn at the 5th joined the eclectic offerings at the Fifth Street Public Market, alongside Marché, an upscale seasonal restaurant, and Newtwist, where stylish jewelry shares space with quirky housewares.

“Eugene as a whole is really coming into its own,” Cohen says. “It’s been a natural progression.”

This progression goes back 12,000 years. That’s when a catastrophic flood left rich soil deposits in the Willamette Valley, the fertile scoop between the Cascade and Coast ranges that town founder Eugene Skinner came west to farm about 150 years ago. You can taste that heritage in the tangy marionberries, creamy hazelnuts, and lush vegetables farmers bring to downtown’s Saturday Market at Eighth Avenue and Oak Street.

Today Eugene is both an intellectual haven and a workers’ town of 157,000, a medley of Wi-Fi– equipped Laundromats, secondhand shops, and eclectic bookstores.You’ll find quotes by famous people scattered around the city—Gandhi’s words etched in the floor of the Fifth Street Public Market, Vincent van Gogh’s on the entrance sign at Skinner Butte Park. Beatnik-hippie writer Ken Kesey went to school in Eugene, and concerts and plays sometimes grace the brick paving stones of downtown’s Kesey Square. At the Museum of Natural and Cultural History on the University of Oregon campus, a new interactive exhibit called Explore Oregon opening in November will display fossils and other relics of the state’s geologic past. To celebrate its 80th birthday in June, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art will show seldom-seen works.

In addition to its cerebral appeal, the city has a wholesome, active vibe. Joggers pound the woodchip paths of Pre’s Trail, a four-mile loop near the river in Alton Baker Park. Cyclists glide along the Willamette’s Riverbank Path System trails, and climbers choose from over 40 routes up the basalt columns of Skinner Butte. More meditative enthusiasts stop to smell the flowers at Owen Rose Garden, where on Thursdays visitors get hands-on instruction in pruning, followed by afternoon tea.

“It’s really easy to exist here,” says Bob Hart, executive director of the Lane County Historical Society and Museum, where the oldest, best-preserved prairie schooner in the state resides. “Everyone came here because they heard how good and healthful Oregon was.”

Despite the city’s many refinements, the scruffy soul of Eugene remains, especially in “the Whit,” as locals call the Whiteaker. You may see a few bleary-eyed sorts, although they’ll probably be saying hi to the white-collar workers digging into collard greens and gumbo at Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen. “You can’t tell whether someone is rich or poor in this town,” says Michael Sires, owner of Olive Grand, a downtown olive oil shop. “Some hippies make it. Some don’t. They don’t change their look.”

Maybe that’s because revolutions like these come with roomy bandwagons. I discovered this inclusiveness at the Ninkasi Brewing Company, the yeasty heart of the Whiteaker, where the neighborhood’s transformation began in 2007. There a tattooed bartender pulled me a pint of Smells Like Purple, a rare experimental brew redolent of fresh Meridian hops, while down the bar, a man in a ridiculous red top hat palmed a pint of Total Domination IPA. It seems impossible that this area was once a no-go zone, a place where a Mediterranean restaurant shut because anarchists kept smashing the windows. These days, the monthly Last Friday ArtWalk brings in big crowds; banks of old-school pinball machines jangle and flicker in the Blairally Vintage Arcade; and businesswomen in microfiber blazers can venture here comfortably for dinner.

I stuck my nose into my glass and inhaled deeply. Turns out that Meridian hops really do smell like purple—or maybe mauve. No wonder Ninkasi is packed with visitors and locals coexisting peacefully. In the end, who wants to overthrow beer?

Photography by Joni Kabana; Jeff Green/Eugene, Cascades & Coast (Spencer Butte)

This article was first published in May 2013. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.