The eleventh in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395.
It’s seven in the morning and it’s toasty inside The Rainbow Cafe in Pendleton, Oregon. Outside it’s, as my daddy used to say, colder than a well digger’s ass. That is, the temp is somewhere south of 30 degrees. I’ve never dug a well, and to the best of my knowledge, dad never did either, so we’re taking the well digger at his word.
Seated at the counter of the Rainbow it’s easy to feel the congeniality that’s a constant in small town coffee shops and diners. It’s a warmth that registers on no thermometer other than the one that resides in the human soul.
The room is filled with chatter and clatter; friends talking and laughing and the sounds of utensils on white china, all to the backdrop of goodness sizzling on a flattop. Comforting aromas fill the room. A nutty scent of coffee, a spicy, fennel tinged whiff of frying sausage, and the sweetness of maple syrup brighten the morning before the sun has cracked the horizon.
The front door creaks open, and there’s a barely discernible pause in the chatter as everyone turns to see another acquaintance walk in. A few hellos and how are you doings, all aided with some good natured joking as the newcomer heads for a seat. The waitress greets the man by name, and before he’s even seated she’s meeting him with a china white mug of coffee that trails a contrail of steam. She asks him if he’s “gonna have the usual.”
The Rainbow has been at the same location on Main since 1883, and bills itself as the oldest bar in Oregon. Like any claim of oldest or first, (Oldest steakhouse, first hamburger, original hotdog) this claim is a subject of debate between the Rainbow, and the Pioneer Saloon and Restaurant, somewhere down south in Paisley, Oregon. It’s doubtful that the argument will be solved over a sit down and some shots and beers. These types of claims, born from myth or time twisted facts, die hard.
It’s hard to know whether the Rainbow is a family cafe or a dive bar. It has elements of both.
The divey elements are here. There’s a pool table at the far end of the room and the back bar is adorned with some of the usual pithy dive bar slogans.
“Many a times, a man’s mouth broke his nose.”
“There will be a 5 dollar charge for whining.”
“Free beer – tomorrow.”
“Debate free zone. No politics or religion.”
“Send whiskey and fresh horses.”
Maybe the biggest divey giveaway is the old soul down the bar hunched over a 7 AM shot – and it isn’t espresso. I ain’t judging, I’ve been there brother.
And yet, the wood booths are nicely upholstered. No cracked, stained red vinyl. The stools at the bar are the typical diner style that you sit on when sipping a milkshake. Hell, I’d bring a school age kid here.
Maybe it’s a family place during the day that transforms after sunset.
I’m the odd man out, so I satisfy myself with listening to the chatter and looking around.
I could spend hours here and not spot all of the little odds and ends hanging from the ceiling and walls or sitting in an obscure corner of a shelf. That’s the way it is with these kinds of places.
An enormous moose head hangs over the back bar in front of me. It reaches so far out that it seems the beast could take a sip from my coffee cup. That is if the poor moose hadn’t ended up a trophy. The moose and I are nearly nose to nose. The moose wears a little green top hat, a relic of some long departed St. Paddy’s Day.
The moose is joined on the walls by other former mammals, along with a collection of photos, most of them black and white and aged, of Pendleton Rodeos, bygone, from previous times. Dive or family cafe, this place is first and foremost, western. Seems that all the old boys who come and go in this town, do so with a cowboy’s limp, faux or earned, in their gait.
Brenda, who’s working the bar, slides my breakfast in front of me.
“Anything else for you? Ketchup? Hot sauce? More coffee?”
“A splash of coffee’s good, thanks.”
Breakfast this morning is not avocado toast. My sense is that if you order avocado toast here or in any other cafe in this part of Oregon, you’d be asked to leave with the suggestion of trying San Francisco if you want such frou-frou fare.
Breakfast is chicken fried steak with fried eggs, served sunny side up. It usually comes with toast here, but I’ve finagled a biscuit.
Chicken fried steak is by far the best of the breakfast meats. Sure, I’ll get an argument from the bacon crowd. Bacon has a better publicist, and chicken fried is made from round steak, a cheap ass cut that, short of the hide and hooves, could be the toughest part of the cow.
Bacon? Throw it on the flat top and let it sizzle.
Round steak? Before cooking round steak you have to make it edible, and to do that you first have to beat the shit out of it with a studded mallet so that you don’t lose a molar tearing away at it. Once tenderized, dredged in flour and spices, and then fried, this ignoble guttersnipe of a cut has been transformed into chicken fried steak. After its been fitted for its golden brown coat, the steak is plated next to a mountainous, flaky biscuit, and both are drowned in sausage gravy, which is a thick as paste topping, made from a pond of sausage grease, copious bits of sausage, cream, flour and a generous dose of black pepper.
I cut a slice of meat and swipe it across the egg, making a soup of gravy and yolk. Better than sex, breakfast nirvana.
Is this unhealthy? You bet your ass it is, but if I’m going to die anyway, I’d rather that it’s from too much sausage gravy than, I don’t know – hemorrhoids?
The conversation between a couple of old boys off to my right is from a culture that I’m not familiar with. Farming machines, ranching things and implements, and a guy named Merlin who runs the snowmobile business.
And yet, some of it is universal.
“My granddaughter’s birthday is coming up.”
And some of it is good natured badgering.
“Brenda, can I have change for a dollar?”
“No! Tell you what! I’ll give you a hundred pennies.”
The joviality and familiarity here reminds me of something that is rare in the suburbs of San Francisco, where the tendency is to eat and run. Always something to do, somewhere to be, or someone to see.
Small town coffee shops and bars aren’t simply places where one orders, consumes, and then heads out the door with a quick wave and, maybe, a thank you. These cafes are community centers, where the locals finish their meals and then hang around to talk and argue – good naturedly of course. They gather around a couple of tables that they’ve pulled together and then they sip coffee and laugh, talk and shout about anything from the opening of a local business to the fortunes of the local Little League team to, yes, even politics. The server will occasionally cruise by the table to refill coffee and add her two cents to the conversation.
Ironically, it reminds me of restaurants in Spain. where diners graze on tapas and plenty of wine and then stop being diners, and just stay for and indefinite period of conversation. This was true not just in villages but in the major cities of Madrid and Barcelona. Go figure, Barcelona and Pendleton are, in one way, kindred souls.
Pull that shit in many a Bay Area restaurant and you’re likely to see some unhappy servers wanting to turn tables.
I’ve made it a habit on these road trips to try to strike up some conversation with servers or the person next to me at a bar or a cafe. That’s why I rarely sit at a table, opting instead for the stool at the bar. It’s usually up to me to initiate a conversation. This morning I decide to just soak it all in.
As I listen to the conversations around me, I’m reminded of just how big and how diverse this country is.
Out here, they speak a different language. Sure, it’s English, but the conversations are often about subjects, like ranching, that are completely foreign to me.
It’s diversity. A national trait that we hold dear and at the same time, wage a culture war on. We’re a country of so many different experiences and backgrounds. What I know about farming and ranching could fit in a thimble – with room to spare in the thimble. At the same time, the subway system that I ride on occasion, would probably have Merlin, the snowmobile guy, flummoxed and a little panicky. It’s all part of that thing called diversity. And snowmobiles and subways don’t even touch on our differences in schooling, religion (or lack of), what language we speak at home, where our grandparents came from, and what foods we prepare in our own kitchens. That’s all a drop in the barrel.
And yet, our foundations rest on common ground. A shared national story, a belief that America, at its core, has been, and can be, a place of promise. And don’t forget all of those personal similarities. Kids birthdays, sports, movies, hating Mondays and looking forward to Fridays, and that cherished right to be ourselves.
Sadly, somewhere in the continuum, a few people with bad intentions have convinced too many that diversity is a bad thing, that there’s something wrong with how the other person goes about being himself or herself.
The irony is that our diversity, as maligned as it has been lately, is the strongest, and longest lasting of our national foundation. It’s America’s toughest fiber, one that shouldn’t be allowed to fray.
Ha, I think, Cora always wags a metaphorical finger at me when I buy another t-shirt. “You have enough t-shirts,” she says. My response, even if it just resides in my head is, “One can never have enough t-shirts.
The t-shirts here are pretty cool and so I ask Brenda to add one to my bill. It’s black with a shamrock on the front and a logo on the back that says, “The oldest bar in Oregon.”
I’ll be sure not to wear it if I happen to step into the Pioneer Saloon and Restaurant, down in Paisley.
I leave Brenda a nice little tip. It’s what I usually do unless service borders on rude. I’m heading south today, leaving the Rainbow with a full belly and a new Rainbow Cafe t-shirt.
I’m taking 395 south as far as Burns, Oregon where 395 turns west. I’m detouring further south onto Route 205 to Frenchglen, Oregon, where I’ll be spending two nights at the Frenchglen Hotel. After Frenchglen, I’ll head back north to reunite with 395, which I’ll take south into California and then Nevada.