If you really want to know what’s going on in McMinnville, Oregon, these are people you should know — Nick Peirano, emeritus owner of Nick’s Italian Café, and Patrick Bruce, bartender extraordinaire at the nearby Thistle restaurant.
You’ll typically find Nick dressed in T-shirt and suspenders with pool cue in hand, holding court in the lounge at the rear of the venerable Third Street restaurant that bears his name. He opened Nick’s Italian Cafe 40 years ago, having recently arrived from San Francisco’s East Bay, unaware that a wine industry in its infancy was springing up in the hills that surrounded this town.
That wine industry grew and grew, as the pinot noir grape became synonymous with Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Today there are about 700 wineries in the state, perhaps two-thirds of them within an hour’s drive of McMinnville. Once noted mainly for walnuts and turkeys, the erstwhile farming community is now a town of 37,000 whose biggest annual event is the International Pinot Noir Celebration at Linfield College each July.
If you find Nick in the Backroom Bar, as you will most evenings, he may introduce you to some of his winemaker buddies as he racks another table: Even as dozens of other great restaurants have exploded dining options in the Oregon wine country, Nick’s remains the ultimate hangout for winemakers and wine lovers.
Nick is 70 now, but he’s always up for a good conversation. He stepped back from the day-to-day business 10 years ago, when he turned the restaurant over to his daughter, Carmen Peirano, and her husband Eric Ferguson. Next door, the Peirano & Daughters market and deli offers house-made charcuterie in an appetizer buffet. The food is great, the wine list even better.
Dining at Thistle
Among McMinnville’s newer bevy of restaurants, none stands out like Thistle. Established in 2009, Emily Howard’s intimate, 24-seat restaurant (open Tuesday to Saturday) features French bistro stylings on locally harvested game, poultry and seafood. For vegetarians, there’s always a variation of gnocchi. A recommendation: You must always, always, choose the sablefish (black cod) when it’s available. And you must always, always, make a reservation.
You’ll find Patrick Bruce stationed in the discreet bar, one door further down Evans Street. A native Chicagoan, he is now as much at home in small-town McMinnville as salmon are at home in the Columbia River. He’s a master of craft cocktails, a superb judge of local (and imported) wines, and a willing critic of both music and the human condition — qualities as important in a bartender as in a psychotherapist.
Ask Patrick what’s going on in McMinnville, and he may suggest you check out Howard Hughes’ famous aircraft, the “Spruce Goose,” at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum on the east side of town.
He may urge you to wander Third Street, if you haven’t already done so. McMinnville’s central avenue is one of the classic small-town main streets of America. For seven blocks from Highway 99W to the historic rail depot, there are many fine restaurants, like the Community Plate for open-kitchen breakfasts, Pura Vida Cocina for Latin lunches, Bistro Maison for authentic French cuisine, La Rambla for tapas and the Gem Creole Saloon for New Orleans-style meals.
Yet for a very long time, there has been only one hotel on Third Street. McMenamins’ Hotel Oregon is a modest and historic structure perhaps best known for the wild and wonderful UFO Festival it hosts each May.
Gratefully, change is afoot. On a recent visit, I discovered the Third Street Flats. These occupy the upper floors of two separate downtown buildings, with four apartments in the 1885 McMinnville Bank and seven more in the 1909 Odd Fellows Lodge. Priced beginning at $220 a night, these are full residences that accommodate two to six guests. Each suite is individually and delightfully decorated with art and furnishings by local artisans. Each has its own kitchen-dining area, bedroom(s) and separate living space, all stocked with local and green products.
Founder and world traveler Erin Stephenson plans the same approach to her new, bigger project — the 36-room Atticus Hotel, scheduled to open in May 2018. That will nearly double the number of guest rooms available in downtown McMinnville.
Stephenson and partner Brian Shea have teamed with my old friend Ben Perle — a former executive with the Oxford Hotels Group, educated at French and Ivy League universities — to be general manager of the Atticus. The hotel will be anchored by Bless Your Heart, an upscale burger joint from renowned Portland chef and cookbook author John Gorham.
It’s an exciting time in McMinnville. Nick and Patrick would be among the first to tell you.