The Slug Queens sum up the spirit of Eugene. Every year the Oregon town hosts an alternative beauty pageant – coinciding with, but independent of, the annual Eugene Celebration – in which outrageously costumed contestants vie for the coveted title. The winners are marked out by a combination of anarchic creativity, wry humour and passionate commitment to their environment: the same qualities that makes this place so unique.
Two hours south of Portland, Eugene isn’t as urbane as that famously hipster city. This is a town of parks, trees and waterways, a hiking mecca that melds swiftly into the nearby mountains. It also feels slightly scruffy: a former hotbed of hippies and anarchists whose radical edge lives on in its environmental agenda. The single most important climate change case in the US law courts originates here, and the University of Oregon attracts social activists from across the country.
A short walk from campus is a revitalised downtown, with a 2,500-seat performing arts venue – the Hult Center – a modern theatre and three independent cinemas. “A few years ago, not many people came and hung out downtown,” says Gino Franco, production manager at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre, which expanded into its current space in 2012. “But thanks to the growing arts scene, and some new restaurants, it’s become a lot more friendly.”
A 10-minute walk away, in the gentrifying Whiteaker neighbourhood – referred to as the Whit – Eugene’s hippie culture can still be found, and Oregon’s legalisation of recreational drug use may help keep that spirit alive. There are still visible social issues to be addressed, homelessness in particular. But Franco says: “There are a lot of great services here for people who are going through life transitions, and I’m so glad I live in a community that’s open to this and willing to embrace people who are struggling.”
There’s something truly democratic about the late-70s design of Eugene’s publicly funded arts centre. Under its giant triangular roofs, an entirely glass frontage exposes the inside of the building, so it’s not just a vibrant sight come evening, it’s a place that begs you to walk into it. The Hult’s programming is equally accessible – it houses Eugene’s excellent resident ballet and opera companies but also hosts major national touring shows, ranging from Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots, to Loudon Wainwright III and Tori Amos concerts. Three smaller spaces complement the massive auditorium with comedy, cabaret and more (a number of NPR favourites visited in 2017 including Garrison Keillor, Ari Shapiro and S-Town’s Brian Reed) and the Hult is also responsible for the Cuthbert Amphitheatre, the 5,000-seat outdoor stage in Alton Baker park that holds gigs in the summer months.
• 1 Eugene Center (7th & Willamette), hultcenter.org
Despite the damp climate – there’s a reason their sports teams are called the Ducks – Eugenians will take any opportunity to get outdoors: as soon as the rain stops, the town empties and people head to the hills to hike, camp or kayak. And they’re not all using gallon-guzzling SUVs: the buses in Eugene have bike racks and run all the way to the Cascade Mountains, with the mountain-biking haven of Oakridge and bathing at the McCredie Hot Springs.
“You can ride your bike across the whole city in 20 minutes and get out of it in as many,” says Al Hongo, who hires out bikes and accessories at Bicycle Way of Life (from $24 for 24 hours). “We’ve got a really good network of cycle routes to help you navigate the roads, and you can ride up Skinner Butte for a view over the city.” For a pleasure ride, the Ruth Bascom trail along the river offers peace, quiet and an ingenious scale model of the solar system.
Runners will find plenty of friends here in Tracktown USA. The town has been an epicentre for athletics since the 1970s, when University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman and one of his student athletes, Phil Knight, invented a little shoe company called Nike. There’s a shrine to Bowerman’s greatest protégé, Olympian Steve Prefontaine, on the hill where he died after crashing his car at the age of 24. That was in 1975, but people still bedeck it with medals and running bibs.
Eugene’s stadium, Hayward Field, regularly hosts the US Olympic trials and a major renovation is under way ahead of the 2021 World Championships. It’s still open most days, though, to watch the student athletes train – or have a go yourself. Bowerman’s philosophy was that if you have a body, you’re an athlete and a Sunday morning fitness programme helps prepare locals for anything from a 5km fun run to the Eugene marathon. On the first Saturday of each month, the university also offers a free “run with researcher”, where graduate students and professors lead a tour of campus and tell you about their work.
Eugene didn’t have a gay bar until Colin Graham opened the Wayward Lamb two years ago, and there are plenty who’ll tell you it’s now their favourite downtown hangout full stop. It serves sweet and savoury pretzels to go with drinks, and the dance floor out back is popular with students and townies alike. Most important, however, is its welcoming atmosphere, with themed music nights, trivia quizzes and a popular all-ages drag show. The lip-sync battle nights are legendary – once a month there’s a $100 cash prize that draws a big crowd. No wonder the place is already expanding.
• 150 West Broadway, thewaywardlamb.com
The outside of Old Nick’s is unprepossessing and the inside only a little better. But this is a genuinely lovable dive bar thanks to its owner, Jevon Peck, who knows how to make you feel instantly at home. He’s also a decent chef, says Michelle Loew, who works at Eugene’s best literary hangout, the Smith Family Bookstore, with branches downtown and on campus. “He makes a killer Tempeh Reuben (sandwich),” says Loew, “and you don’t want to miss his Chinese ribs night on Tuesday.” There’s music most nights, although it’s mostly punk and heavy metal, and for the truly curious there’s a weekly “Weirdo’s Open Mic”, where literally anything goes, from experimental poetry and performance art to sword swallowing.
• 211 Washington St, oldnickspub.com
“Eugene has this magical ability to straddle the line between quiet country town and big city,” says Al Hongo. “So we have some really quaint hole-in-the-wall bars, and then we have something like Bier Stein, with an international beer menu.” Bottle fridges line one entire wall of the huge beer hall, offering craft beers from across the planet, while giant screens above the bar tell you what’s on tap with the up-to-the-minute precision of a flight departure board. Eugene’s own tipples are well-represented – from Ninkasi’s flagship IPAs to the many flavours of Wildcraft Cider, made from local fruit surplus. And if there’s a long queue, you can take a table and order through a mobile app.
• Willamette St, thebierstein.com
There are several Japanese restaurants in Eugene – the locals put it down to the student population – but there’s only one that’s a must-book. “It’s by appointment only,” warns Loew. “You can’t just pop in and expect to get served.” The tiny room, which seats 16, serves killer sushi (try the red snapper with jalapeño and white onion vinaigrette); the chef’s choice starts at $20 a head. The best seat is at the bar, where you can listen to gregarious owner Taro spill outrageous secrets from the open kitchen. “I don’t think Eugene’s a place for ‘cool’ people,” he says. “It’s a place for people who really care about community.” For another fun dining experience he suggests Izakaya Meiji, which pairs Japanese small plates with whiskey.
• 541 Blair Blvd, on Facebook
Falling Sky is a brewery whose ideas stretch far beyond beer. Its pour house incorporates a Jewish deli where everything, from the sweet potato latkes and matzoh ball soup to the house-cured pastrami, is homemade. (The pastrami’s also available for bike delivery to your home until 10pm every day.) The pizzeria serves a full menu of pizzas whole and by the ($4) slice on a prime campus location, in the Erb Memorial Union building. The recently renovated union building is a beautifully realised public space where students work, eat and hang out, and you’re welcome to join them. You might also recognise the canteen from John Belushi’s food fight in the film Animal House.
• 1395 University St, fallingskybrewing.com
Try to ignore the name, which sounds like a stripper bar. Party Downtown is actually one of the most sophisticated and sustainable restaurants in the city. On the wall above the kitchen is a blackboard that lists the three dozen local farmers and suppliers the owners source their organic ingredients from, making delicious dishes like charred brie and stuffed squash skins and the best brussels sprouts you have ever tasted (all around $8). It’s in the same building as Red Wagon Creamery, whose grown-up ice-cream flavours include pickled plum and mascarpone, and a mint chocolate chip that isn’t green and actually tastes of mint.
• 64 West 8th Alley, partyeugene.com
The eclectic selection available at the House of Records store suggests Eugene has a pretty broad-minded approach to music. “It’s a very supportive scene,” says Matt McCallum, a bass player (and former marine) who works there. “It’s often other musicians making up the crowd.” One of his favourite venues is Hi-Fi, which opened downtown a couple of years ago and now competes with the more established McDonald Theater for the bigger acts. “They have a nice set-up – a main floor and a lounge and even an outdoor area, and I’ve been there when they’ve had three events going at once, which is kind of wild.” The Chaiyo food truck outside sells the best Thai in town for $8 – but be warned, the chillies are much in evidence. Maybe ask for a mild.
• 44 E 7th Avenue, hifimusichall.com
McCallum says the local band scene – groups such as Pancho + the Factory, Sacred Trees, Critical Shakes – tend towards psych rock. But there’s also lots of folk stuff happening, too.” Sam Bond’s has been the cultural hub of the Whit district since 1995: an old garage converted in the mid-1990s to a modest bar, offering a wide range of Americana acts to watch while sipping one of its own microbrews. It hosts an open bluegrass jam every Thursday, and there’s even a bingo night on Mondays. Also popular is the John G Shedd Institute, a non-profit venue that programmes all manner of roots music including jazz, classical, acoustic and blues.
• 407 Blair Blvd, sambonds.com
The Veterans Memorial Association building – The Vets Club – is one of those places that maintains Eugene’s small-town vibe. Musician Rich Glauber says: “Thirty five years ago we used to come here and there’d be a polka band, and the women would be wearing chiffon dresses. Now on any given night there’ll be a swing class in one room, ecstatic dance in another, and, of course, the blues night downstairs.” Mac’s has live music five nights a week and has established a well-respected blues scene over the past 15 years – “we have people seek us out when they come through town,” says owner Patrick McCallum. Even its Tuesday night jams draw a big crowd. “Usually you’ll be hunting for a table,” he warns.
• 1626 Willamette St, macsnightclub.com
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