From its humble beginnings in 2006 in a Springfield pub, followed by a warehouse slot in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood, through exponential growth into one of the top producing breweries in the country, Ninkasi Brewing has gone through the most visible changes of any Eugene brewery. Now, Ninkasi brings it all back home with the opening of its Better Living Room, a decadent restaurant experience on the ground floor of its Admin building.
The transformation from all-purpose atrium into a fusion of midcentury decor and 21st century expressionism is exciting to witness in person. Walking in the front door from the parking lot, one is greeted in person and presented with several “living room” arrangements, literally. Don your corduroys and polyester patterns, and you’ll be part of an Eames era (or West Elm) catalog of bold colored vintage-style sofas and chairs, earth toned credenzas, and anything else you might have found in a sunken living room in 1966.
The Living Room Bar is counter service and open seating, where one can order a beer or a corny keg fill, order food, and hang out in comfort and style with a pint.
Beyond the Living Room Bar is the main restaurant space, which ties in well with similar colors, sturdy tables, and comfortable seating. The most impressive sight is the Rocket Bar, or rather what’s over the Rocket Bar (besides the rocket). Some have described it as a frog, or as the spider thing from Stranger Things (a more apt throwback reference, though far less ominous); either way, its organically shaped structure, soon to be outfitted with stage lighting, is enough to provide a sense of separation from the rest of the restaurant. The beer at the Rocket Bar is served from a center island, piped in from overhead so there are no draught towers popping up in the bar; it is an inclusive feel. There is a small kid’s play area, a mini living room, with comfy seats, books, and small, framed chalkboards. Music is broadcast from a real record player!
This is all what you see (and that’s not all, as there are impressive metal sculptures, produced by Eugene artist Jud Turner, on their way), and it’s clear that Ninkasi has pulled out the stops (and put in plenty of dough) to provide far more than the average pub experience. Full table service at a brewery is becoming rarified these days, so it is almost awkward to be seated and served, just like the good ol’ days (minus the ashtrays). Word of the transition from the Tasting Room to this space first got out in 2018, and it is an apparent relief that the doors are finally open.
Once acclimated and seated, the beer list is actually longer than the menu. Ninkasi is taking full advantage of its 5-barrel pilot brewery to fill the 40 taps, which also include cider and wine. Brewers take 3-month shifts on the pilot system, testing new recipes for the limited-edition Whiteaker series as well as full-scale brews for wider distribution; we enjoy the fruits of their labor. There are also a handful of bottles available; vintage Tripel, for example, or Alesong’s Rhino Suit (Ninkasi and Alesong recently entered a distribution agreement). Cider from Eugene-based WildCraft Ciderworks and Cyderish is also available.
Hang around the Eugene beer scene for long enough, and you’ll know that Ninkasi co-founder Jamie Floyd loves to geek out about beer and food; he’s hosted umpteen pairing dinners and given classes during Eugene Beer Week devoted to the subject, and been part of GABF’s annual upscale Paired event. So it follows that the food at a Ninkasi restaurant would not be left in the dust.
To the contrary, an experienced kitchen team was assembled, led by Andrew Hroza. He’s not only Le Cordon Bleu-trained, but has beer experience from a decade as Executive Chef at Goose Island and opening the Three Floyds/Mikkeller restaurant, Warpigs, in Copenhagen. Front- and back-of-house are coordinated by Las Vegas hospitality vet Sarah Johnson, now Chief Experience Officer (CXO), who was happy to return to her PNW stomping grounds.
The menu is divided in two sections, Smalls and Bigs, though the distinction between the two is vague. My dungeness crab toast was not Big, though it was a meal’s worth of really tasty food; it was a great pairing with Lady of Avalon Dark Lager, a tasty beer that returns to Ninkasi after many years, thanks to the pilot system.
My friend’s Critical Hit Croquettes, essentially fish ‘n chips in the form of fluffy, fried spheres dusted with toasted malt powder and served with caper aioli, were more than he could eat. Hama Hama oysters, a unique breed from the Olympic Peninsula, are available on the half shell or broiled “Ninkasi style.”
This is a first look; opening days are never the spitting image of what a place will become. Though the staff was still getting their sea legs, they were attentive, professional, and already well-versed in the vibe. Some sound insulation, lighting changes, and more decor are forthcoming, and the courtyard patio, I’m sure, will be done up by summer; the patio will allow dogs. Upon first visit, the experience can be a little overwhelming; with capacity for 144, it’s a large space, so take a deep breath. The Living Room Bar is a remedy for that bigness, even an antidote for thinking about the present at all.
Many have wondered what’s to become of the Tasting Room around the corner. Sarah Johnson indicated that it may be rented out for private events; it isn’t being dismantled save for the beer bottle light fixtures, which now sway over the Living Room Bar.
Aaron Brussat is a complex living organism with an interest in all things fermented. He started writing about and working in the beer industry in 2010. His experience stems primarily from spending six years at The Bier Stein as a beer steward, homebrewing since 2005, and passing the BJCP and Certified Cicerone exams. Highlights along the way include numerous collaborations with local brewers, curating beer dinners at The Bier Stein, and traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Peru, and New Zealand (as well as many parts of the U.S.) for a chance to drink beer at the source.