PDX Postcard: The Benson
By Julie Snyder
While Portland prides itself on an eclectic collection of hip hotels, the city is just as proud of its lodging with a vintage vibe. No longer hipsters, our favorites fall in the latter category.
There’s Hotel deLuxe, an art deco homage to Hollywood, with its gorgeous high-ceilinged Gracie’s restaurant and alluring pocket-size Driftwood Bar (excellent martinis). And the Heathman Hotel, our go-to spot for drinks and dining before or after performances at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall right next door.
But it was the The Benson that got the nod for our first Portland staycation, a surprise mini-getaway for my husband’s birthday. Not only is the hotel among the city’s most handsome and historic hostelries, it’s also home to El Gaucho, a classic steakhouse with Argentinian flair. Where better to celebrate my handsome husband’s historic birthday?
Joe was completely surprised when we walked up to the front desk in the Benson lobby, a haven of gleaming wood, plush furnishings and hushed ambience. Surprise turned to delight when we entered our 9th-floor suite and I pulled a bottle of champagne out of my bag. And delight became euphoria when I announced that we had 7pm reservations at El Gaucho.
“Best birthday present ever,” he proclaimed. A stretch perhaps, but as long as it was the best birthday present this year, I was happy.
The Benson celebrated its own milestone birthday—100 years—not long ago. It was 1913 when lumber baron Simon Benson conceived and constructed what was called the New Oregon Hotel as an annex to the neighboring Oregon Hotel. The property quickly became known as the Benson and in 1959, expanded to include the site of the by-then-demolished Oregon Hotel.
The exterior features French Second Empire style with glazed terra cotta and brick and soaring, arched lobby windows. A French mansard roof with dormers caps off the classic structure. The 50-foot glass-and-steel marquee above the main entrance, particularly grand for its time, was replicated during a $17-million restoration project in 1991.
Inside in the expansive lobby, a coffered ceiling, crystal chandeliers and a sweeping Italian marble staircase are swoon-worthy. But it’s the wood that really wows. Benson imported a rare, now extinct Circassian walnut from the forests of Imperial Russia. The Czar’s price tag was as breathtaking as is the wood, still sleek and glossy. The lobby is home to the Palm Court restaurant and a distinguished bar perfect for sipping a vintage cocktail or craft beer, as well as cozy conversation and reading areas and a fireplace.
Fresh off a two-year, $14-million renovation, Benson boasts 287 guest rooms, including 47 junior suites, seven penthouse suites and two grand suites, plus two opulent ballrooms and a host of other well-heeled spaces for weddings and other events. Les Clefs d’Or Concierge services and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places add to the hotel’s renown.
Settling into our spacious suite, we popped the cork and sipped champagne while marveling at the shadows consuming the skyline as the sun slowly dropped behind the city’s West Hills. Understated in soft grays and browns, the decor was as peacefully quiet as the room, with barely a whisper of noise from the city or other guests.
We didn’t even hear the jungle drums, which surely had been beating in the interim as it seemed that everyone in the hotel–save the conventioneers on the elevator–knew it was Joe’s birthday. The front desk clerk, the concierge, the restaurant hostess, the smiling young man who filled our water glasses. By the time we settled into our cushy booth at El Gaucho, replete with birthday card, we almost expected the entire restaurant to sing “Happy Birthday.” Thankfully they didn’t, but still, the universal acknowledgment was a nice touch.
El Gaucho teamed up with the Benson in 2000, transforming the former Trader Vic’s into a candlelit refuge of venerable traditions—tuxedoed wait staff, table-side service, live flamenco music, relaxed dining—even a cigar lounge. The original El Gaucho opened in Seattle in 1953 and closed in 1985 after the owner passed away. The brand was reincarnated as El Gaucho Hospitality and includes several restaurants in the Northwest, all brimming with nostalgia—and fabulous food.
El Gaucho is the one place that my meat-and-potatoes man detours to lobster tail, while I always indulge in the ultra-tender, flavor-bursting filet mignon. It’s all about the grill. We fell in love with parrilla-grilled foods while traveling in Argentina. El Gaucho prepares aged meats on its own version of a charcoal grill in an open kitchen. If desired, the knowledgeable staff talks diners through “doneness options” to ensure meat is cooked with exactly the right amount of pink.
Once we’d added favorite sides to our order—classic wedge salad, garlicky scalloped potatoes and freshly creamed spinach—plus big red wine from an extensive and well-sourced list, Joe didn’t care how many candles were on his birthday cake.
Though we didn’t actually eat cake. Rather we upped our calorie count with Bananas Foster prepared tableside. El Gaucho’s menu is designed for performance. Whether the task is salad tossing, bake potato topping, steak slicing, lobster extraction or dessert flaming, there’s a well-stocked cart ready for deployment.
We asked our Bananas Foster chef—between bursts of flame and wafting rum—if he’d gone to dessert school to hone his skills. He confided that, after basic instruction, he’d been turned loose with the cart. It took him a month to perfect his formula for the decadent butter/sugar/rum/spice concoction that he drizzled over a length of banana and scoop of vanilla. Perfect it he did. We all but licked our plates.
After our several hours of gastronomic indulgence, it was heaven to have a luxurious room just an elevator ride away. The bed was blissfully comfortable and the next morning we could easily have ordered room-service breakfast and lounged until check-out at noon. But Joe wanted to sample the waffles at the Palm Court (thumbs up), and this was still his birthday celebration after all. After lingering over coffee and the newspaper in the airy eatery, we left the lovely Benson behind and headed home.
We’ll be back next year. Why mess with tradition, especially such a delicious one?
Visit The Benson, Portland, OR
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel, and the Green Bay Packers.