If These Walls Could Talk: Zeus Café & Crystal Hotel
By Kathleen Squires
October 30, 2013
If the walls in restaurants could talk, what stories would they tell about the people who passed through and the events that occurred there over time? Restaurants, like an old, venerable relative, can be full of fascinating, quirky and sometimes sordid tales of the past. In our new series, we uncover some of those intriguing histories.
Anyone familiar with the McMenamins brand knows that the Oregon-based group has a fondness for reclaiming historic properties. Their Kennedy School in Portland, for example, once an elementary school that dated to 1915, is now the site of a hotel, restaurant and brewery; and their property at Edgefield, OR - now a compound featuring a hotel, restaurants, brewery, winery, distillery and concert venue - was a poor farm for seven decades. The brand is so into history, they even have two staff historians who are not only responsible for uncovering the lore of a site, but for collaborating with designers and artists in order to incorporate the past into the property. “There's so many ways we use this history,” says Tim Hills, a McMenamins historian. “The first connection is always with the artist. We gather, sort through and lay out the most interesting, significant, odd, and just remarkable components of a new project, and then, pass that along to the artist with photos and such so they can interpret it and depict it in their own particular style.”
The Crystal Hotel, which houses the popular restaurant Zeus Café and the music venue Al’s Den, has one of the more colorful histories of the McMenamins properties. The building dates back to 1911, when it was erected as the Hotel Alma on the site of a former logging ranch. While there were residential lodgings on the upper floors, by the second decade of the 20th century, the ground floor was originally used for purveyors of auto parts, as the strip became known as “auto row.” World War II changed that: the rationing of metals, rubber and parts caused closure of the auto shop, ushering in an era of nightclubs and shady dealings within them.
The first was Club Mecca, financed and operated by Al Winter, who the FBI dubbed, “the vice overlord of Portland” because of his control of gambling and most of the rackets in the area. “He had quite an operation going here until the reform movement came in the late '40s,” Hills says. “And that's when he headed down to Las Vegas to continue his empire, opening the Sahara Casino, then Lucky Strike and the Mint, working with notorious mobsters such as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.” When Winter went off to Vegas, the Club Mecca space was taken over by Nate Zusman, who renamed it the Desert Room. Nicknamed “Zeus,” Zusman enhanced the gambling operations with a call girl service. The madame housed the ladies across the street; Zusman would “order them up” for his clients at the club.
“The thing about the Desert Room was that it was a place where every walk of life just would come and sit side-by-side with one another,” Hills points out. “Criminals coming into town knew that's where they could make connections; you had the prostitutes looking for Johns. And you had the cops coming in because they knew that's where they could keep an eye on the criminals and find out what's going on. And then, you had regular people coming in for an amazing meal.”
Though there were seamy antics on the ground floor, upstairs was still home to residents leading normal lives. The Zakojis, a Japanese family that had been released from an interment camp, was one of the families that moved in upstairs. They managed the hotel, from 1946-1962, living among local brewery workers and artists.
Downstairs, however, “Zeus,” from whom the current-day Café Zeus takes its name, also started to book some bands. “Zusman was a thief, a fence and a pimp, and by all accounts he ran one of the most fascinating night clubs Portland has ever seen,” wrote Phil Stanford in his book Portland Confidential: Sex, Crime and Corruption in the Rose City. “Zeus” had a connection to the Detroit music scene and in the 50s and 60s started to bring in musicians, such as Dave Hamilton and Charlie Gabriel, who were largely responsible for the birth of Motown.
At that time, however, there was another reform movement afoot in the US; this time it focused on labor vice connections, and Portland was at the forefront of the Robert F. Kennedy investigation. “Zeus” was brought to Washington in 1957 to testify; the proceedings were aired on national television and the country was treated to an “Abbott and Costello routine. Zusman made a mockery of the whole thing,” Hills explains. After Zusman talked circles around Kennedy, the investigation amounted to nothing but a whole lot of bad press for Portland.
By the 60s, the neighborhood had changed, and the nearby Crystal Ballroom had become known as the “Psychedelic Ballroom,” with bands such as The Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead playing. Rolling with the times, one part of the Desert Room became a head shop called the Free People’s Touching Company.
Then the neighborhood morphed into the “Pink Triangle,” known for its gay nightlife, including a spot called the Pied Piper that opened in the former Desert Room, known for hosting male and female strippers. Not until 1978 did the club cater to almost exclusively to gay clientele. And for the next three decades, the club flourished under different names. The hotel upstairs in the 70s had transformed into a gay bathhouse, which was Portland’s longest running when it closed in 2007. The community that gathered there, led by the manager known as “Flossie,” established Portland’s first gay pride parade in the early 70s. Its final incarnation was as the Silverado, another gay bar that Stanford described in the Portland Tribune as “a sports bar, but with huge video projections of naked men on the walls.”
One hundred years after it was built, the site reopened in May 2011 as the Crystal Hotel. Guests and visitors to the property can learn about the history via the photos and paintings, including images of the Free People’s Touching Company and a painting of the call girls who were ever-present at the Club Mecca and Desert Room, that decorate the corridors of the hotel, Al’s Den and Zeus Café.
When guests see the historic tributes at the property, Hills says the memories come rushing back for some, and many locals get in touch with him with their own memorabilia and personal recollections from the property’s past. “An historic property is tied in with the community and tied in with culture and tradition and history of the area,” Hills notes. “There are just so many rewards and connections to customers and the locals who, again, have connections already established to these places. Once they see that you're celebrating and commemorating that past, they feel a sense of pride, I think, to continue their relationship with it.”