Since 1891, the Multnomah Athletic Club (MAC) has been the gathering place for Portland's well-heeled sports enthusiasts to see and be seen. It's the largest private athletic club in size in the world, and today, it boasts a membership of around 20,000 of Portland's wealthiest residents. In 2012, it recruited James Beard-awarded chef Philippe Boulot from downtown's historic The Heathman, where he had cooked for 15 years, and this year, a kitchen renovation costing around $2 million resulted in over 7,000 square feet of polished-stainless-steel improvements (this doesn't even include the kitchen's massive coolers and freezer boxes). Looking at the MAC's dining history reveals the dining history of Portland, and with Boulot's arrival, the MAC might now be serving some of the best food in the entire city... not that you can eat it.
Back when the MAC first opened, it really wasn't serving anything spectacular. Things like hum-drum chicken dinners were par for the course. The Club didn't even have a dining room in the 1890s, but members still eked out the good stuff. The MAC's "wheelmen" biked all the way out Gresham to attend strawberry fetes and to eat fried chicken at the long-gone Au-Ben, near Fairview. For special banquets, members visited the fine hotel dining rooms around town, like the Hotel Portland, once located in what is now Pioneer Courthouse Square.
One such banquet, held in 1903, highlighted the best of Northwest cuisine, with a Chinook salmon in Hollandaise sauce and oysters from Olympia. Another course of broiled teal ducks au Cresson (with watercress) would likely have been sourced entirely from Sauvie Island or Guild's Lake. And of course, the ever-present chicken dinner was also featured, served with French peas and corn fritters and prepared the way James Beard's father did for Sunday breakfasts: a là Maryland (fried and served with a cream gravy).
When the clubhouse was built, a dining room was added, and in 1919, it was enlarged. Early menus from the dining room reflect national dining trends that were also a là mode in Golden Age-Portland: creamy oyster stew; various croquettes; turtle prepared in a variety of styles; relish trays of olives, almonds, and then-trendy celery. Naturally, Sundays featured a chicken dinner.
Some of the MAC's upper-crust members, like architect Emil Schacht, influenced dining outside of the Club. Schacht designed Astoria's city hall building and the Admiral Apartments on SW Park and Taylor, and he was such a man-about-town that the glamorous Hotel Portland named a seafood cocktail after him. A recipe for the appetizer appeared in the Neighborhood Cook Book (1912), published as a fundraiser by Portland's Council of Jewish Women.
Interestingly, the Club had many "dry" members, so Prohibition lasted at the MAC several years beyond the rest of the country. "Tavern service" was eventually added to the rec room for Seniors Night in 1937, the same year that a women’s lounge was added.
The 1940s were a period of significant development. The dining room and kitchen were updated, with a new cocktail lounge added soon after, and two private dining rooms were also added. German restaurateurs owned most of Portland’s fine-dining restaurants at the time, and accordingly, the MAC hired mostly German chefs. Billy Arnold was the Club’s chef in the 1950s, and he helped make it one of the "finest dining spots in this area," according to The Oregonian food writer Nancy Morris in 1955. But the food around this time was mostly predictable country club stodge: buffets of prime rib, ham, salmon, scalloped oysters, and the like, and daily luncheon specials of surf and turf, seafood combo platters, and "crab supreme." Maintaining its place on the menu, of course, was the chicken dinner —given the unsettling designation of "Plantation Fried Chicken" in 1961.
The MAC underwent new management in 2011, and it reconnected with its roots as a social club. A new culinary director was hired, and when Boulot officially joined the MAC in 2012, the Club's three eateries were undergoing a multi-million-dollar renovation. That's when big things started to happen. Normandy-born Boulot had trained under the culinary demigod Jöel Robuchon, and he shifted the MAC’s cuisine from boring country club fare to a menu focused on locally sourced ingredients, skillfully prepared by a team of both enthusiastic upstarts and seasoned experts. Sorry chicken-dinner fans, but it's officially off the menu.
Between the Club's three separate dining areas, the MAC's 60 chefs are likely turning out some of the best food available in Portland, and likely at the highest volume of any restaurant anywhere in the state. Recent menus have featured things like Classic Willapa Bay Oyster Soufflé, Carlton Farm pork cheeks braised in apple cider, halibut coconut ceviche, and roasted rabbit saddle, stuffed with mushroom duxelle and coated with porcini dusted.
Unfortunately, the majority of Portland will never get to taste any of it—the dining areas are open only to Club members and their guests.
We commoners will always have our champagne wishes and caviar dreams, though.
—Article by Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Portland: A Food Biography