Weekend Escape: Eugene, Ore., for football, beer and biking
Ken Van Vechten
Summer has shifted to fall, and that means a road trip to the University of Oregon, dodging high-season crowds and high gas prices, partaking of the best weather of the year, getting in some golf and often a football game, bike riding and definitely quaffing local brews. This year’s destination was loaded with memories: scenes from “Animal House,” Hayward Field, and a burger and a pint at Rennie’s Landing, an old campus haunt. Hello, Eugene, good to see you. The tab: $240 to $300 a night on football weekends, continental breakfast included, at the Best Western New Oregon Motel, and $45 for a small-plates dinner, excluding alcohol.
Many moons ago, the Best Western New Oregon Motel (1655 Franklin Blvd.;  683-3669) was a magnet for dorm-residing freshmen students, but not for the reason assumed; we would sneak in to use the indoor pool. From the motel, it’s a convenient walk to Autzen Stadium, a game-day rite. For me, it also offers easy bike access to the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail, a multi-use path that stretches nearly 15 miles along both banks of the Willamette River. The Best Western also is across from the Ducks’ modern basketball venue, Matthew Knight Arena. The hotel is neither notable nor notorious, providing a clean, basic haven close to the action.
For a solo traveler, finding good food and drink is easy, but finding them in a vibrant, collegial place that is happy to seat one among many is a score. In my case, it came courtesy of Izakaya Meiji Co. (345 Van Buren St.;  505-8804), a dinner-and-late-night play on the Japanese food-centric tavern, or izakaya. Order an array of small plates — skewers, rice dishes,salad, critters terrestrial and feathered or shelled and finned — and if sake isn’t your thing, whiskey and beer appear in abundance.
Whiteaker is a “bootstrapping” neighborhood on the brink of becoming a “district,” a designation that means an up-and-comer now is in vogue. Thankfully, the blocks of grub and grog, sweets purveyors and music venues haven’t become achingly hip. Ninkasi Brewing Co. (272 Van Buren St.;  344-2739) is an anchor, along with several other brewing establishments. Ninkasi is one of the West Coast’s craftiest, and I was pleased to discover its Easy Way IPA, hops-balanced and lighter in alcohol. Eclectic eats are another cornerstone: Mexican, Italian, Japanese, southeast Asian, soul food and locavore.
The lesson learned
The college gang and I saw Jimmy Buffett several times at creaky McArthur Court, the one-time basketball venue that is so old it no longer serves its original purpose.Today, pedaling about town or walking around campus, I’m reminded of a song on Buffett’s “Coconut Telegraph”album. It’s the tale of adding years while trying to cling to youthful vigor. That’s Eugene. It’s larger now, good Pinot Noir is ever present, the food has improved, the campus has exploded and the Ducks don’t bite in sports other than track and cross country. Patchouli still scents the air, and Grateful Dead flags abound. I’m 55; I see Eugene through the eyes of a 19-year-old even if bifocals are on the horizon.