For a land as awe-inspiring as the Willamette Valley, the 100-mile stretch of freeway from Portland to Eugene on I-5 makes for a surprisingly anonymous-looking interstate, the likes of which you find almost anywhere else in America. But here’s what sets it apart: Few roads in the nation traverse such fruitful territory.
The valley as intrepid foodies know it resides well away from the idling masses on the main drag — in the beating heart of its many side roads, orchards and farm-fresh eateries.
It’s in fresh smoothies made from berries you helped pick, along an empty road flanked by orderly vineyard rows and pockets of oak. It’s in the unexpected small-town cafeteria, the taqueria and the unassuming Victorian house that doubles as one of the region’s best restaurants.
Here are some spots that will make you want to trade in the most direct commute for the more scenic, ultra-satiating road less traveled.
The Painted Lady Restaurant, Newberg
Distance from interstate: 10.5 miles
An easy diversion from Wilsonville and Woodburn is the Painted Lady Restaurant. Over the last decade, the food scene in Willamette Valley wine country has made a major push to keep pace with pinot noir’s runaway popularity — and world-renowned quality. New establishments have brought in big-name chefs and plenty of buzz, but the Painted Lady — from its stately residential perch just outside of downtown Newberg — has been quietly turning out superb modern Northwest cuisine since 2005. Owner and chef Allen Routt’s tasting menu is fresh, lively and easy on the eyes, stressing inventive, artfully plated adaptations of farm-fresh produce.
Distance from interstate: 3 miles
There’s a lot to Oregon’s capital you don’t see from the interstate. Tapas bar Andaluz rests in the thick of Salem’s charm, in an eye-catching older building adjacent to the historic Elsinore Theatre. Here, the Euro-inspired offerings take an obvious Pacific Northwest turn, per the Oregon halibut with pistachio-herb pesto and beluga lentils, and the roasted game hen with chorizo stuffing. This is an ideal happy-hour pit stop en route to the many nearby farms and orchards that remind of Salem’s official nickname: the Cherry City.
Novak’s Hungarian Restaurant, Albany
Distance from interstate: 2.5 miles
Joseph and Matilda Novak emigrated from Hungary to Oregon 60 years ago. They came with tried-and-true recipes and opened their eponymous restaurant in 1984, with the help of their twin daughters. Their urban garden provides the lion’s share of the produce, and most of the other items come from within an hour’s drive of their Albany establishment. Novak’s is nothing if not comfort food, echoed by deservedly popular items like langos (Hungarian fried bread) with apricot preserves and chicken paprikas served over spaetzle.
The Broken Yolk Cafe, Corvallis
Distance from interstate: 21 miles
A hardworking university and tech town like Corvallis needs an all-day breakfast establishment for refueling, and The Broken Yolk Cafe is up to the task. Just a short drive on Highway 20 away from Albany, this former ice cream parlor and dairy lunch stop entered its current incarnation a decade ago. Diner-esque classics like biscuits and gravy, fresh blueberry pancakes, cinnamon rolls and ice cream floats round out the down-home menu. Road trippers in need of protein can count on the namesake omelet, made with eight eggs and a slew of meat and veggies.
Black Wolf Supper Club, Eugene
Distance from Interstate: 5.5 miles
Opening in October 2017, the Black Wolf Supper Club is worth an interstate exit. Mikey Lawrence — a James Beard-nominated chef who previously led the kitchen at Belly Taqueria and started his own outstanding fried chicken food cart, Buck Buck — will run the show. The vegetable-driven menu will be in full force during autumn’s bounty, and a Southern twist on things will offer flair and comfort. With a half-century of combined culinary experience between Lawrence and partner Brendan Mahaney (Belly’s founder), it’s fair to expect some of the best bayou-inspired food anywhere outside of New Orleans.
Lane County Farmers Market, Eugene
Distance from interstate: 2.5 miles
The valley’s market system is among the best in the nation, and even amid fertile regional competition, the Lane County Farmers Market impresses. On Saturdays through mid-November, some 85 vendors set up an epicurean paradise fit with a beer garden in the northwest Park Blocks, adjacent to the bohemian-spirited Eugene Saturday Market. Standouts like Groundwork Organics offer certified-organic fruits, veggies and cut flowers, while Face Rock Creamery sells sublime handmade cheeses — ideal fixings for a picnic along the river or the rest of your road trip. For a quieter atmosphere, try Tuesday’s market, and note that vendors can change weekly.
Farm Stands and U-Pick
The Willamette Valley’s generous bounty, picturesque farm stands and seldom picked-over fruit farms make hunting down your own produce about 100 times more enjoyable than a trip to the grocery store.
North: Pick 14 apple varietals at Beilke Family Farm in Brooks; forage through sprawling berry fields at Boones Ferry Berry Farms in Hubbard; or enjoy from-scratch baked goods made from fresh estate fruit at French Prairie Gardens in St. Paul.
Central: Head west of Corvallis 5 miles to Philomath for a fresh and Italian-minded meal at Gathering Together Farm; meander through charming downtown McMinnville and its great farmers market on Thursdays through mid-October.
South: Head north from Eugene on River Road less than 10 miles for Groundwork Organics’ own Junction City farm stand for daily U-pick flowers and seasonal berry gathering.