If the walls of the Rainbow Cafe could talk, they’d tell a riveting history of the Pacific Northwest, rife with debauchery and kinship.
The Rainbow has witnessed 134 years of cowboy bar chaos, making it the oldest continuously operating bar in Oregon.
It first opened as the State Saloon and Banquet, offering a male-only retreat from the taxing work of building the burgeoning town. The joint fit right in with Pendleton’s turn-of-the-century wild streak, housing opium dens in the tunnels below and second-story brothels above.
It operated as a cigar shop in the Prohibition era, re-opening with full force under its modern moniker. The Rainbow saw major rebranding in the early 1940s, which led to today’s neon sign, ceiling fixtures and vaguely Irish theme, marked by three-leaf clovers on the ceiling and around the bar.
It has since been through a handful of owners and generations of guests, but Pendleton has never lost love for the Rainbow Cafe.
“This is where people like to gather,” said Rainbow owner Jo McGee. “Our little motto is ‘where good friends meet’ and it truly is. Sometimes it’s for funerals, sometimes it’s for weddings, sometimes it’s for Round-Up”
McGee said the space, which can seat 100 comfortably in its booths and barstools, is “packed to the gills” during Round-Up week, serving as a home base for locals and out-of-town guests, a crowd resonant of the Toby Keith anthem “I Love This Bar.” The guests slosh around whisky, eat the cafe’s signature broasted chicken and, sometimes, leave a piece of themselves behind.
Most of the wall hangings were put there by the community, McGee said. There’s everything from rare rodeo photos to pin-up posters to a taxidermied moose. There’s so little wall space that McGee once listed the spot as a museum in the phone book.
McGee and her late husband, Steve, bought the Rainbow in 1999. They had worked in auto repair and bought the bar to satisfy a craving for novelty, though they didn’t dare bring anything new to the community’s beloved institution.
“If I move things, even a little, they’ll notice it immediately,” McGee said of the regulars, who feel a sense of ownership over the place.
Larry Blanc is one such devoted patron, having visited the Rainbow nearly every day since 1978. He meets friends after work, swapping community news and stories about the family.
The Rainbow “feels a little like home,” Blanc said. “It’s a place with a real personality.”
What to expect during Round-Up:
A truncated menu and lots of lines. Folks like to linger in the raucousness, and the space has a fixed capacity. But the honky tonk vibe is well worth the wait.
To walk the restaurant’s perimeter is to take in a feat of rodeo history: The only complete photo collection of Round-Up’s All-Around Cowboys. Stop by during breakfast; it’s open earlier than most Pendleton establishments.
209 S. Main Street
6 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week