Very rarely do businesses, let alone a restaurant, survive almost 200 hundred years in a city like Portland, but through many eras of food and fashion, Huber’s Cafe has stood its ground as the oldest restaurant in Portland. Opened in 1879, twenty years after Oregon became a state, Huber’s Cafe was opened, originally called the Bureau Saloon. Known for its famous turkey meals and Spanish coffee, Huber’s Cafe was not always the restaurant that it is today.
The first owner of the Bureau Saloon was Louis Eppinger. Frank Huber, whom the business is now named after, worked as a bartender, eventually buying out the business in 1895, prompting the name change. Louie Way Fung, more commonly known as Great Uncle Jim Louie, was hired by Huber in 1891 to cook at the saloon. Back then, if a drink was purchased at that saloon, the owners would give the customer a free turkey sandwich, which started the turkey tradition at Huber’s.
The Prohibition era, which outlawed alcohol in America from 1920 to 1933, had put businesses that mainly provided alcohol in a tricky situation. Many of the businesses came up with a solution, which was to become a “speakeasy,” an establishment that illegally provided alcohol during Prohibition. Huber’s Cafe was a speakeasy. James Louie, one of the current owners of the restaurant, gave the history of his family’s ownership, and spoke about how the saloon turned into a restaurant. After the decline of sales in alcoholic beverages, patrons and customers shared the idea that the saloon should start charging people for their famous turkey sandwiches, included with the beverage. Other popular dishes include the restaurant’s pumpkin pie, cobbler and other desserts. The most talked about item is the Spanish coffee, served at Huber’s since the early 1990’s. Louie shares how he and his wife brought this drink to the history of the cafe: “We were in a restaurant in the 90s, and saw how they made the coffee. I then thought it was a good idea to add some rum. Then some bourbon, and the famous Kahlua.” Kahlua is a coffee liquor from Veracruz, Mexico. “With being the largest buyer of Kahlua in the state, we are actually the largest buyer in the country. With that, we are really the largest user of Kahlua in the world, and even the galaxy,” Louie says with a smile.
I went to Huber’s Cafe to get a better understanding of the atmosphere of this historic and remarkable restaurant. Huber’s Cafe was hosting several events for dining customers, and creating a memorable dinner for its customers. About nine times, we witnessed the tableside preparation of the Spanish coffee, lit on fire and everything. The food was reminiscent of a family Thanksgiving dinner, made with love. The interior of the restaurant captured the old school diner feel, with wooden booths and a massive skylight. A display case near the entrance showed old pictures and relics, as well as trophies from the owners.
“My favorite story about Huber’s is the barber shop that’s right out front. At first, it was a part of Huber’s, and customers could get drinks and sandwiches from the saloon as they got their hair cut,” says Summer Little, a patron of the cafe. The subtle start of the modest saloon and barbershop is evident in the decorations of the bustling restaurant, and always reminds the people about the humble beginning of the establishment.
The long running ownership of the restaurant under Louie and his family has kept the restaurant doing well for a long time. Throughout the years, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, every business has trouble, but Huber’s has continued to thrive. James Louie’s parents gained ownership from 1953 to 1990. “My great grandfather was the owner, and passed it on to my father, who passed it on to me,” Louie states.
The location of the restaurant has not always remained the same, but it is currently located in the Railway Exchange Building. Before 1910, Huber’s Cafe was located in a building at First and Morrison. The current location retained almost all of the same aspects of the first saloon, landing itself on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. “Huber’s is one of the most dynamic dining rooms in the country,” Louie shares. “The accessories are over a hundred years old, like the brass ship’s clock above the door, and the pewter wine bucket.”
Due to Prohibition, and Louie converting the saloon to a restaurant, the house turkey was kept as a specialty. By that time, Louie had been cooking turkey for 29 years, and knew how to do it properly, and make it the best in the city. However, the menu expanded to steaks, lamb chops, roast duck, and seafood. With the restaurant being a speakeasy, you could also order a Manhattan in a coffee cup. Louie explained that Great Uncle Jim passed it off as ‘tea’.
Outside of the under the table distribution of alcoholic beverages during a prohibition, the restaurant is run in a very similar fashion to the way it was previously run, by Frank Huber and his partner, Jim Louie, James Louie’s great grandfather. Because of this, he has left a great memory for long time running visitors of the cafe.
As the oldest restaurant in the state, Huber’s main goal is to keep the aspect of the old timey feel to surround anyone dining, especially those new to the city, as it’s one of the biggest parts of the identity of Portland.