Few eateries in Spokane enjoy the kind of mystique that envelops the Park Inn. The Shack is one. Dick's is another. These restaurants' shared gastronomical aura springs from their respective quirky and immutable charms, their tradition of good food and service, their multi-generational patronage and sheer endurance. Similarly nothing ever changes at the P.I. The head cook has been here for 17 years. The guy behind the bar, known as "Radar," has logged no less than 27 years. Co-owner Ron Wieber worked as a P.I.'s bartender for 25 years and can still be found hanging out in the bar almost every single day.
"It's a neighborhood place, almost a family tradition," says Wieber. "I see the children now of people who used to hang out here years ago. The parents of one of my bartenders brought her in here right after she was born. And now she works here."
Here's the condensed version of the pub's history. The Park Inn and Park Plaza (as the restaurant is officially known) began as separate but neighboring structures. The bar side started out as a Shell gas station in 1916. It was later a laundry, an ice cream parlor and eventually -- upon the repeal of Prohibition -- a tavern. The restaurant side housed numerous businesses before becoming a pizzeria in the 1950s. Gordy Olsen bought and joined the two buildings in 1965. Olsen owned the P.I. until his death in 1984 (he died in a plane crash while returning from an Alaskan fishing trip). Former city councilman Jeff Colliton purchased the business from Olsen's widow in 1988. Wieber and his golfing buddies bought it from Colliton five years later.
Though certainly not a "dive" (as our server jokingly referred to it), the P.I. certainly has been well loved over the decades. Nobody here would dream of messing with the restaurant's time-tested formula by considering anything as outlandish as "remodeling" or "updating." It's late '60s flashback time in here with dark walnut paneling, lumpy blue carpet, thick-padded swiveling captain's chairs at each table, beer signs and wrought-iron accents. For entertainment, diners can choose from the TV, which relentlessly broadcasts the soap opera du jour or the great views of traffic streaking down Grand.
Is this what has been luring people in here for almost half a century? Is that possible? You certainly get the feeling that most of the diners here have been coming to the P.I. all their lives. But I would guess it's because of the laid-back, congenial atmosphere (with no pretense or attitude whatsoever) that makes everyone -- newcomers and old-timers alike -- feel remarkably at ease. A caveat for anti-tobacco militants: at the P.I., smoking is most definitely allowed.
Menu-wise, it's old school pub grub all the way: burgers, deli sandwiches, pizza, soups and salads, some dinner entrees and "others." This latter category harbors such perennial diner favorites as the patty melt ($5.75), the Philly Beef ($6.75) and the delectably dangerous-sounding chili dog ($5.75), a hot dog smothered in (oh yes) homemade P.I. chili, cheese and onions -- all served with a bag of Ripples and pickle chips.
The Park Inn (okay, Plaza) has been cranking out pizzas since the '50s (Wieber says the sauce recipe is the same as it was then). We ordered a 12-inch ML Special ($13.75), with sausage, beef, mushroom, olive, onion and fresh tomato. The pizza, when it arrived, looked bigger than described, with a very thin crust, just a hint of sauce and a mountain of toppings (and melted mozzarella cheese) that ran to the very edge of the pie. Instead of being sliced in sections, it was chopped into roughly two-inch squares and was served on a battered aluminum pizza pan that had obviously endured years of use. The toppings dominated the flavor profile with the twin meats taking center stage (I could barely discern any sauciness). The tomatoes were indeed fresh (sliced and placed on top, post-oven), providing a cool, fresh contrast to the hot, gooey, savory mound underneath. In a word, excellent -- and furthermore, strangely reminiscent of pizza I once had as a kid in some long-forgotten pizzeria.
The grilled cheese sandwich ($4.75) was similarly reminiscent of childhood, with a delicious and gooey filling of cheddar and provolone between two buttery, toasted slices of rye bread. We paired it with a cup of homemade chili, which was nothing out of the ordinary but still perfectly mouth-watering. Throw some cheese and onions on top, and you've got a little bowl of satisfaction.
Our server was smart, friendly and efficient with something more: a sense of humor -- and a willingness to B.S. with what were obviously new customers. Yep, that would be us.