It’s bold and classy, and it evokes a sense of nostalgia for many who visit The Record Pub. We’re talking about the Historic Iron Horse Building sign that adorns our building, just above the entrance to The Record Pub.
For those who aren’t aware, the space now occupied by TRP was a notable Mexican restaurant for decades in the neighborhood – The Iron Horse. Pretty much on a daily basis, people come in to The Record Pub to not only browse through thousands of LPs and tapes while socializing and sampling some of the best local beer around, but many enjoy sharing their memories and recollections of the Iron Horse.
It’s been an unexpected pleasure for us to join in these conversations, as we, too, have our own fond memories of the restaurant, and the many good times had there. As such, we are equally interested in the history of the building, so we set about to learn as much as we could about it.
Through the building’s current owner, John Farley, we met Gary Oberg, who owned the building for more than three decades and founded the Iron Horse Restaurant. The current and former owners met on a sunny summer afternoon over drinks at The Record Pub to reminisce, and it was wonderful having them both in together, exchanging stories and learning more about the history of the building, and how it got to where it is today.
Oberg first bought the building right around 1974, per his recollection. At the time, he would have purchased the current business, too, which was Rubenstein’s Tavern. He had always wanted to get into the tavern business, so this new endeavor was fulfilling a longstanding goal. Previous to his taking over, the space had operated as the Bob Inn Tavern, so the space had become a well-established watering hole and eatery.
In the early days, Rubenstein’s served sandwiches and pizzas, a departure from the fare that it would ultimately become known for. Oberg says a visit to Los Angeles is the early 1980s inspired him to specialize in Mexican cuisine. He liked what he sampled in LA, realized there was a void in good Mexican restaurants in Portland at the time and soon set about to develop a small network of folks to replicate his favorite tortillas from LA and go about crafting a menu around that. Oberg credits a Guatemalan woman named Ninfa, who was quickly brought on board to help shape that original Iron Horse menu with family recipes that soon became customer favorites.
“She came in there and just did a dynamite job,” Oberg said.
Rebranded as the Iron Horse in 1985, the restaurant became an iconic part of Sellwood-Moreland, complete with banquet seating, a massive locomotive setup and a signature wood-burning stove in what is now in our next-door neighbor’s part of the building, the Playforest. Today, Yello Salon occupies the last two spots of the building, the northernmost units on the corner of Yukon and Milwaukie. These areas served as the Iron Horse offices previously, and even housed a record store at some point in the 1970s, according to Oberg.
While the Iron Horse was a neighborhood favorite in Sellwood-Moreland, its appeal was very broad. Oberg was very active in sports during these times, and the Iron Horse became a popular destination for pool leagues, parlor enthusiasts and sports teams of all sorts from the surrounding area. In fact, the appeal was notable in the type of local celebrity it would attract, namely repeat visits from then-Portland Trail Blazer LaMarcus Aldridge. Locals and Oberg, alike, confirm that is was widely accepted that the Iron Horse was one of Aldridge’s favorite restaurants in town.
“LaMarcus was in there a lot, and there were a lot of Blazers that came in,” Oberg said.
Oberg built a strong following by catering to teams and leagues, bringing in bands on the weekends, marketing to the local crowd with neighborhood couponing, and generally became a whirling dervish about town, promoting his restaurant and spreading its appeal to all parts of town and beyond.
Around 1988, Oberg sold the restaurant to a small group of employees interested in taking over the place, but continued ownership of the actual building. He says he continued to frequent the Iron Horse on a social basis as a loyal customer all those many years before it closed in 2019 after some 35 years of operation. Once the Iron Horse closed, he made the decision to sell the building and the adjacent housing units to the east and south of what now is The Record Pub.
“It was a lifelong dream of mine, and I enjoyed the hell out of it,” Oberg said of his time with the Iron Horse. “It was great time for me.”
Once Farley purchased the building, it underwent an extensive renovation that restored the building to its original glory. The layout was restored to its original configuration, larger picture windows were installed, new points of entry were added and the original transom windows that adorn the storefront tops of each of the individual businesses were uncovered.
But to get the full picture of the Historic Iron Horse Building, you have to go all the way back to the early 1900s.
According to a piece on the building by Eileen G. Fitzsimons in the Portland Tribune coinciding with the building’s reopening in 2021, the current concrete-block building was built in the 1920s as part of a two-phase development of the plot. Fitzsimons reports that the first business to occupy the new space was the Cunningham Drug Store, which was located on the northwest end of the building that borders S.E. Yukon Street. The store opened in 1921 with additional storefronts cropping up within five years. In 1928, James Cunningham – owner and operator of the drug store – built an apartment building behind the store.
It’s unclear as to how long the drug store operated in the space, but locals indicate there was a grocery store at the location around the 1940s. By 1962, some of the building’s space became the Bob Inn Tavern.
At The Record Pub, we feel very fortunate to call such a cool and iconic place in the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood home. Stop by and keep sharing those stories and memories.
And you know where to find us. Just look for the iconic wood and neon sign above our door, telling you you’re right where you need to be – the Historic Iron Horse Building, home of The Record Pub.