Big Horse still kickin'

Hood River's oldest brew pub turns 25

Randy and Susan Orzeck, Big Horse owners and founders, in front of their 25-year-old downtown business.

Photo by Adam Lapierre.
Randy and Susan Orzeck, Big Horse owners and founders, in front of their 25-year-old downtown business.

A certain vigor was always needed to run a three-story restaurant.

A new energy fills Horsefeathers and Big Horse Brewing as the downtown anchor restaurant celebrates its 25th year, and as original owners Randy and Susan Orzeck embark on a new identity — gastro pub — for the restaurant, also home to the original Hood River microbrewery, Big Horse.

The Orzecks hired a new chef, Jeff Croke, created a new menu, and are hoping for a fresh vibe for the picturesque establishment that looks out over Oak and Second Street.

“Gastro pub is fine dining-style food at more of a pub price and with a pub atmosphere,” said Randy.

What's with the name?

Choosing the restaurant name back in 1988 was a spur-of-the-moment idea.

Randy Orzeck was set to open for business and the OLCC told him he had to choose a name for his new restaurant. He did not have one in mind.

“Without a name, I couldn’t put in an application, and being from the East Coast, I thought, ‘Horsefeathers,’” an expression of exasperation that stands in for a less-polite phrase. “So I thought, ‘Horsefeathers’ — bam — pretty simple.”

Was the quarter-century anniversary the cause for doing something new?

“Yes, absolutely,” Susan said. “The motivation of getting a new chef was definitely a motivation — it was like, ‘Hey, 25 years, let’s do something different.’”

“We plan a year-long party for our 25th year,” Susan said, starting with the special beer release events this spring featuring the in-house ales of brewmaster Derrak Smith, who started a little over a year ago. (See adjoining article for more on Smith.)

From its beginning in April 1988, through the lean first few years, it took energy for the Orzecks to keep the operation on its feet.

The food scene in Hood River in 1988 was not like it is today, and Randy Orzeck was setting out to create a fine dining establishment that would first be known as Horsefeathers Fine Dining and Spirits.

Randy was sales manager for a couple of large windsurfing companies, and first he came to Hood River on a windsurfing sales trip in 1981. He bought a house on the bluff for $70,000, splitting time between here and Connecticut.

“I went home for a year, gave the company a year’s notice, told them to either allow me to work out here or I’m out. I just fell in love with it.”

Horsefeathers Fine Food and Spirits ran for about eight years as a restaurant complete with carrots cut into the shape of roses, set around fancy dishes such as rack of lamb.

“We showed up in town and — I was just looking at our original menus — we were more expensive with a lot of items than we are now,” Randy said. There wasn’t much else in terms of fine dining in Hood River, a town that by the 2000s would emerge as a culinary and wine destination.

“Then Pasquale’s opened (where Cornerstone Cuisine is now), and Chianti’s where Sixth Street is now and several other restaurants were competing for what I would call more upper clientele, so I said, ‘Okay, instead of competing and being the fanciest, and splitting the business, let’s be a pub.” Enter Big Horse, with Orzeck teaching himself to brew beer.

“We are the oldest, and smallest, brew pub in Hood River,” Susan noted.

The Orzecks were married that year, 1994.

“I gave her this place as a wedding gift,” he jokes.

Susan was asked if she knew what she was in for.

“I don’t think I quite did. I had been in real estate and conference sales prior. I think I learned everything the hard way.”

“She did learn everything the hard way,” Randy said.

With the change to pub style, “we had an amazing number of angry people,” recalls Randy.

“You take away fine dining and change, and people didn’t embrace it,” Susan added.

“A lot of people said they’d never come back and probably haven’t,” Randy said.

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There’s a regular flow of people into the restaurant and brewery these days, but Randy Orzeck well remembers when it was not that way.

For the self-effacing Randy, hanging on with the same restaurant for 25 years “shows incredible stupidity.”

“I can remember many a night standing at that (north) window, waiting for a car to come off that exit into Hood River and sitting here waiting to see if they would actually come through the blinking red light, and seeing if they would turn and see if they would park, and thinking, ‘Please, dear God, come to my restaurant.’”

This was about the time the wind sports industry was truly taking hold in Hood River.

How many people remember the time, not so long ago, when restaurants would close for the winter? The Orzecks weathered those years. In about 1995, they decided for the first time not to close for the winter, but even then Horsefeathers was not always open seven days a week.

The shift from fine dining to pub fare to mid-range menu prices now goes to “gastro pub” for Horsefeathers, probably the first place in town to designate itself that way.

Last year they met Jeff Croke, formerly head chef at Columbia Gorge Hotel and sous chef at highly regarded but since closed Abruzzo, who worked at a country club on the east coast and returned to Hood River and Horsefeathers six months ago, introducing a new menu that adjusts to seasons and food availability about once a month.

“Our goal was, once again, to differentiate ourselves, since the town is littered with pubs — to be an upscale dining pub.”

Said the French-classically trained Croke, “I’m back to my roots, and just cooking food that makes me feel good, that’s seasonal, and doing some fun things, instead of getting overly complicated; just keeping it fun and bright.”

The Orzecks are contemplating the next era for Horsefeathers, possibly to include a second kitchen and taco and tapas bar on the middle level.

“We can’t expand the restaurant; the only thing we would expand is the kitchen,” Randy said. “We have some idea of perhaps a different restaurant on the middle floor, which would have its own kitchen. It would very small,” he said.

“It’s an odd layout. The pool room is kind of an unusual space. There are a lot of complications with running a restaurant with two floors, and the kitchen is only so big, so that’s a limitation.”

Any such change would be “a year or two out,” Randy said. “We were waiting for the right chef to show up and it’s a matter of going down the right road.”

“For me, I definitely enjoy people, a variety of people,” Susan said, “and anytime I’m hiring people we say, ‘We see A to Z and everything in between.’ I enjoy contributing to gathering a team of people who can join together, and working with our regular locals and the new and transitioning people who are looking for the wineries, or the Fruit Loop, or the local drug store. The people you encounter is what breathes life into the work you do.”

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