Steeped in history yet brimming with life – that’s the Park Inn in a nutshell. This iconic Spokane venue isn’t just serving up your favorite drinks; it’s pouring centuries of stories over crisp, cold ones. As the oldest restaurant, not just in Spokane but in all of Eastern Washington, its walls hum with the past generations’ laughter and the lively chatter of locals present. Step inside, and you might discover a place where the spirited history of Spokane itself unfolds, the stories of this rich past flowing just as freely as the drinks being poured. Spokane’s Park Inn offers stories that echo tales of resilience, transformation, celebration, and, above all, community.

Spokane Park Inn
The Park Inn has recently celebrated its 100 anniversary as a functioning structure in Spokane, but its 100-year anniversary as a restaurant will be in 2032. Photo courtesy: The Park Inn

Before the Park: The Humble Beginnings of Park Inn

Prior to its establishment as the Park Inn, the building it now calls home was constructed by and for the Monroe Street Lumber Company. The company sold fuel and lumber and built three buildings on the property, one large building in the middle with two smaller buildings on the outside separated by alleyways. Initially, the building on the far left that would become the bar started as a Shell station from 1916 until 1931. It was later a laundromat, an ice cream parlor, and eventually, a tavern. This is where half of the story of the Park Inn begins.

As for the main structure in the center, it housed a myriad of businesses after closing up shop as the lumber company’s storefront, eventually being repurposed as a pizzeria in the 1950s. As for the smaller building on the right, it was ultimately demolished to make room for parking on the property. After some time, the two remaining structures would be combined, uniting to form the building we know today as Spokane’s one and early historic Park Inn.

Spokane Park Inn
As the oldest restaurant not just in Spokane but in all of Eastern Washington, the Park Inn has become a local institution and home for regulars and newcomers alike. Photo courtesy: The Park Inn

Before the Union: When the Park Inn Was a Small Business

Ownership of the Park Inn changed hands numerous times throughout the years, but with each change in ownership, it has maintained some semblance of the name Park Inn. As a result, it is most commonly referred to as the P.I. for short, a moniker established by regulars throughout the decades as it holds the title of the oldest existing restaurant in the Spokane area.

Initially, the small building on the left side of the Monroe Street Lumber Company’s property transformed into the first version of the P.I. in 1932, when it opened as the Freeman’s Park Inn Restaurant during the Great Depression. Through the 30s, 40s, and 50s, it sold burgers, fries, and milkshakes and had one of the earliest drive-thru windows in the United States.

Since then, the original namesake of “Freeman” has long been lost to history, as has the reasoning behind using “Park Inn” in the name. It is not currently or has ever been located in or adjacent to a city park. The closest city park wasn’t established until 13 years after the Park Inn was founded and named. Hypotheses have arisen surrounding the namesake, including speculation that the name is a result of the abundant automobile parking at the restaurant at the height of the automotive boom or that the name comes from its location on one of the final streetcar stops before Manito Park, half a mile up the hill.

Nevertheless, the name has persisted, as has the establishment itself, never closing down once throughout the changes in ownership. The name changed for the first time in 1936 to the Park Inn Restaurant. At one point, it was Ralph’s Park Inn Café for a year. In 1954, it became simply the Park Inn Café and featured a café and ice cream parlor, with the back half of the building containing a tavern. Though it had been serving alcohol on the property long before, it officially became a tavern in 1956 and was thusly renamed Park Inn Tavern.

Spokane Park Inn
The Pizza Plaza’s original pizza oven remains at the Park Inn to this day, still serving up the cheesiest pizza around. Photo courtesy: The Park Inn

The Pizza Plaza Moves in Next Door to the Park Inn Tavern

Meanwhile, while the Park Inn was busy trying on different names, the center structure next door underwent its own transformations. For two decades, the building housed everything from a law office to a meat market. Then, in 1953, it was purchased by Dick Schultz, who was from New York City. He transformed the building from what was then an appliance store into the one and only Pizza Plaza. With this transformation, Schultz claimed to be the first person to bring pizza to Spokane.

The building would thrive as the Pizza Plaza, so much so that it would gain the attention of Gordy Olsen, the more recent owner of the Park Inn Tavern next door. In the mid-1960s, he bought the Pizza Plaza next door, recipes and all, from Dick Schultz and combined the two structures. More than any previous owner, Olsen would shape the Park Inn into what it is today. Even now, long since Gordy’s departure, the Park Inn remains famous for its world-renowned pizza, with the distinctive square crust and toppings below the cheese remaining as they did decades ago. Even the original pizza oven remains intact inside the now consolidated structures, with Gordy filling in the alleyway between the two buildings shortly after purchasing Pizza Plaza.

Spokane Park Inn
On the outside, the Park Inn is pretty much the same as it was when it first opened all those years ago, except now the two buildings have become one big one. Photo credit: Will Maupin

A Building United: The Park Inn Takes on New Life Under Gordy Olsen

Under Olsen’s stewardship, the P.I. would undergo its most significant transformation yet with the union of both buildings. It would also be under Olsen’s ownership that the historic restaurant would genuinely stand the test of time and encounter some of its most tremendous hardships.

In the decades that Gordy owned the bar, especially the 1970s, it would become a much more violate place, living up to its newfound name of Tavern and becoming known for its rough and tumble atmosphere. Still, Gordy loved his old bar, made all the more evident by the pictures that remain on the wall of the gentle yet intimidating giant who kept the rowdy crowds in line. He happily owned and operated the bar well into the 1980s. It was then that the “Tavern” was dropped from the name to become simply the Park Inn after the state liquor board forced the restaurant to drop the word from its name.

It would also be around this time that the historic bar and restaurant would change hands again, yet for more tragic reasons than before. Sadly, Gordy Olsen, along with several of his friends, perished in a plane crash in 1984 on their way home from an Alaskan fishing trip.

Following his death, his now widow, Mary Lou, ran the Park Inn for several years. Former city councilman Jeff Colliton purchased the business from her in 1988. It was this time between the mid to late 1980s that the historic institution would see its least successful years, bearing witness to financial losses as the bar literally fell apart before customers’ eyes.

The Rebirth of the Historic Park Inn

Behind the bar, longtime manager of the Park Inn, Ron Wieber, witnessed it all, having previously worked for Olsen and all sequential management thereafter. Having a genuine love and appreciation for all that the P.I. stands for, he and four golfing buddies pooled together their resources to purchase the Park Inn in 1993. Together, they were able to preserve the Park Inn’s legacy and see it forward into the 21st century. It was only recently that it changed hands yet again in 2015 and is now under the ownership of Marcus Schmick, but don’t worry, the name hasn’t changed, and neither has the atmosphere in Spokane’s longest-running restaurant and bar.

Spokane Park Inn
Why watch TV when you can experience yesteryear and play on the many pinball machines at the P.I. Photo courtesy: The Park Inn

A Place Where Time Stands Still, Yet Community Thrives

Today, patrons who walk into the Park Inn are, to some extent, walking into a museum, though you wouldn’t know it from the unassuming, now single, beige building in which it resides. Inside, though, it’s a different story.

The dark walnut paneling on the wall, blue carpet, and thick-padded swiveling captain’s chairs at each table emit flashbacks of the 60s. Nostalgia permeates every corner of the establishment. The vintage décor, some of which have graced the walls and ceilings since the 1950s, lends an air of authenticity and charm reminiscent of a simpler time. From the electric array of antique relics to the numerous model airplanes suspended above the main entrance (gifts from a former down-on-his-luck patron), the Park Inn exudes a sense of history that is palpable to all who enter. Even some of the entertainment options here are relics that are a blast from the past, with pinball machines and arcade games lining the walls, much to the delight of reminiscing patrons.  

Yet, amidst the timeless décor and retro ambiance, the Park Inn remains a beacon of familiarity and comfort for its patrons. The menu, boasting classic bar fare and arguably the cheesiest pizzas in the Inland Northwest, remains unchanged, a testament to the Park Inn’s commitment to tradition. Whether enjoying a hearty burger, indulging in a slice of pizza, or sipping on a cold beer from one of the 13 taps, guests can count on Spokane’s Park Inn to deliver a taste of nostalgia with every visit.

Park Inn
103 W 9th Avenue, Spokane