McMenamins Spar Café: Keeper of Olympia’s History and Tradition

the spar olympia
Regional manager, Amie Budlemann, enjoys a water at McMenamin's Spar Cafe. The artesian water flows under the Olympia restaurant.


By Taryn Kama

Puget Sound EnergyIt’s been said that walking into McMenamins Spar Café in downtown Olympia is like walking back in time.

While it may sound trite, it’s totally true. Not only can you see the original bar, artwork, chandeliers, and other furnishings, even the drinking water is served up old school—straight from its own artesian well.

the spar olympia
Regional manager, Amie Budlemann, enjoys a water at McMenamin’s Spar Cafe. The artesian water flows under the Olympia restaurant.

That’s because when the McMenamins company bought the historic joint about seven years ago from the McWain family, their goal was to keep as much of its original charm as possible.

“They love old historic locations. For a very long time Mike and Brian (McMenamin) would pass through Olympia and come to The Spar,” said Amie Budlemann, McMenamins Regional Manager.

The McMenamin brothers (Mike and Brian) are known for buying and restoring old buildings. Their first property was a pub in 1974 and now they brew beer, distill spirits, and have a string of historic hotels and pubs across Washington and Oregon.

“They (the McMenamin brothers) love history.  They fell in love with the ambience, the food, the people and the place,” added Budlemann.

The Spar is one of the oldest places downtown. Back in the early days, it was a “blue collar” kind of place, with many loggers, longshoremen and other unionized workers frequenting it.

Throughout its history, it was a place known for gambling, drinking, card playing, cigar smoking and much more. Workers could cash their paychecks there and spend it all in one place, or one night, as the case may be. Now, The Spar sees a lot of politicians, college students and state workers.

the spar olympia
When McMenamins purchased The Spar, they restored the historic building to its 1930s era charm.

Shortly after purchasing The Spar from Alan McWain—whose family owned it for 57 years—the company closed it doors for two months to remodel and restore it. The McMenamin brothers’ goal was to refurbish it back to its 1935 look, according to pub manager Mark Arndt.

Arndt has been working at the Spar for more than seven years and is a longtime Olympia-area resident.

During the remodel, the “Highclimber” room, which was located in the back, was removed. That room was originally added in the 1950s and had became a place to smoke cigars and drink alcohol.  Additionally, the skylights, which were hidden, were re-exposed and made clear again.

“Back in World War II, the skylights were blackened, so that that bombers wouldn’t see the light and wouldn’t bomb it,” said Arndt.

Both Arndt and Budlemann said the remodel wasn’t about “tearing it down and building it back up,” it was more about preserving and honoring the historic building.

Part of honoring and keeping the tradition is serving artesian water. At one point in time, Olympia had as many as 90 artesian wells.  One of the few remaining is located underneath The Spar—more specifically, underneath the men’s bathroom.

“I don’t how many guys know that when they are using bathroom, they are standing next to a secret tunnel,” Arndt said with a chuckle.

Arndt and Budlemann recounted a legend that there was a tunnel system underneath the city. The underground system led to several Olympia locations. During the days of prohibition, beer was illegally brewed at The Spar and transported through the tunnels, most likely to the Olympia Hotel.

Now, beer is still brewed at The Spar and the water is used for many purposes from washing hands and dishes to making drinks.

the spar cafe olympia
Mark Arndt and Amie Budlemann show off the Spartesian IPA, made on-site using local artesian water.

“We use it for soda, coffee, iced tea, and to make our ice. It’s used in every cocktail. It does flavor drinks,” said Budlemann.

“It’s probably why I look so young,” joked Arndt.

Every month, The Spar management brings a water sample to Thurston County for testing to make sure it meets all drinking water standards.

The water is clean and tasty. In fact, McMenamins uses the water in its locally brewed “Spartesian” IPA beer. McMenamins brews one kettle (12 barrels) a month and it is usually almost sold out before the next kettle is made. The Spartesian brew is the café’s top seller. It uses Yakima hops lightly flavored with white wheat and crystal malts.

The beer still itself is also historic. It is actually a refurbished planter that was used at the Edgefield McMenamins in Troutdale, Ore.

“The water really adds to the flavor of the IPA,” said Budlemann. She added that other McMenamins properties sometimes serve the Spartesian brew and it is featured in many brew festivals.

McMenamins Spar Cafe

114 – 4th Ave East

Olympia, WA 98501



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