Prospecting for Great Food

By Janet Eastman

It’s easy to drive past the Prospect Historic Hotel. Everyone does it, zipping down Highway 62 from Crater Lake. But turn onto Mill Creek Drive and immediately you’ll enter a world in which mornings begin with crème brulèe French toast. In the afternoons, hot-from-the-oven cinnamon cookies are set out in the sun-filled sitting room. And on some special evenings, the dining room is buzzing with wine club members toasting the latest release over local free-range lamb topped with Syrah peppercorn sauce.

The Prospect Historic Hotel has been a fueling stop for hungry travelers since the late 1800s. Passersby in the past, arriving on horseback or in newfangled motor cars, include presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, naturalist John Muir and authors Jack London and Zane Grey.

Current owners Fred and Karen Wickman proudly continue the tradition by serving up generous portions of hearty food. “No micro-miniature gourmet portions,” says Fred. “When you dine with us, you will go away full. If you’re still hungry, ask for seconds.”

The hotel’s Dining House menu boasts plate-covering slabs of prime rib doused with Jack Daniels ($26-$32) and meaty or vegetarian lasagna ($23). The price includes wild green salad, fresh baked breads and dessert. “We serve family style and treat you like family,” says Fred. “We would never send anyone to bed hungry.”

Overfeeding is one trick the Wickmans use to lure people off the highway. Another way is they link up with wineries to create “Gastronomic Getaways” in which, for around $300, a couple can have a fulfilling weekend wine experience.

They can check into the hotel and spend the afternoon hiking to nearby waterfalls or just hanging out on the five-acre property. In the early evening, they can talk to winemakers while tasting special vintages, and then feast on multi-courses of food and wine in the dining room. Afterwards, they trundle off to bed in one of the hotel’s 10 rooms or the adjacent motel’s 14 units. “Your room is close enough that you could crawl to it after eating too much,” jokes Fred. In the morning, fresh pastries await. “Surprisingly, most folks are hungry by then,” he adds.

The Wickmans say winemaker dinners carry them through the slower off-season and are great exposure to the exact people they want to attract year round – those who appreciate Oregon’s fresh ingredients and culinary and viticultural adventures. "It's a cliché, but it's true," says Karen Wickman, who bought the property with her husband, Fred, in 2005. "A rising tide lifts all boats."

Chef Karen and her crew make everything from scratch in the large, white-cupboard kitchen. Fred points out that there are no bags of this, cartons of that. Karen explains: “I want to serve food that I want to eat: fresh, real, flavorful, no boxed or pre-made anything.” She jokes that cardiologists may not approve of her menu. “I call it ‘special occasion food,’ ” says Karen, who has no formal culinary training but plenty of experience feeding her family. “It may not be the best thing for you, but it’s rich, satisfying food.”

Wine club members watching their weight probably write it off as a once-a-year treat. For the 3rd annual Wine in the Woods dinner in January, Karen spent days preparing mushroom onion tarts, sausage and white bean soup, green salad topped with smoked duck breast, rolled beef with a shrimp stuffing and huckleberry turnovers with chocolate drizzle and crème fraîche.

Courses were served with wines from the Upper Rogue’s Agate Ridge Vineyard, Del Rio Vineyards, Folin Cellars and Crater Lake Cellars. Proceeds from the dinner support the group’s free public harvest celebrations, Wine Olympics and other Second Saturday events at Upper Rogue wineries, vineyards and farms.

Jolee Wallace, who co-owns Del Rio Vineyards in Gold Hill, sums up the success this way: “Guests fill up the hotel’s rooms, the wineries make money by selling wine and the Upper Rogue wineries use the money to advertise upcoming events.”

The event attracts repeat guests who bring their friends, says Crater Lake Cellars’ owner Mary Gardner, who has helped organize the dinner since the beginning. Limited to 60 guests, dinners sell out quickly because, Gardner says, “the Prospect Hotel is a diamond no one knows about and everyone has fun and feels as if they’ve really gotten away. Cell phones barely work there.”

Troon Vineyard is offering its second winemaker dinner May 15 at the Prospect Hotel. Dinner tickets are $85. The Wickmans invite guests to reserve a room and not drive home that night.

At the five-course dinner, Troon’s wine will be added to the frisee salad with cranberry bacon vinaigrette, cream of broccoli soup and roasted duck on a cabbage base. Other local ingredients will include Rogue Creamery cheeses and spiced hazelnuts.

“It is a wonderful way for us to stay in contact with our wine club members,” says Troon’s spokeswoman Liz Wan. Wan and the Wickmans view the dinners as to spotlight the artisanal products they produce.

Exposure by the wineries is “huge,” says Karen Wickman. As a bonus, it allows Fred and Karen to learn more about Oregon wines. They stock moderately priced bottles -- Foris Vineyard’s Pinot Noir, Crater Lake Cellar’s Riesling, Troon’s Insomnia Port – and have seen wine sales triple after adding more local wines to their dining list.

Nearby wineries win, too. “People staying at the Prospect Hotel come to our tasting room and buy our wines because Fred and Karen are great tour guides and they encourage people to go to the tasting rooms,” says Gardner. Her wine labels, featuring Crater Lake and other locales, inspire visitors to ask for the bottle as keepsakes.

“It’s part of the culinary traveler’s adventure,” says Fred.

Prospect Historic Hotel
391 Mill Creek Drive,
Prospect OR 97536

(541) 560-3664 or (800) 944-6490

Room rates:
$140-205 May through October
$120-185 November through April

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