Once upon a time there was a zoo in Spokane’s Manito Park. Goats and kangaroos, bobcats and bears, bison and mountain lions were some of the wild animals people could see there. At the center of the zoo, in front of the bear cages, sat a little concession stand that catered both to humans and animals.
“Built in 1923, the ‘peanut shack’ sold snacks for park visitors and peanuts for the monkeys. It is located at the intersections of Manito Place, Tekoa and Loop Drive, once the site of a natural pond,” write Tony Bamonte and Suzanne Schaeffer Bamonte in their book “Manito Park: A Reflection of Spokane’s Past.”
“Today the only remaining evidence of the zoo are some metal bars that supported the bear cages and a metal ring (for tethering the bears while cleaning the cages) embedded in the rock wall behind the Park Bench Café.”
One of Spokane’s favorite alfresco lunch spots, the Park Bench Café is now open for the summer, to the delight of park visitors – and their dogs.
“It’s been really busy getting everything ready for this weekend, but we’re excited about it,” said Meaghan Goodwin, 21, who is part of this summer’s staff. “We are a really close-knit team that works here. Many of us are friends outside of work and we look forward to coming back every year.”
The menu has varied from summer to summer but Goodwin, who’s put in two seasons, said some crowd pleasers never go away.
“The Gobbler – a sandwich with cream cheese, cranberry sauce and turkey – is very popular,” said Goodwin. But you couldn’t always get a sandwich at the little house. When the zoo closed in 1932, the peanut shack followed and not much happened in the little building until the early 1970s.
That’s when a bike rental outfit moved in and after a couple of years it added roller skates to the menu. In the early ‘80s, small-scale bicycle sales were added, too. Some concessions were always available alongside the bikes, and it wasn’t until the late-‘80s that the Park Bench morphed into a café much like the one today.
Although private businesses have operated it as a concession in the past, the Park Bench is operated by the Spokane parks department.
“It’s just wonderful to work in the park,” said Goodwin, who studies forensic science at Washington State University and volunteers for the Pullman Police Department when she’s not working at Manito Park. “It’s fun to see the little kids in their strollers and the dogs and people on their bikes. We have a lot of regulars here that come back year after year.”
Dark green painted tables and benches provide seating under big trees full of squirrels and birds waiting for crumbs.
“We put water bowls out for the dogs, and we give out free doggy treats; the dogs all know that,” said Goodwin.
All the food except for the baked goods is made on site. In the morning the Park Bench offers coffee and baked goods from The Rocket Bakery. And this year there’s a new smoothie machine.
What could be a more perfect setting for an outdoor café than a beautiful, blooming park?
Just steps away, in the perennial garden, spotted dead nettle, butterfly weed and Russian sage are coming back to life after the long winter. A bit farther up the hill is the perfume-scented rose garden and the manicured patterns of the Duncan Gardens.
“One thing about working here is we have the best place for breaks,” said Goodwin, pointing toward the perennial garden. “That has to be one of the most beautiful break rooms in town.”