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Word of Mouth: Astoria, Oregon


Word of Mouth: Astoria, Oregon

Freshly caught tuna and salmon, an auto body shop turned café and more rustic charm in this river town by the sea

by CH Contributor
on 22 September 2014

by Jenny Miller

The Oregon Coast enclave of Astoria, Oregon is not exactly a beach town. Though it's just a few miles from the state's austere, breathtaking stretches of sand, this former canning and maritime hub of about 10,000 people is perched on a hill at the spot where the mighty Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean. So technically, it's a river town. The city boomed in Victorian times and still bears that architectural stamp (along with many Deco details after a fire ravaged much of the city in the 1920s); in some ways, it conjures up a miniature San Francisco. For the last few decades, Astoria's only big claim to fame was its prominent role as the setting for "The Goonies," the beloved 1985 Steven Spielberg film. If tourists weren't visiting the "Goondocks" house, it might have seemed to be just another rundown town verging onto seediness, with a chronically depressed former industrial economy.

But in recent years, something remarkable has happened: Astoria's gotten hip. Perhaps it's partly a trickle-down effect of Portland's rise (Oregon's largest city is just a two-hour drive away), and partly being a place that's always had a lot going for it—great architecture and an ultra-dramatic setting, for starters—has finally gotten its due. Whatever the cause, the rash of new boutique hotels, exciting restaurants and a brewery boom makes this river town hard to overlook any longer.

Fisherman's Suites at Pier 39

Celebrities, families and anyone needing a little more space or privacy will find the best bunking option a few miles east of downtown at Pier 39 (reachable by car or the Astoria Riverfront Trolley). This former cannery pier is home to an outpost of Oregon-grown Rogue Ale House, plus a small canning museum, the Coffee Girl java shop and the three Fisherman's Suites with water views. The Captain's Suite has a living room, full kitchen, dining room, whirlpool bathtub and huge windows that look directly over the water. All three suites combined can sleep up to 16 people.

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Bowpicker Fish & Chips

Don't be surprised if the wait at this one-time "bowpicker" fishing boat-turned-fish and chips stand is 30 minutes or more. The 14-year-old establishment serves locally caught albacore tuna—an unusual, yet highly sustainable fish choice—battered and deep-fried to order and served over thick-cut fries. Seating is a handful of picnic tables surrounding the boat, though there's no beer to wash it down—unless you get sneaky and brown bag it from the gas station market across the way, which offers a surprisingly good selection of local brews.

Fort George Brewery + Public House

Housed in a Deco-era former auto body shop, the Fort George Brewery + Public House looks very Oregon, with a mural behind the bar depicting a crashing wave and a high-ceilinged interior decked out in warm fir wood. There's an outdoor patio for the warmer months and (new this year) a second-floor space with bar stools made from barrel staves and huge windows looking toward the Columbia river. On the menus: bar food like pizza, sandwiches and nachos, and a rotating draft and canned beer lineup that's heavy on the IPAs and other serious ales. For an in-depth look at how the beer is made, Fort George's brewery in the Lovell Building, a few blocks away, is open for free tours Saturdays and Sundays at 1PM to 4PM.

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Columbian Cafe

Note the spelling: you won't find any arepas here. Columbian Cafe is named for the river, not the country. But somehow this natural confusion is fitting for a menu that's pure and simply a hodgepodge of all that is delicious and can be whipped up in a narrow diner kitchen on a griddle and couple of burners. (Or baked in the oven, like the addictive house-made bread.) Dinner centers around local catch like salmon and rockfish, plus farmer's market veggies—whatever chef Uriah Hulsey can get his hands on—while brunch might find Asian and Mexican flavors coming together on the plate, as in the the strange-sounding yet delicious Tower of Power: sautéed veggies in peanut sauce with eggs, cheese and tortillas. The small space with a long counter and a few booths is cluttered cozily with tchotchkes—just the way you want a 35-year-old institution like this to be.

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For a slice of Brooklyn in Astoria, there's Albatross, the 10-month-old project of chef Eric Bechard (who formerly received acclaim at Thistle restaurant in McMinnville, near Portland). The dim, dark-wood space has a cocktail menu that highlights liqueurs and amari, as in the Rival #7, made with rye whiskey, torani americano, sweet vermouth and bitters. Though the place started as a sandwich joint (serving a mean burger, which is still on the menu), it recently expanded to a full menu of small plates like albacore tuna fritters, oyster chowder and "Astoria's finest" corndog. Coming soon, Albatross will expand into a space next door, more than doubling the size of the dining room.

Word of Mouth presents a destination the way we experienced it. Following both trusted tips and our own whims we explore with the goal of finding what's unique to that place. For deeper looks at some of our favorite metropolises, check out our CH City Guides.

Pier 39 image courtesy of Travel Astoria, Commodore by Michael Mathers, Columbian Cafe and Fort George Brewery by Jenny Miller, all others courtesy of respective venues

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