I recently spent a weekend in Astoria, Oregon—a tiny town cascading down toward the mouth of the Columbia River. The first settlement west of the Rockies (1811 by fur trader John Jacob Astor), this quaint town is worth visiting and revisiting. I collected countless photos, met pillars of the community, talked beer and tasted food. It isn’t shocking to meet someone from Astoria only to learn this: “I took a weekend trip to Astoria and two weeks later, moved here.” Or: “I am fourth generation canning industry,” and “my grandfather’s father was a Columbia River bar pilot.” And often: “of course I returned: Astoria is home.”
A former, very successful tuna and salmon cannery town (reaching over 50 canneries in the late 1800′s), this town necessarily reinvented itself—yet they are unequivocally holding onto their roots. It is like holding ‘old town’ in one hand, and ‘new town’ in the other: then clapping. Not sure what I mean? Here are some great examples of historic flavor mixed with modern pride:
Coffee Girl Cafe. I love this story. There is a quaint coffee shop on Pier 39, called Coffee Girl. The locals fill this [6 years new] cafe with their hearty hellos—a hot-spot for some of the cities’ best pastries. It is duly located in one of the original cannery buildings—a fitting spot, since ‘coffee girl’ was a an actual job inside canneries, where a woman was in charge of making coffee for cannery workers. See picture, below.
Rogue and Moe. Moe is in every Rogue Bar. An early-on stipulation of a contract to purchase rogue’s humble beginnings: a picture of Moe is hanging in every bar. It wasn’t the first time I shook my head and smiled a knowing smile… its just what you do when in Astoria. I dare you: look in any Rogue bar—this one is on Pier 39 in Astoria—and you will see a black and white very large photo of an old naked woman in a bathtub. I’d sure share a pint with her.
Micro-canneries. The past lives on. On pier 39 you can peek inside an original cannery, seeing the facility and taking a small tour. This cannery has been converted to small offices, a few hotel rooms, rogue brewery and coffee girl’s cafe. But beyond pier 39 there were countless other canneries and today: 2-3 micro-canneries are still in existence. Skipanon and Bornsteins are worth a visit—so is tasting their high-end, cult-following-worthy canned salmon and tuna.
Fort George Brewery. Fort George Brewery feels to me like the heart of Astoria. They employ countless Astorians, recently expanded, and have lifelong loyal employees. A quintessential meeting place of Astoria townsfolk, frequent Portland visitors and first-time tourists… they even have a shuffleboard. They brew, they can beer, they play, they eat and drink [really good beer], they laugh and create jobs. They have something at Fort George, not to be missed: Astoria’s beating heart.
John Jacob Astor Hotel. This is no longer a hotel. It was likely the who’s who of hotels from days of old, with ornate beams and elaborate stairs, high ceilings and remnants of glitz from days gone by. You can feel the original vibe, the wealth that landed Astoria on the map. Yet, this former hotel is in stride with Astoria’s renewed vibe, now boasting a vintage hardware store—complete with cutesy matches and furniture, artisan cards, trendy burlap and vintage metal works. (The owner brought us upstairs to peek at the remnants of this former hotel: a space that is waiting to be snatched up and turned into yet another great ‘spot’ in Astoria).
Baked Alaska. Chef Chris Holen and wife Jennifer were just passing through, but in an instant decided to give Astoria a go—snatching up a tiny cafe and days later they started serving lunch. People came—add in a few good reviews—and they came in droves. Climbing over one another to serve guests, opening for dinner service, reservations made months in advance and before you know it, they were signing a lease to open Baked Alaska. Nestled on a pier, this substantial restaurant hosts large events, serves lunch and dinner, rents out for weddings and includes a kitchen shop complete with classes. They have been there 11 years and there is no looking back: this is home.
These are just a few of the stories I heard and experienced on my visit. But seeing businesses thrive and people so happy, so grateful to be a part of Astoria’s present and future is all thanks to its glorious past. You will feel it too, when you visit. Just look for black and white photos, new boutiques, brilliantly inspired food, life-changing beer and enormous smiles.
*Elements of my trip were hosted and arranged by Travel Astoria-Warrenton and Cannery Pier Hotel. The opinions, photos and experience are my own. Check out my Astoria, OR albums on flickr and facebook.