If only the Astoria of 2005 had existed in 1805. The historic poll at Station Camp might have decided whether the Corps of Discovery wintered at the Holiday Inn or Comfort Suites. Meriwether Lewis could have cheered himself up at a local martini bar. Capt. William Clark could have picked up a spiffy new dog collar for Seaman at a downtown boutique.
The mouth of the Columbia has changed dramatically in the 200 years since that wet winter at Fort Clatsop. But present-day visitors to Astoria might be astounded at how much the city has changed just in the last five years.
Astoria’s central business district was for decades a dreary collection of gray buildings barely holding on to life. But that chapter in Astoria’s life is just another layer in the city’s rich history. If you haven’t been to Astoria’s vibrant downtown in the past few years, you haven’t been to Astoria.
While nearby cities such as Seaside and Cannon Beach cast doe eyes toward tourist dollars, this city caters to locals – and visitors reap the benefits. As local businesswoman Teona Dawson says, “It’s a small town. If you do something wrong, everyone’s going to hear about it.”
Here’s what’s new in one of the West’s oldest cities.
Columbia River Maritime Museum: The museum completed a $6 million expansion in 2002. What was a dark and stodgy facility now has expanded spaces, a theater and new displays. Curator Dave Pearson says the 40,000-square-foot museum is more interactive, engaging and family-oriented. The most impressive of the new displays is a 44-foot U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat cresting a huge “wave” on the Columbia bar. The grand hall now has a wall of windows that look out on the river.
“You don’t have to be out to sea to enjoy yourself,” Pearson says, “even if you just sit on the benches and watch the ships go by.”
Astoria River Walk: Starting at Smith Point, the mostly paved five-mile path follows the city’s trolley line through downtown to Tongue Point. Along the way, it passes under the Astoria-Megler Bridge, the port and new developments on the east end of town.
You can’t get closer to the water than this. In fact, you’re often over it. A rail trail, it incorporates a long trestle that takes the walker far from cars and within waving distance of the gigantic ships heading up the Columbia to Vancouver and Portland.
Liberty Theater: This Venetian-themed theater was built in 1925 for vaudeville and silent movies. It survived the Depression, talkies, the walling off of its stage, conversions (once into a triplex) and general neglect. Now, it’s three-fourths of the way through an $8 million restoration to its former glory.
Operations manager Larry Bryant says the goal is to make the theater the premier performing arts venue on the Oregon Coast. Most of what visitors see is complete, he says, and the theater is in full use. Portland favorite Pink Martini has performed there twice, and Seattle vocal band the Coats will take the stage in December. Classical music festivals and operas have been held, and this weekend several Lewis and Clark bicentennial events are on stage.
• 1-503-325-5922; www.liberty-theater.org.
Columbia River Day Spa: If only Sacagawea could have left baby Pompey at day care and spent some time here. Five kinds of massage are on the menu, including a seaweed and hot stone option.
The rest of the Corps of Discovery could have indulged with facials, manicures and pedicures as well. Another branch opened two months ago in the Cannery Pier Hotel.
• 215 Duane St.; 1-503-325-7721; www.columbiariverdayspa.com.
Lunar Boy Gallery: Partners Jimmy Pickering and Troy Winterrowd escaped Los Angeles on an ebb tide and wound up on the shores of Astoria, where they opened their self-described “lowbrow” gallery just over a year ago. Why Astoria? “We just really connected with the town,” Pickering says.
Their gallery is hip, modern and a sharp but complimentary contrast to the more traditional Riversea gallery just across the street. “It’s more of a pop culture take on art,” Pickering says of the art he sells.
• 1-503-325-1566; www.lunarboygallery.com, closed Tuesdays.
Astoria Visual Arts: This co-op gallery is opened Thursdays through Sundays in the afternoon and staffed by volunteers. It changes shows monthly and recently coordinated a jury selection for artists who will contribute works to the city’s river walk.
• 160 10th St,; 1-503-325-4589; www.astoriavisualarts.org.
Studio Access and Gallery Inc.: This is a hands-on studio. An intaglio press takes center stage in this large space. Open less than a year, the studio offers classes in printmaking, sandblasting, ceramics, bead making, glass slumping and more. Occasionally, weekend visitors can take classes in fused glass and etching.
A small attached gallery offers local and regional art.
• 453-A 11th St.; 1-503-325-3241
RiverSea Gallery: “I felt like I was a pioneer going in here,” said owner Jeannine Grafton of her 1997 opening. In 2003, she doubled the space to 4,000 square feet. The gallery focuses on contemporary art, craft and jewelry made by regional artists in all media.
“It’s a hotbed of artists here,” Grafton said.
• 1160 Commercial St.; 1-503-325-1270
WHERE TO SLEEP
Hotel Elliott: The darling of downtown, this recently refurbished hotel has attracted national attention. The hotel is an example of what money and attention to detail will get you.
The presidential suite is a jaw dropper. A baby grand piano underneath a crystal chandelier sits in the corner of the room. A large and finely detailed bath is off the master bedroom. If you still aren’t impressed, ascend the wood circular staircase that leads to a rooftop bedroom. From there, a door opens to a deck. The basement of the hotel has a wine cellar and cigar room.
• Rates: $99-$250 ($550 for the presidential suite); 357 12th St.; 1-503-325-2222 or 1-877-378-1924; www.hotelelliott.com.
Cannery Pier Hotel: This new boutique hotel, open only since August, is the buzz of Astoria. Built on 100-year-old pilings, the hotel glows on its perch in the shadow of the Astoria-Megler bridge.
Designed to echo one of the city’s many old canneries on the outside, the hotel has an up-to-the-minute feel inside. Bathrooms have clawfoot tubs, slab granite showers and vanities and shuttered windows that open in to the bedroom. Each room has a small deck that gives guests a salmon’s-eye viewpoint of the towering bridge. You couldn’t get closer to passing ships unless the hotel pulled anchor and floated down the river.
General manager Don West says the location is great for watching storms and ship traffic.
• Rates: $249 winter/$299 summer; 10 Basin St.; 1-888-325-4996; www.cannerypierhotel.com.
T. Paul’s Urban Cafe: The menu is as eclectic as its décor. Fish tanks fill a subdued back room, and an open kitchen in the lively main room serves up everything from jerk chicken to ceviche pasta. There’s something for everyone here. Fridays and Saturdays are “meat-lover weekends” with prime rib, lamb and pork loin. Salads, quesadillas and sandwiches round out the lunch menu.
This restaurant has been a hit with locals and visitors since it opened in 2000. Co-owner Teona Dawson says the downtown scene was “dismal” and “kind of a ghost town” when they opened. She says the restaurant, which she opened with her uncle Paul Flues, started a renaissance of downtown restaurants.
• 119 Commercial St.; 1-503-338-5133.
Astoria Thai Cuisine and Seafood: In a town that has been lacking authentic Asian food (cream cheese-filled won tons, anyone?), this restaurant is long overdue.
Not content to create your average Thai restaurant, the owners of ATC&S went one level higher when they opened in 2004. Just about every item comes with a salmon, halibut, scallop or squid option you won’t see in most other Thai restaurants. The Pad thai is generous both in the portion and the number of prawns. Halibut is a welcomed addition to Tom Kha (coconut) soup.
• 1040 Commercial St.; 1-503-325-1316.
The Cooler Dessert House: Situated directly below ATC&S, The Cooler serves up cakes, ice cream, espresso, cheesecake and, as far as I can tell, Astoria’s only bubble tea. A dry erase board pushes frozen hot chocolate. The woman behind the counter said this oxymoron of a dessert is very popular with locals and Oprah.
If “fluorescent lit bomb shelter” is an interior design style, this place has it down. But Ms. Winfrey and anyone else who descends into this lair will be in hog heaven with the diet-destroying desserts.
• 1040 Commercial St.
The Schooner Twelfth Street Bistro: Jennifer and Chris Holen opened this, their second Astoria restaurant, in 2004, directly across the street from the Hotel Elliott. Their first restaurant, Baked Alaska, opened in 2001 and has a riverside locale just two blocks away.
While Baked Alaska offers Pacific Northwest cuisine, the Schooner has a more cosmopolitan menu, a martini bar and live music on the weekends. Locals say it has the best bartenders in town and gives Astoria a big-city feel.
Chris Holen, a native of Alaska (Baked Alaska was a nickname he got while in culinary school), is the executive chef for both restaurants. Heavy with seafood and steaks, the Schooner offers $8 to $49 dinners.
“You have to keep your locals happy,” Jennifer Holen said.
• The Schooner; 360 12th St. 1-503-325-7882.
• Baked Alaska, 1 12th St.; 1-503-325-7414.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8278