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Perched on northern-most tip of the Oregon Coast, Astoria is not a beach destination like its neighbors to the south. Except for a few views from higher elevations, it’s far from pretty and even a tiny bit funky: arrive to town from the east and one of the first businesses you’ll notice is a seedy-looking joint called Desdemona Club. Notes of sea lion and diesel fuel flavor the breeze while the mouth of the Columbia River, providing the main view from downtown, serves as a freeway for giant cargo ships. There’s more than one shop peddling crystals and tarot cards and a few bars even the most adventurous of dive bar lovers wouldn’t set foot in. These and other peculiar traits are why we love it.
We’re not the only ones—Astoria’s popularity has surged in recent years, perhaps as a weekend destination for Portlanders like us. And if you are willing to take Portland Mercury’s I, Anonymous column as a credible source, Astoria’s locals are not entirely impressed with city slickers’ recent fascination with their town.
Regardless of the local reaction, we decided to find out for ourselves what the heck outsiders find so cool about Astoria, Oregon.
A bubbly brew or two
Anyone who says Oregon doesn’t need anymore craft breweries hasn’t visited Astoria’s Fort George Brewing and Buoy Beer Company. In 2014, Buoy opened a restaurant and taproom in an old pier warehouse with views of the Columbia River and a window in the floor to watch sea lions napping among the pillars below. On a President’s Weekend Saturday, we were lucky to get a seat before they announced a 2-hour wait, and enjoyed the Czech Pils and NW Red and shared a basket of fish and chips. It’s a stunning location, and sometimes has the crowds to go with it.
Though we could have spend the weekend drinking Buoy (we returned a second time), it was hard to pass up an opportunity to visit Fort George. Since our first visit to their one room taphouse back in 2010, they’ve added a second floor and another tap room off the brewery. And they still can’t keep up: the place was overflowing and the service and food took a hard hit. The brewery taproom was definitely the highlight, with a large fireplace, spooky murals, and dim lighting, one might even call it romantic.
Astoria Brewing Company does claim to be the town’s oldest brewery, though they aren’t as keen on marketing as the other two, at least not to the Portland market. We didn’t visit this trip and in fact know nothing about their beer. A good reason to return.
While Astoria, Oregon is a small town, it has some massive sights, including the mighty Columbia Bar, where the river meets the Pacific Ocean and the giant Astoria-Megler Bridge. The best place to take it all in is along the Astoria Riverwalk, a roughly 6.5 mile path along the Columbia from the Maritime Museum (a nice stop for fans of seafaring) to the Port of Astoria. There are shops and restaurants, like Buoy, along the way, some interesting industrial leftovers from former cannery days, and views of the bridge from underneath that will make you feel very small and full of wonder about earthquakes.
Communing with the spirits
While parking to check into our hotel, we noticed some people hanging out in a shop on Duane Street who looked like they were having a good time. As seasoned travelers we know this as a sign to investigate. That’s how we found ourselves sampling a flight of spirits at North Coast Distilling. The owner/bartender was gleeful and friendly and suggested we try his Absinthe, which he served in the traditional manner: the iced Absinthe dripped from the tiny faucet of a large glass jar over a sugar cube into the glass. It pounded our heads with herbs and licorice and a nice warm buzz. I learned that I like gin after sampling their Painted Lady, a new American style concoction that weighed more on the floral and herbal side rather than the juniper one. We finished the one flight and departed after witnessing among the patrons exactly strong the Absinthe was. Seasoned travelers also know when to retreat.
Historic neighborhood hike to the Astoria Column
Our blog should really be called Walking and Drinking, because it seems that’s what we end up doing most of the time. We took another walk to the Astoria Column, a 125 ft tower built in 1926 on Coxcomb Hill, about a mile walk uphill from downtown. The column itself is beautiful, built to replicate Trajan’s Column in Rome. It features 14 spiraling murals depicting historical events in Oregon. The walk to the column from downtown took us through the town’s oldest neighborhood and past many homes on the National Historic Registry. We got a good peek at the condemned and recently auctioned Flavel House (different from the Flavel Mansion, now a museum).
From Coxcomb Hill, entry into the Column and up its spiral staircase is free and only costs your life when the strong winds whisk you off the platform to your death. According to those of us with acrophobia, the view from the hill is just fine.
Finally some food: Bakeries galore
If Scandinavian baked goods are your thing—and why wouldn’t they be?—Astoria, Oregon, is your town. Home Bakery has been making their famous cinnamon toast, called korpus, since 1910. Lindstrom’s Danish Maid, a bakery in the downtown, is a great spot to stock up on goods like Danish “crispies,” donuts, bread and, of course, danishes for your hike to the column. On this trip we stopped at Blue Scorcher, a cooperative bakery near Fort George Brewing, for espressos and a sour cream coffee cake. Their treats are beautiful but seem very vegan and gluten-free-geared, not necessarily qualities I look for in a baked good. Still, the bright atmosphere and strong espresso combined with a great view of the river were worth it.
There’s plenty to occupy a weekend in Astoria, but what about The Goonies? Isn’t that why people go to Astoria, Oregon? Film buffs know the town not only for the 1980’s pirate-themed kid flick, but other examples of cinematic excellence such as Short Circuit, Kindergarten Cop, Benji the Hunted, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. It makes sense that directors find Astoria film-able. It has an element of grandeur, some beauty mixed with industry, a bit of kitsch, and just the hint of a dark side. We like going there.
If Portland, Oregon, is the city “where young people go to retire,” then McMenamins is our country club. The ubiquitous chain scattered throughout Oregon and Washington is akin to an adult Disneyland: playgrounds with booze, movies, and rock shows. Starting with their first location in 1985 (Barley Mill Pub on Portland’s Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard) the McMenamin brothers now operate almost 60 locations—historic buildings, hotels, theaters, and even a few strip-mall storefronts—decorated with their signature style: antique knick knacks, original psychedelic illustrations, European street signs, and rock-and-roll art posters. In addition to nursing a pint at one of their pubs, you can sleep at a McMenamins hotel, see a headliner at one of their music venues, relax at a movie theater, spa, soaking pool, golf course or cigar room, and a few locations offer all these amenities and more at one complex.
Sounds like heaven with a day buzz, right? Not always. Live in the Northwest long enough and you’re bound to hear people complain about the slow, surly service, the overcooked burgers, and the funky-tasting beer. Sure, they distill their own spirits and produce wine from their own vineyard, but they out-price higher-quality establishments in a city known for cheap drinks. And don’t expect a generous pour. McMenamins may be cool but they’re still corporate.
Still, we go. We bring our out-of-town guests. We take in a movie or a soak, and even a pint or two, and we enjoy it most of the time. While even the emptiest bars still have slow service and the beer is a little weird, McMenamins is still fun and, given their prominence, hard to avoid.
Here are some ways to get the most out of the McMenamins experience:
Stay at a hotel (AKA theme park)
For my birthday this year, Peter surprised me with a stay at McMenamins Kennedy School, a 1915 former elementary school in North Portland converted into a hotel (and pubs and bars and a movie theater and a soaking pool) that still retains a school-house theme. Yes, there is a Detention Room where you can smoke cigars and an Honors Room where you can bring your little honor-roll kids.
What I loved most about staying at Kennedy School was sneaking out of our room to watch a movie, then retreating as drunken patrons stumbled around, and then sneaking out again to sip a cocktail in the mostly empty bar, and then again to walk the dark halls late at night. It was like having a back-stage pass to a big-kid theme park and my own room behind the scenes.
Staying at McMenamins’ Kennedy School was an exciting and easy in-town getaway. Edgefield or Grand Lodge would be alternative options for Portlanders who want a mini-vacation including little more than hanging out, watching movies, and bar hopping. Yes, it is possible to pub-crawl at McMenamins without ever leaving McMenamins. Of course, you can check out any time you like.
Go see a show
Even if you hate McMenamins, if you love live music, they’re hard to avoid. Portland’s Crystal Ballroom hosts some of the bigger names in contemporary music and it’s a really fun place to see a live show. The dance floor actually bounces when the dancing gets going. If you’ve ever been out on a girls night or bachelorette party, you’ve likely Roger Rabbited to 1980s hip-hop at Lola’s Room, present company not excluded.
A few years ago, I went to see Neko Case play at the Edgefield Amphitheater. It was an excellent show and reminded me of hippy concerts in the park my mom used to take us too. When it’s sunny and warm, and your favorite band or chanteuse is on stage, the funky, overpriced beer ($7 at the show) somehow tastes better.
Soak on a weekday (and drink!)
I love taking Mondays off for many reasons, mostly because not many other people take Mondays off. It means the grocery store is quiet in the middle of the day and there are fewer crowds at the fun spots around town, including McMenamins soaking pools at Kennedy School, Grand Lodge, and Edgefield. Try to take a dip on the weekend and you’ll end up cheek to cheek with drunken millennials, but go on a Monday morning or a Wednesday at noon, you might have the whole pool to yourself. And of course (remember, it’s a theme park for big kids we’re talking about) you can take your booze with you to the pool. The only downsides are pruned hands and empty pints because unfortunately there isn’t poolside service.
Hit up a suburban spot
I don’t love Starbucks and prefer independent coffee shops, but on the stretch of Interstate 5 between Sacramento and Redding, I am Starbucks’ biggest fan. I love them on these and other rare occasions when there is nothing else consistent and reliable and caffeinated. I feel this way about the suburban McMenamins pubs. At the strip mall in Sherwood, Oregon, tucked in next to the Godfather’s Pizza and a mattress store (or something), the Sherwood Pub has food that tastes like McMenamins food (decent) and beer that’s priced at McMenamins prices (decent). Compared to overpriced chains or lackluster fast-food joints, McMenamins Sherwood pub is an oasis. It’s also where many of the hockey players who play at the nearby ice rink enjoy a post-game pint. Wink wink. Nudge Nudge.
When my favorite sushi restaurant in Hillsboro was closed, I opted for McMenamins Cornelius Pass Roadhouse. If I have to go to Target in East Portland, I might find myself at the Mall 205 pub. Why? It’s better than Mystic Exotic Lounge (formerly a Hooters). It’s my Starbucks in the mist.
Watch a cheap movie (and drink!)
Two words: cheap movies. Okay, four words: cheap movies and beer. When I first moved to Portland, I thought brew-and-views (our cute name for movie theaters where you can order alcohol) were the greatest invention known to mankind. Granted, I grew up in rural California and used to think Round Table Pizza was the greatest invention known to mankind, so it didn’t take much to impress me.
There are a number of brew-and-views in town and some have more screens and better selection. But there is something special about the McMenamins theaters, thanks to McMenamins need to make everything that much more fun and cute and cozy. The Mission Theater in Northwest Portland has excellent ambiance with its balcony seats and the Kennedy School provides a living-room feel with its couches, love seats, and armchairs instead of theater seats. There’s even a special showtime called Mommy Matinee where parents can take their babies and babies can drink for free!
McMenamins may not be where you go for the finest meal and quick attentive service. But they still offer us young retirees many fun activities between our yoga classes and farm-to-fork dinner parties.
Have you been to McMenamins? What do you think about McMenamins? Love them or hate them?
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