The source of Oregon is not Portland. It is Astoria, a port town full of dive bars where the women drink as much as the men. It remains true to the run-down, ramshackle, chipped-toothed dream that first drew waves of Midwestern bohemians to Portland in the '90s, and now draws Portlanders to Astoria.
John Jacob Astor made Fort Astoria the first European settlement on the West Coast back in 1811. Runaways have been washing up here for as long as ships have been wrecking on the treacherous sandbar at mouth of the Columbia.
Astoria is a town built on disaster.
First it was the shipwrecks, tracked in hilarious detail at the Columbia River Maritime Museum on the east side of town.
Then it was the great fire, which swept through all of downtown in 1922. Everything here was built in the '20s, from ramshackle mansions with peeling paint to the fireproof brick of Commercial Street, where a small-town J.C. Penney somehow held on until this year. And so Hollywood visits again and again to film, whether for Free Willy, Kindergarten Cop, a Benji sequel or the movie that forms Astoria's true myth, The Goonies.
The third defining disaster of Astoria was the complete collapse of the tuna-canning and logging industries in the '80s, leaving behind a town so hard up that some bars reportedly had to accept food stamps for beer.
And so Astoria built on beer. The old site of Fort Astoria is now, in true Oregon fashion, a brewery called Fort George. The failed canneries along the river now also sell beer, whether Rogue atop the old Bumble Bee cannery or German brewery Buoy out on the piers that line the entire Columbia River shore of the city, which remain endlessly troubled by hundreds of braying sea lions.
Perhaps to the chagrin of the blue-collar fisherfamilies who still call it home, visitors come from as far away as Tibet to see the Goonies house, the jail where the Fratelli family escaped in a daring prison break, and the bowling alley where Chunk smeared pizza on the window.
Astoria feels, more than anything, like Old Portland. It is drunked-up heaven—a blue-collar burg full of small-town grotesques and artisanal coffee shops. It is, perhaps, the most Oregon place in Oregon.
Check in at the Goonies House
Every time you come to Astoria, you must visit the Goonies House (368 38th St.). This is the place Sean Astin lived when the world loved him best, as a Goonie named Mikey with far too much heart to keep the tears at bay.
Related: A Goonies Tour of Astoria
There are caveats, however: Sandi Preston, the owner of the Goonies house, who said she prayed that the Lord would give her the Goonies house, nonetheless said "die" to the estimated 1,000 Goonie fans who visited her home each day. She ripped off the "Goonies Welcome" sign from its perch at the bottom of her road, supplanting it with a threateningly red "Private Property: No Trespassing" sign.
Next to that sign, another sign pasted up in the haphazard pastiche of a kidnapping note reads, "Do not drive or walk up to view or take pictures of Goonie House. Private Drive. Police Will Be Called. No Turn Around." Well, it's not a private drive. It's a public road, and you have the right to walk or drive up it. Never say die, and feel no guilt.
Beer up at the place that saved Astoria
Astoria makes no sense sober, in no small part because no one else is sober. As somebody is sure to tell you at some point during your stay, it's a drinking town with a fishing problem—designed by drunks for drunks.
And so it's fitting that the town's economic salvation came in 2007, in the form of Fort George Brewery (1483 Duane St., 503-325-7468, fortgeorgebrewery.com). It now passes for "corporate" out here if you ask a fisherman or the unemployed. But it's good beer. Bypass the decent wings on the main floor and the decent pizza on the top floor, and slip instead into the bare-bones Lovell Taproom through a door on the brewing floor, which houses all the most interesting brews. If you can, get a 12-percent-ABV cacao-nib Matryoshka Russian Imperial Stout that's like a dark-chocolate bar made of beer.
Eat oyster poutine made by the town mascot
Everybody in Astoria knows Eric Bechard. He's the guy with the vintage pick-up, the knuckle tattoos, the story of the strip-club fist fight over the provenance of a heritage pig, the fetish for wild game and for produce from the co-op, and the terrific food and cocktails at his booze-happy restaurant Albatross & Co. (225 14th St., 503-741-3091, albatrossandcompany.com).
The Albatross would be one of our favorite hangs in Portland, if it were in Portland. The $9 cocktails are stiff and stirred, the pork-centric Ol' Ironsides ($12) an inspired cross between a Cubano and a Reuben, the Dungeness-topped deviled eggs ($8) heavenly, the clam-gravy oyster "poutine" ($12) an accomplishment in unlikely comfort. Bechard will likely be your bartender: Sit at the bar and ask him what's going on in town. He'll always know what's up.
Watch punk-rock jazz at the chowder house tiki bar
The bartenders late nights at Charlie's Chowder House (1335 Marine Drive, 503-741-3055) are punk rockers with an affinity for tiki. The tiki drinks aren't much to speak of—you're best off ordering a loose-wristed gin and tonic or a $5 margarita—but where else at 10 pm in Astoria will you see an eye-tattooed flapper girl in her 20s doing a steampunk jazz version of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, in a crowd packed with Russian goths and people with wallet chains?
End your night at the Chart Room\
All nights in Astoria end at the Chart Room (1196 Marine Drive, 503-741-3037). Bechard, from the Albatross? He's here. The servers from Buoy Brewing? From Mary Todd's? The dude at the heavy-metal shop, and the shampoo girl at the hair salon? They are all at the Chart Room, a dim and narrow elbow-bar dive next to Astoria Brewing. It doesn't matter how calm the night once seemed. If it is 1 am, everyone is here. And they are so drunk.
Have a Scandinavian morning
The Scandis have long been fisherfolk, and Astoria is proud of its Finnish and Swedish heritage, its Finnish-named hair salons, and its fourth-generation Swedish cannery and fifth-generation Finnish bakery. Roust yourself anytime after 9:30 am for a salmon-bagel breakfast at Josephson's Smokehouse (106 Marine Drive, 503-325-2190, josephsons.com) with some of the finest fresh-smoked salmon you'll ever find—lox-style, maple-smoked or pepper-crusted.
You can also eat the salmon straight, like a happy animal, and take some salmon jerky for the road. Then eat dessert for breakfast at 107-year-old Home Bakery (2845 Marine Drive, 503-325-4631, astoriacinnamontoast.com), where the very religious Tilander family is famous for its 50-cent crackery cinnamon toast made according to the old Finnish tradition of "korpus."
Drink a milkshake at Chunk's bowling alley
In The Goonies, Lower Columbia Bowl (826 Marine Drive, 503-325-3321) is where Chunk saw the most amazing thing that he ever saw: a prison-break car chase from the Fratelli crime family that caused him to smear both milkshake and pizza across a nearby window, with the pizza slice artfully placed so as to stop the McDonald's sign from showing up in the movie.
Do not smear anything on the window, but do order a strawberry milkshake and leaf through the guest book filled with Goonie-lovers from as far away as Nepal. Longtime staffer Cindy McEwan remembers poor Chunk crying because it took so many takes to get it right. What a baby.
Drink hazy beer and eat food-cart barbecue
Is it noon already? You are so sober! Well, it must be time to stop in at Astoria's brand-new home of hazy New England-style IPA, Reach Break Brewing (1343 Duane St., 503-468-0743), founded in February and devoted to barrel-aged beers, cloudy and juicy IPAs from session to double, and novelty darks like a Chocolate Shake that tastes like a liquid Hershey's. Get the Mydas double IPA, especially, or a lavender-tinged saison aged in gin barrels from nearby Pilot House Distilling. The interior is bare-bones, but all of Astoria is out on the patio even at noon, sipping taster flights. You can get food from Portland-born Hot Box barbecue cart or a great little cart called Sasquatch Sausage that serves up a terrific flat-patty Korean-barbecue sandwich with kimchi slaw.
Get a vintage stoner-metal tee and a bong
Astoria is home to the best metal lifestyle store in the state devoted to sunny-day stoner metal. Metal Head (1126 Marine Drive, 503-468-0865, metalheadastoria.com) sports naked Viking ladies painted onto felt, a festive ram's head on the wall and perhaps the best vintage-metal tee selection in the Northwest, from Dokken and David Gilmour tour shirts to a powder-blue '70s tee from the Blue Öyster Cult. John Gentner, perhaps the chillest dude in Astoria, also sells vintage Playboy VHS tapes and a small selection of glass, which you can make use of after a visit to chill pot shop Hi Astoria (193 Marine Drive, 503-741-3119) down the street.
Drink a fine Bavarian beer while watching kids watch sea lions
It's time for another beer. Specifically, the helles at Buoy (1 8th St., 503-325-4540, buoybeer.com), only available at this sprawling brewpub located in a former fishing cannery. It's one of the finest examples of this tank-intensive style in Oregon. Because Buoy is literally built on top of a cannery pier, it was also built on top of a mess of sea lions. And so while the view from the patio out onto the Columbia River is nice, it's more fun to look through the glass floor, where rutting, grunting sea lions are mere feet below.
This, predictably, turns the thick glass into Romper Room, as adults maneuver around children sprawling above Astoria's most hilarious nuisance.
Take a walk on the boardwalk to the city's only beach
You can take the tourist trolley along Astoria's riverbanks, but it's more fun to simply walk west along the boardwalk, past historic sites like Astoria's onetime Finnish Socialist Hall, where in 1913 a gathering of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims were said to have started start the Indian independence movement that culminated in the movie Gandhi, starring Ben Kingsley. (The hall has since burned down.) Beneath the great bridge connecting Astoria across the the Columbia to Long Beach, you will find a small tract of sand that is Astoria's sole beachfront.
Eat alligator like a fisherman
Ask any real Astorian where to get good seafood in town, and they'll tell you a middling tourist restaurant with tablecloths. But ask where they like to eat seafood themselves, and they'll always eventually arrive at the same answer: Northwest Wild (354 Industry St., 503- 791-1907), on Cannery Pier near the little riverside beach, in the same building as the Astoria Yacht Club.
There, in a little dockside canning shop where fishers clean their catch before selling it to the cannery, you can buy live crab or crawdads, shucked oysters, a whole fresh Dungeness crab, or the finest chowder in Astoria, Rob's Phone Chowder ($12.50), so thick with crab and shrimp it might as well be étouffée. The owner has a strange fetish for weird meat, so this is also the spot in Astoria where you can get python ($46 per pound), frog legs, kangaroo steak or a goat-rib special.
Learn the secret of the Yucca
At Mary Todd's Workers Bar & Grill (281 W Marine Drive, 338-7291), the ashtrays on the back porch, under the swooping freeway, are warty Willapa Bay oyster shells. The ceiling fans are hung with brassieres, and seemingly every surface is decorated with dollar bills sharpied with the name or philosophy of former visitors (sample: "Give me some numbers, daddy!"). When you walk in, it'll look like half the customers are trying to either pop popcorn or burp a baby. Turns out they're shaking their Yucca. A river-town Oregon tradition invented by rafters, the $9 Yucca is a double-shot vodka lemonade you receive in a Mason jar wrapped in a towel. Shake until the ice stops rattling, you're told. This takes an eternity, but when you're done it's like a manually made sugar-lemon slushy, with the consistency of liquid velvet.
Show solidarity at the Labor Temple
If you want to drink with fishers, stop by the Portway (422 W Marine Drive, 503-325-2651), an ode to dinghies and life preservers near Mary Todd's.
But if you would like to show your solidarity with all workers everywhere, go to the rowdy Labor Temple (934 Duane St., 503-325-0801, labortemple.com), a sprawling and pool-tabled bar and diner located in an old union hall that just recently won back the right to serve shots of liquor after 6 pm.
Is it really their fault a guy got stabbed in the eye with a bottle here a few years back? We think not. Both the guy with the bum eye and the guy who stabbed him are still regulars.
Get crunk at a black-magic-themed movie theater
The Voodoo Room (1114 Marine Drive, 503-325-2233, columbianvoodoo.com) is an explosion of Ouija-board kitsch, and it's where almost every Portland band plays when they play Astoria, whether Dead Moon or Hey Lover. The bar is cash only, like the movie theater it's attached to: a hall of tiki-mask and Santeria knickknacks with an elk head above the blue-velvet-draped corner that serves as the stage, home also to a peanut gallery of stage-mask grotesques with buck teeth or knife-serrated noses, and beard hair that looks like it came from a broom. Above the bar, meanwhile, angry black-light-art Hindu Ganesha presides uncontested.
Hang out with Portlanders at Astoria's only strip club
Right across from the police station and the firehouse, and halfway to Knappa along the river, there's a strip club called Annie's Uppertown Tavern (2897 Marine Drive, 503-325-1102), with a lit-up sign sporting an unambiguous silhouette of a very classy lady. Inside the tunnel of a bar leading to the rear stage, you'll discover Astoria is where Portland strippers go when they're tired of Portland. Half the dancers at Annie's, on our visit, were from Stumptown.
Get Astoria's best hangover breakfast at the place that gave you the hangover
What happened last night? Ask around at tiny, cash-only diner the Columbian Cafe (1114 Marine Drive, 503-325-2233) next to the Voodoo Room, which looks like a 1950s boat pantry with a diner counter. The chef wears a pirate bandana and tells you he plans to enter his elk-mole chili in a cookoff at the local Grange, while the server might warn you that the Blue Steel of her rage stare is nothing to be trifled with. Get the Dungeness omelette or place yourself at the "chef's mercy" ($18), a sort of breakfast omakase where you'll receive a seafood hash of more fresh crab, shrimp, veggies, potatoes and spice than you would have ever asked for yourself, smothered in sunny-side-up eggs.
Walk to the top of the world
Atop the 600-foot hill on the southern edge of downtown sits the Astoria Column, a 125-foot spire devoted to the early explorers of Astoria, painted in a wraparound frieze by Italian artist Attilio Pusterla in 1926.
Take the endless hairpin-spiral staircase, where an elderly Japanese woman and a young boy might each have their own version of a panic attack. Afraid of heights? Claustrophobic? Easily dizzy? This is where you'll find out, before sailing a little balsa glider off the top of the column, where you can behold the Coastal range, the graceful arc of Astoria, and the clear-cuts of Knappa.
Take a local absinthe ritual
Larry Cary can't catch a break. When he started North Coast Distilling three years ago, it never occurred to him he might get a cease and desist letter from California's North Coast Brewing. So he changed it to Pilot House Spirits last year, at which point he became acquainted with the lawyers at Portland's House Spirits. Well, he's hoping maybe Pilot House Distilling (1270 Duane St., 503-884-7175, pilothousedistilling.com) will work out better. Stop by his little tasting room and get a snootful of absinthe or aquavit with the proper glassware, or especially the killer house bloody mary, made with house mix and peppery vodka. Cary hopes his luck will change when he starts selling premixed canned Bloodies in liquor stores later this year.
Stop in for the king of custard
Greg Glover, a DJ at KNRK-FM in Portland, likes to go to Astoria. Taken by the faded pink swirl of a long-defunct 1950s-era Custard King stand (1597 Commercial St., 503-325-5464, custardkingastoria.com), he enlisted a buddy, Franz Spielvogel of Laughing Planet, and they've restored it to its former glory. The burgers and fries and especially the service are sort of a travesty—the punky, hungover dude behind the glass is as officiously condescending as the French waiter in '80s movies—but the custard is beautiful and thick with an eggy tang. Don't get fancy. Get a $2.50 cone of vanilla or chocolate, and leave town in good spirits.
443 14th St., 503-325-6989, norbladhotel.com.
The Norblad is a front, of sorts. The main room of this Scandinavian-style hostel in a 90-year-old building is like a Norman Rockwell painting of a hipster hang, with David Hasselhoff vinyl, a fake woodpile next to a fake fireplace, and a front-desk man who looks like Moby playing records at the reception desk. But no one will hang here, really. Each room is industrial no-frills, with thin mattresses and bathrooms down the hall painted charmingly as if they're under the sea. Still, a bed in a four-bunk room is a mere $33 for each person, so if you're rolling at three deep, you'll get a big-ass room to yourselves right across from Fort George Brewing downtown.
131 W Marine Drive, 503-325-4051.
Atomic Motel is a bit like the Jupiter when the Jupiter began as a low-price party hotel, a midcentury moto-lodge that decided to embrace its identity with uncommon fervor. And so 1960s multicolored polka dots reign, there are faux Roy Lichtenstein pop art and diner-kitsch pictures on the walls declaring "Oh my god! My mother was right about everything!" and a hotel fridge with pink-and-blue pastel patterns that looks like a Pee-Chee exploded.
258 14th St., 503-325-4747, commodoreastoria.com.
The Commodore is Astoria's Ace Hotel, complete with the cafe at the bottom that serves Stumptown Coffee and plays records on a record player in a little downstairs lounge. If you got some sweet vinyl at Metal Head downtown, the hotel will in fact loan you your own record player for your room so you're not long without Megadeth. There's a growler hour, where a free mason jar of Fort George beer is yours for the drinking. It's so much like Portland, it's sort of like not leaving Portland at all.
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