By David & Susan Greenberg
The sea lions barked like feral middle-schoolers taunting a hapless substitute teacher who took a wrong turn into Hell.
Luckily, they were beneath the docks on the other side of the Bowline Hotel from the quiet river side to which you providently upgraded. There’s a lesson here: don’t substitute teach.
The hotel’s not cheap. Then again, Motel 6 is no longer cheap. It’s resurrected from a former cannery, has much of its stout woodwork sandblasted clean and an unparalleled view of working watercraft including colossal cargo ships lit by night like constellations. They gave you a sailor’s pour of prosecco when you checked in. Their “Grown Alchemist” toiletries were so good you had to suppress an urge to filch them. (A bad urge, since your wife would have pitched you to the sea lions.)
There’s an outstanding gas fireplace.
You sat on your deck drinking an exemplary pear sidecar from their restaurant-bar, The Knot, absorbing the view.
Energy waning, you saved the riverside sauna pods for a future visit.
The Bowline’s only flaw was a memory foam mattress that held you, wiggly sleeper, too tight.
Up until the 1970s, Astoria mainly ran on elbow grease. There were canneries and mills, fishermen and loggers. But as resources dwindled, Astoria’s metabolism slowed. To your eye the town was gap-toothed twenty years ago. Though there are still a few small canneries, all the large canneries, like Bumblebee, are repurposed not only as hotels but as breweries and restaurants, one a canning museum. Like hermit crabs taking over empty shells, there are wineries, distilleries, bakeries, galleries, bars, coffeehouses, museums (more per capita than any other city you know). There are food trucks and a food hall. You can stroll the waterfront.
Nothing defines a town more than its restaurants. Restaurants represent the wallet, worldliness, and curiosity of a population. Astoria’s restaurant scene is zesty.
Drina Daisy is a Bosnian restaurant. Simply for daring to start a Bosnian restaurant in Astoria, you admire it. It’s as likely in Astoria as a Namibian restaurant. The interior hearkens to solemnly furnished family restaurants you’ve experienced in Eastern Europe. Each table had an assertive flower display, some fresh, some silk. Many were large orchids overhanging the tables like reading lamps. A spotlight shone on a disco ball coruscating the dimly lit interior with a rotating color-wheel of dots. Formal and gaudy at the same time, it was as though the restaurant was wearing a lime-green prom tuxedo with no sense of irony whatsoever, a look you quite liked.
Your lamb chops were served well-done when you absolutely require medium rare. To be fair, all the lamb you’ve eaten in eastern Europe has been cooked likewise so you should have known. Your wife ordered stuffed (with ground beef and arborio rice) cabbage sauced with stock that was stark delicious. Each of you had a glass of Eastern European wine, fair priced, that was remarkably good. You’ll surely return for the stuffed cabbage and wine and to try their meat stuffed phyllo. And to soak up their inimitable vibe.
You loved a fresh rockfish banh mi at South Bay Wild Fish House that was calibrated so the super-fresh, mild rockfish wasn’t overpowered by the pickled vegetables and spiced mayo. Their calamari was dredged in flour and cornstarch for a crunch to make a calamari fiend bang the table.
Breakfast at The Knot was nummy, a crepe stuffed with scrambled egg, veggies and beef for you, quiche for your wife. A pastry whisperer, she extolled its crust.
Blue Scorcher Bakery & Café occupied yet another industrial-cool space with a stunning harbor view. Their coffee was as good as you can appreciate. Thank goodness your circuit-breakers tripped before the excessive pleasure of their cardamom almond roll caused permanent damage. You purchased a loaf of caraway rye and are pretty sure that 23andMe would confirm it’s the abducted sibling of the glorious caraway ryes you ate at Jewish delis in New York as a child.
Next to the Hanthorn Cannery Museum, Coffee Girl dangles her toes in the Columbia which is not unlike dangling your toes in time itself. Occupying the former cannery’s canteen, it echoes with its past, with the complexity of its workers’ lives, with a time when all natural resources were infinite, hardly a generation removed from a pre-industrial world, when indigenous folk were the dominant local population. Its outer wall was an evocative message-board for many of the women who had worked there.
From within you could feel the river’s thrum, time’s thrum.
For museum lovers, Astoria is tall cotton. Flavel House, The Heritage Museum, The Film Museum, The Columbia River Maritime Museum, to name a few, each a time capsule. Your favorite was The Film Museum, originally the town jail, where the starting scene in The Goonies was filmed. The jail interior looks like the physical manifestation of the kind of Wild West jail you’d see in a Looney Tunes cartoon with Daffy Duck shaking the bars to get out. As compared to today’s grim lockups, this was weirdly comforting.
Astoria today has a jaunty step and snaps its fingers. It is chockablock with good stuff. It is visit perfect. Go.
You stopped at Grizzly Tuna – a roadside stand on 101 – and had their tuna taco and tuna and chips. The taco was scrumptious, fresh, meaty, crunchy, cabbagey, tomatoey, spicey, saucy, with a good deal of cojita cheese crumbled in, messy but worth it.
The deep-fried tuna was ideal and their chips were major league contenders.
You also visited Seaside Inverted Experience across from the bumper cars. It is, by your lights, the greatest attraction in Seaside and one of the great goofy attractions you’ve known. The brainchild of Keith Baker, a Bering Sea fishing-boat captain, he was inspired by imagining the perspective shift he’d experience escaping from his inverted, sinking trawler. Somehow, he turned terrifying into terrific. His studio is filled with upside-down and sideways sets (conceived and built by him) where customers are posed and photographed. Then the pictures are flipped (or inverted) to yield enchanting results that seem to defy the laws of physics. Keith Baker is the Elon Musk of madcap photography. Seaside Inverted Experience will drag-net the entire family.