Astoria, Oregon: the city where gritty meets pretty

As it evolves on the Columbia, please remember: This damp, historic spot is a river town, not an ocean tourist stop.

IN THE OLDEST Euro-settlement on the north Pacific Coast, you don’t get far past the appetizer stage at dinner before The Question, heavy and potent as a guttural sea-lion belch, floats out into the humidity-rich air: Can the old cannery/new hipster town of Astoria, Oregon, the spit-polished barnacle on the backside of progressively precious-to-the-point-of-self-parody Portland, refashion itself into a place where Generation Kindle wants to live — but still maintain its used-bookstore roots?

The waitress isn’t sure.

“Really, it’s whether the town can keep that sense of cragginess,” she says.

Cragginess. As in, with crag. A rugged face.

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No question Astoria, a vivid, living memorial to the promise and pathos that would spring forth after that fateful spring day in 1811 when the former fur-trading fort became the first lasting foothold in the wild Oregon Territory, has it in spades.

Nor that a satisfactory maintenance of the crag/non-crag balance — or as a former city manager famously put it, the battle between “gritty and pretty” — is as common a discussion topic on bar stools along Astoria’s waterfront as a new strain of IPA from one of the old town’s new breweries.

Some degree of crag, the waitress finally concluded, is good for Astoria — perhaps even vital. This verdict came with no apparent recognition of the irony that the manicured thumbs-up for “gritty” occurred at Bridgewater Bistro, a fine-dining establishment occupying a pier space on a riverfront that once cranked out pallets of canned Bumble Bee tuna, but today dishes up what’s called ahi, seared to rare and served with the requisite gluten-free butternut squash risotto and sherry beurre noisette — at 27 bucks a plate.

All of which is a fancy way of opening…

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