After 43 years, The Ship Inn in Astoria is setting sail at the end of the month.
For owner Jill Stokeld, quickly approaching retirement brings both the uncertainty of a new chapter in life, and the freedom of no longer having to run a business she’s been trying to sell for more than a decade.
Almost a year ago, Bellingham, Washington-based developer Mark Hollander bought The Ship Inn and signed a one-year lease for Stokeld to continue operating the restaurant. Hollander, who recently bought Stephanie’s Cabin next door, now owns the majority of the block and is already exploring how to place a Marriott hotel on Port of Astoria property near the Maritime Memorial.
Hollander’s purchase came as a relief to Stokeld, who had put the restaurant on the market in 2005 after her husband and the restaurant’s co-founder, Fenton Stokeld, died the year prior.
Rumors have flown about whether Hollander will try to site a hotel on the city block. Stokeld’s husband had dreams of building a hotel, conference center and marina around The Ship Inn. But Stokeld said Hollander had been interested in having her operate The Ship Inn longer, or in finding someone else to take over and keep the restaurant going.
“I almost feel guilty because so many people have been giving me a bad time because they think a hotel is going in,” she said. “But it’s been for sale for 12 years. I don’t know what’s really going to happen, but I took the offer because I thought, ‘I’ll be here until I die if I don’t.’”
Stokeld and her husband, who are from Cornwall, England, in the south and Yorkshire in the north, met in San Francisco. She was a secretary and Fenton worked with two of his brothers at Pickwick British Meat Pie and Sausage Co., supplying English pubs. The two married in 1968 and have two daughters and a son, all living in the Pacific Northwest.
“We figured we would never have met in England, ever,” she said of the chance meeting in the U.S. “We were worlds apart. North of England and south of England are almost like two separate entities.”
When the couple visited a friend in Astoria, Stokeld said her husband noticed the dearth of local restaurants. They moved north, and Fenton went to work initially for Rae Goforth’s Fiddler’s Green, an Irish restaurant in what later became Cafe Uniontown. The couple later started their first restaurant, Pickwick Fish & Chips, in Seaside.
“In Seaside, in those days, everything closed on Labor Day,” she said. “It was a real summer resort. That was the season, then everything closed down. So this opportunity came up, and its year-round in Astoria.”
Stokeld said the owner of what was then the Mermaid Tavern wasn’t happy with the bar’s reputation, and offered the couple a chance.
A taste of England
The Ship Inn opened June 7, 1974. Over the years, the restaurant has become locally and nationally recognized for its English fare such as Cornish pasties, fish and chips, bangers and mash, and steak and kidney pies.
“My husband insisted, you always have to have top quality and people will come back,” Stokeld said.
Behind the bar at the restaurant is album after album full of photos from Halloween, Christmas and other parties. Stokeld said those memories, and the innumerable customers and employees behind them throughout the years, are what she will miss most.
“This is kind of my social life,” she said. “I spend so much time down here chatting with the customers.”
Stokeld said she’s going to miss the sunsets from the dining room of her restaurant, but is excited to continue volunteering and experience Astoria like a business owner often can’t.
“You don’t participate in all the events, because you’re always at work,” she said. “Like different shows they have on. I really want to do (Second Saturday) Art Walk. I’ve never done that.
“Sometimes I go downtown and there’s been a business there for two years, and I’ve never seen it before. I think I’m going to wander around a lot, and check everything out.”