WHEELER - Imagine entering a time warp, and somehow ending up in San Francisco, Berkeley or even Eugene three decades ago. Hungry for company and a hot beverage, you walk into a corner coffeehouse furnished with a few wooden tables, couches and mismatched chairs. Flyers advertising this or that event are pinned to one wall, provocative artwork decorates another and reading material is strewn throughout. A statuesque woman with long, flowing hair and a voice pure enough to make you cry is singing folk ballads and playing guitar.
You amble up to the counter past the performer and order a cup of unembellished java and a sticky bun from a 20-something female who everyone calls Heaven. A few minutes later, you cozy over to a table draped with a colorful covering and peruse the stack of newspapers while sipping your beverage and noshing your sweet treat. A shaggy-haired gent who resembles Father Time is camped on one of the couches. Nearby, a couple of fashionably attired women talk politics.
Back to reality. That laid-back coffeehouse scene is gone, you say, replaced by more frenetic espresso parlors overseen by barristas hawking double cappuccinos, hazelnut lattes and skinny chais to patrons with cell phones glued to their ears. True enough, unless you happen to step inside Wheeler's Orpheus Coffee & Tea House, an establishment that exudes a 1970s ambience.
No kidding about Heaven, either. Heaven Hartford and husband David Miottel opened Orpheus in August. "We wanted a comfortable space to hang out that served good, fresh food and that was open past 5 p.m.," says Hartford. She terms her coffeehouse an "all-ages atmosphere where you can meet other members of the community."
The Orpheus certainly is inviting. And while the place may look and feel retro, the food and drink are up-to-date, beginning with the usual lineup of coffee beverages and a superior selection of loose teas. But direct your gaze beyond the cappuccino machine, back to the kitchen where Hartford and Miottel share duties. This enclave of contemporary culinary skill is where the coffeehouse really shines.
Sandwiches prepared with artisan breads from Portland's Grand Central Bakery are delightful - say, a free-range chicken breast on rustic Como bread spread with roasted garlic. Other garnishes might include basil aioli (on the roasted eggplant sandwich) and a sassy horseradish sauce for the steak.
Soups are hearty, rib-warming blends of seasonal vegetables and well-chosen herbs. Before your initial spoonful, take a deep breath: A bowl of squash, rice and sage soup is as exhilarating as a late-November hike up the flanks of nearby Neahkahnie Mountain; silky-textured potato-leek soup may take your breath away, causing you to swoon with anticipation.
And if the Orpheus purveyed just soups and sands, the place would be a worthwhile destination. But dinners are inexpensive and sometimes exceptional. Well-conceived preparations such as eggplant lasagna, spanikopita and potato, leek and fennel au gratin are fancy fare for a casual coffeehouse. But consider the comforting winter curry crammed with hefty chunks of potatoes, mushrooms and squash, the veggie flavors further heightened by a pineapple chutney. It's a robust repast guaranteed to ward off any seasonal chill. Equally unfrilly is a stalwart beef stew and a platter of enchiladas stuffed with zucchini, red peppers and mushrooms, then topped with melted cheddar.
Of course, any coffeehouse worth its beans purveys scrumptious baked goods. Miottel's cinnamon-nut sticky buns may be Tillamook County's finest. Even more of a standout are the desserts: apple-ginger pie, ginger-lemon pound cake, chocolate cake iced with a chocolate-coffee ganache. Driving 86 miles roundtrip from Astoria for a slice of apple, pear and fig pie covered with a delicately latticed crust and a dollop of creme fraiche would not be frivolous.
Yet another aspect of this coffeehouse's appeal is its commanding view of awe-inspiring Nehalem Bay, nearby Neahkahnie Mountain and neighboring Coast Range peaks. Still, there's a caveat: The Orpheus is not a duck-in-and-dine restaurant. Hartford, Miottel and their staff are purposeful and unhurried. Whether it be for a mocha or a meal, you stand in line and order at the counter, and chit chat is not discouraged. Expedient service sometimes takes a back seat to the friendly vibe.
So don't be in a rush. Savor what the Orpheus has to offer: splendid bargain meals, ambrosian desserts, occasional live music and a soul-satisfying atmosphere that's a throwback to 30 years past. That's a lot more than anyone would expect from a coffee and tea outlet in sleepy Wheeler. Heck, the place even sells T-shirts. But no, they're not tie-dyed.
Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Orpheus Coffee & Tea HouseHours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Inexpensive. Soups and sandwiches cost $2.50 to $6.50, a la carte dinner entrees $6 to $10, desserts $3.50.
Superior selections: Potato leek soup, free-range chicken sandwich, eggplant lasagna, winter vegetable curry, apple-pear-fig pie, sweet-potato pie, ginger-lemon pound cake, cinnamon buns
Atmosphere: Retro coffeehouse look and feel, with darn good food and luscious desserts
Service: Coffeehouse casual. You order at the counter and a server delivers your meal.
Kid-friendly: The owners' two children are sometimes at large. But kids may not appreciate the limited food choices.
Vegetarian options: Ample options, ranging from arugula salad to tofu with peanut sauce
Alcohol: None currently available. A wine and beer license is pending.
Access: The entrance is accessible to people with disabilities. Handicap-accessible restrooms are in back of the building via a hallway.
Credit cards: Not accepted
Personal checks: OK
Reservations: Not necessary
Smoking: Not permitted