GEARHART - Our server was unequivocal. "It's the best Caesar you'll ever eat," she proudly announced when we inquired about the salad's attributes. Throughout the evening, this self-assured, late-20s woman enhanced our meal with her banter and repartee and, unlike many servers, never felt the need to introduce herself.

Normally, we believe restaurant help, like some children, should be seen and not necessarily heard. But this lady - Cristianna Weigel, the restaurant's day manager - is a gem and proved a delightful complement to dinner at the coastal-casual Pacific Way Cafe, a place that's unceremonious enough to welcome someone right off the beach outfitted in shorts and flip-flops, yet sufficiently stylish to accommodate a couple dressed to the nines.

Servers come and go with the seasons, frequently using restaurant employment as a stepping stone to other monetary pursuits. Chefs, even though they often wander from restaurant to restaurant, tend to be career-oriented. Britta Nelson, Rick Hubbell, Gretchen Day and others, including current chef Walter Fowler, have ably manned the Pacific Way kitchen.

Fortunately, regime change has never adversely affected the food here, a tribute to owners John and Lisa Allen, who have been at the restaurant's helm since its beginnings some 16 years ago. Their bakery-cafe combo was one of the trendsetters in the Columbia-Pacific region's culinary renaissance, and from its inception, Pacific Way was a culinary destination for knowledgeable diners. Prior to fusion food becoming popular, and well before multi-function cell phones became de rigeur for most diners, this corner hot spot was a hip hangout for espresso sippers and sweetniks. It continues to please with consistency, creativity and occasional brilliance.

To get back to that Caesar: It's a tiptop rendition - hearts of romaine lavished with a tangy dressing that's infused with lemon, anchovies and other Caesar salad standbys. "If not the best, one of the best," my dining companion assured our server.

Even finer was the basket of bread served alongside. Anything originating in co-owner Lisa Allen's oven is exceptional; witness her myriad muffins, peach tarts, apple turnovers and rustic breads. Our favorite one evening was oatmeal-molasses - dense but fluffy, and not at all overly grainy or bereft of flavor like some artisan loaves. Allen's cheese bread has attitude, and her French loaf is unrivaled in this region.

Pacific Way is sandwich and salad central. Light lunchers can sidestep the sizable BLT or club sandwiches - both fine choices, by the way - in favor of an Asian chicken satay salad. Perfectly moist, grilled and skewered fowl arrives atop angel hair pasta and Asian slaw (greens, julienned carrots, chopped cabbage and such), dressed with an invigorating lime-ginger vinaigrette - an ideal warm-weather salad freshener.

Other meal-on-a-plate salads showcase orzo pasta, shrimp cakes or soft-shell crab. Our favored sandwiches are the hot roast beef layered with provolone and gorgonzola cheeses; and the restaurant's signature Island Ham, garnished with dill cream cheese and an assertive cilantro-pineapple-jalapeno relish.

Razor clams aren't tricky to prepare - a short stint in a fry pan usually is sufficient - but few restaurants do the heavenly bivalves justice. Here, they're doused in buttermilk, coated with cracker meal and bread crumbs and quickly grilled. Green beans and jasmine rice (too lightly seasoned for our taste) provide an adequate, if not exciting, accompaniment. A superior catch is the lusty saffron- and tomato-infused Northwest bouillabaisse, this region's standout seafood stew.

Land-based appetites are well-served by the Summer Grill, a lineup of andouille sausage, filet mignon and seasonal veggies sided with that splendid orzo salad. Vegan risotto (chicken or shrimp are optional) is blended with snap peas, carrots and peppers. All showcase nicely against the backdrop of pearly white Italian arborio rice - delectably creamy, but too sweet with an overdose of coconut and ginger.

Pizza always is an splendid evening alternative, and every one borders on breathtaking, thanks in part to its substantial crust. Olive oil and garlic are substituted for tomato sauce on all but a couple of pies, including a Thai chicken pizza slathered with a sassy peanut spread. Toppings run the gamut from typical to wildly imaginative: seasonal squash on the primavera, roasted red potatoes on the gorgonzola and sliced apples on the blue cheese pizza. Pretty much everybody who has sampled it agrees the tomato-basil pie is simply perfect. There are fairly priced wines, 80 in all, to go with pizza or anything else on the menu.

And desserts: Oh my, they're remarkable and yet another indication of Lisa Allen's baking genius. But don't overlook her house-made gelato, ice creams and sorbets, impossibly smooth, ambrosial creations that will leave you yearning for just one more spoonful.

Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103, or phone (503) 325-3211, or e-mail mouth@dailyastorian.com

Pacific Way Bakery & Cafe

Three stars (out of four)

601 Pacific Way, Gearhart

(503) 738-0245

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday through Monday (lunch 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m., dinner 5-9 p.m.). Bakery open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday through Monday (all summer hours).

Prices: Moderate to expensive. Dinner for two will cost $50 or more.

Superior selections: Asian chicken satay salad, orzo pasta salad, Island Ham sandwich, roast beef and blue cheese sandwich, Northwest bouillabaisse, Summer Grill, tomato-basil, primavera and Pacific Way combo pizzas, creme brulee, homemade ice creams and sorbets, French bread and numerous baked treats

Atmosphere: Sophisticated look, urban feel in a casual beachy setting

Service: Usually top-notch (with an occasional too-long wait between courses)

Kid-friendly: Yes, and the wait staff is used to dealing with youngsters.

Vegetarian options: A few salads, portabello burger, poblano bread pudding, a vegan Asian risotto, seven pizzas and an occasional vegetarian ravioli

Alcohol: Beer and a substantial, well-priced wine list of 80 bottles

Access: The front entrance is accessible to people with disabilities. Those in wheelchairs may have difficulty negotiating the restroom doors.

Credit cards:Mastercard, Visa

Personal checks: OK

Reservations:Recommended for dinner

Smoking: Not permitted

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