CANNON BEACH - This tony town's most spectacularly situated restaurant, occupying a bluff above the beach in view of sand and surf with Haystack Rock dominating the backdrop, always has suffered an image problem.
On one hand, who wouldn't want to dine here, given the world-beating vistas available from the restaurant's west-facing wall of windows? This is one killer setting. Plus, chef Will Leroux's kitchen consistently purveys satisfactory meals.
Conversely, at least a few customers have departed the Wayfarer feeling they've paid too high a price for essentially frou-frou formula food, dishes such as wild mushroom chicken and artichoke Pacific snapper. This disgruntled group claims the Wayfarer proves the adage that the quality of a restaurant's fare is inversely proportional to its location. In other words, when it comes to eating out, extraordinary food and stellar views don't mix.
If two recent dinners are indicative, we disagree. And lots of others concur with our assessment. The Wayfarer attracts a sizable tourist trade, and locals frequent the lounge and dine here, too. That said, this long-standing restaurant faces an ongoing dilemma: how to gain acceptance among a certain type of diner whom some might call snobby - people who dismiss the Wayfarer for subbing style over substance. Especially because the restaurant touts its family-friendly atmosphere, it's difficult, if not impossible, for the kitchen to be inventive, much less cutting-edge.
OK, the deal here isn't so much about the kitchen's creativity as its reliability, and the restaurant's successful formula centers around pretty presentations, considerable portions and predictable, "safe" entrees. Frankly, the Wayfarer is as much about substance as style.
Settle into the expansive and striking carpeted dining area, soak in the view, peruse the menu and ... well, it isn't a terribly exciting read. Oh, there are a couple intriguing starters - baked mushroom caps spiked with wine and brimming with cheeses and smoked salmon and hazelnuts matched with hummus - but the rest probably won't get your juices flowing.
However humdrum the menu, it covers the culinary surf and turf that most diners favor in a restaurant: nine seafood dishes, a trio of steaks, two chicken preparations and a splendid clam chowder. By the way, that artichoke snapper is hardly formulaic or frou-frou. Solid would be a more apt description for the two ample filets that marry well with sauteed artichoke hearts. A medley of mushrooms nicely enhances a roasted breast of chicken tinged with red wine. Both entrees arrive with perfectly prepared green beans and asparagus, along with a generous helping of wild rice, each long grain a blend of chewy, nutty texture and flavor.
But if you crave, say, an adventuresome pasta dish, forget it; an exemplary rendition of fettuccine Alfredo is the sole option. Pan-fried oysters are fine, but something other than typical tartar sauce would provide a real perk. And why coat succulent tiger prawns in beer batter? Deep-frying these gems seems like a culinary faux pas, if not a travesty.
The Wayfarer's extensive wine list - 70 choices - is worth a look for those willing to open their wallets. Most bottles are priced well more than double retail - that is, more than twice as much as someone would pay in a supermarket or a wine store. Prime picks in the favored less-than-$25 category include a $21.95 Snoqualmie (Wash.) cabernet-merlot blend, a $19.95 Columbia Crest (Wash.) chardonnay and Trapiche (Argentina) malbec for $22.95. Pours by the glass range from Columbia Crest cabernet sauvignon and Spanish sparkling wine to King Estate (Ore.) pinot gris; all fetch between $5 and $8.75.
Servers are well-informed, and like our 30-something waiter one evening, can even be clever and playful. After I inadvertently almost knocked a plate out of his hand, he commented with a laugh: "I like this table; you folks are a challenge." Throughout our meal, this gentleman engaged us in witty conversation, well beyond the ubiquitous and apparently requisite "How were your entrees?" kind of comments. During dessert (an overly sweet Kahlua cheesecake), he wistfully proclaimed the Wayfarer's pastry chef to be one of his heroes.
We enjoyed our server immensely; in fact his enthusiasm revved up our meal to a level beyond what the food was capable. "That guy was cute," a female member of our party said as we walked out the door. "He conveyed more drama than our dinner."
Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103, phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Two and a half stars (out of four)
1190 Pacific Drive, Cannon Beach
Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
Prices: Moderate to expensive. Starters cost $3.25 to $14.95, entrees $13.95 to $27.95. Dinner for two, including wine, desserts and tip, could easily crest $75.
Superior selections: Clam chowder, alder smoked salmon with hazelnut hummus, pan-fried oysters, artichoke Pacific snapper, wild mushroom chicken.
Atmosphere: Upscale, but not pretentious. The attractive oceanfront dining area boasts some of the best views from any restaurant anywhere.
Service: Informative and friendly, with a witty, nonintrusive manner.
Kid-friendly: Yes, and there's a kiddie menu.
Vegetarian options: Limited - just one entree (fettuccine Alfredo) on the current dinner menu.
Alcohol: Full bar plus an extensive wine list, including 16 wines by the glass.
Access: The entrance and restrooms are accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Credit cards: All major cards.
Personal checks: Not accepted.
Reservations: Recommended for dinner.
Smoking: Not permitted in the restaurant or lounge.