A few hundred years ago, the cuisine along the Columbia River revolved around the fish caught in its turbulent waters and the fruit bounty grown on either side. Once tourism took hold in the twentieth century, burger joints and straightfoward American fare was the norm; now the menus go far broader. Even the smallest towns in both Washington and Oregon hold creative eateries and unexpected flavors, though roadside comfort food is never hard to find.
Though the staid exterior in downtown The Dalles suggests a shot-and-a-beer kind of joint, the inside of the nearly 150-year-old building suggests a literary salon—a balcony of ferns and oil paintings on the wall depicting artful nudes. The historic restaurant got a Creole reboot with a new Louisiana chef in 2021, though classics like chicken alfredo and the famed clam chowder still anchor the menu. There aren't many places on the gorge that can offer chaudin terrine and pillow-soft homemade brioche, nor such affordable classic cocktails. Reservations are recommended, even on a weekday.
Two alums from the epicenter of Portland’s food scene turned an old gas station into a dining destination at the very start of the Historic Columbia River Highway, just over a scenic two-lane bridge. Though “dining,” in this case, means pulled pork sandwiches on picnic tables, grilled cheese, pressed in a waffle iron, and salads that sing the praises of nearby farms. Soft serve sundaes bristle with chunks of housemade blondies and blueberry-lavender sauce—Sugarpine even has a house blend of sprinkles. Check the website for the latest particulars on what you can order from the drive thru, online, or at the walkup window beneath a newly built overhang.
Hood River's downtown fine dining restaurant stands out simply because of its simplicity—farm-inspired dishes in a space suited to special occasion dinners. A braised pork shoulder and mole this flavorful demands a thoughtful wine pairing, and Celilo is among the few Gorge establishments that celebrate the wine list first, more than a fun cocktail program or local brews (though they've got that too). You could wear shorts to dinner, but you'll probably wish you'd spiffed up a little more.
The name's a mouthful, but more is more at a funky waterfront eatery flanked by park on both sides, separated from the rest of the town of Stevenson by the railroad. Irreverence rules: Famed explorers Lewis and Clark are depicted on the sign hauling a kiteboard and a pair of skis. Though few tables fit indoors, the year-round glassed-in patio boasts broad river vistas, and Adirondack chairs spread into the grassy lawn beyond. Elk and bison burgers tip the hat to the history of exploration, but the views (and maybe the bloody mary) are the real draw.
Most of the brewpubs along the Gorge boast decent menus, often aping Portland trends like veggie-heavy pizzas or Thai wraps. White Salmon's stalwart brewery is no exception, adding Nashville hot chicken and gyros, nailing the strong flavors that match their slate of beers. An outdoor patio offers something none of the many beer makers across the water in Hood River can: A stellar view of Mount Hood from its outdoor patio. Between a fragrant udon bowl and a sweet potato burrito, Everybody's lives true to its name by truly serving the vegetarian contingent.
This eastern outpost of a popular Portland brunch spot introduces Nordic cuisine to Hood River's usual spread. Baked eggs join spinach and cream for the forlorn-sounding entree called "lost eggs," and Danish pancakes known as aebleskiver—golf ball sized bites of soft, hot dough—come with lingonberry jam and housemade lemon curd. Lunch in the airy space, tucked into the lobby of the historic-but-refurbished Hood River Hotel, includes meatballs, gravlax, and, yes, a burger. The aquavit list spans the globe (Norway! Wisconsin!), with a bartender's choice trio accompanying a serving of pickled herring.