Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.
There is really only one thing on the menu in Alaska: seafood. There are hot dogs and hamburgers and steaks, of course, but no one should travel all the way to Alaska to eat the same slop they can have at home.
Most of the people who travel to Alaska have access to local seafood on their cruise ship’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Now, I love gorging myself as much as the next person, but one of the true joys of traveling Alaska on your own is having the leisure to dine in local restaurants and indulge in the fine cuisine–most of which seems to have been plucked out of the ocean that very morning.
Ketchikan certainly has its share of tasty restaurants and cool bars that are not only delicious, but blanketed in Alaskan ambience one simply cannot find on a 5,000 person ship. The following are some of the favorites we discovered during our stay in this fine town.
Annabelle’s Famous Keg and Chowder House
This restaurant/saloon has an old wooden interior that sucks you back in time to the turn of the century. The bar itself, located in the historic 1927 Gilmore Hotel, is something right out of an old western and I half expected to see a pair of swinging doors at the entrance. Oddly enough, it also evokes the ambiance of an East Coast mob haunt as though these two schools of architecture had combined in some strange Alaskan mélange whose byproduct proved far homier.
The menu is primarily pub food but with a tasty seafood twist. I tried out the $13.50 halibut cheek BLT on my first day in Ketchikan and loved the way the bacon nicely complimented the delicious fish. The second time I visited I opted for the breaded, stuffed shrimp. Although it too was quite nice, I was slightly disappointed by the heavy grease factor which accompanied it; the portions were huge and I felt like I had downed a glass of cooking oil by the time I finished.
Dessert, on the other hand, counteracted the grease and sent me spinning off into culinary nirvana. Although Annabelle’s famous peanut butter pie was probably even worse for my heart than the breaded shrimp, this creamy, rich concoction was finger-lickin’ good and I couldn’t hold back. We only ordered one for the table but everyone quickly fought over it after taking the first bite.
The elegant décor and quality service were superb enough that the restaurant would be right at home in any metropolis in the lower 48; the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vast Alaskan landscape and the Tongass Narrows, however, simply can’t be found anywhere else.
Restaurants with views are notorious for bad food but the Heen Kahidi Dining Room was certainly an exception. My baked brie and crab dip appetizer was delicious and my halibut gruyere entrée even better. There is something orgiastic about eating seafood so very fresh that it flakes lightly onto your fork and then infuses your mouth with subtle, imbued flavors. Prices are not cheap, however. Steak and fish entrees range from $20-30. But let me tell you, it’s well worth it.
One afternoon I had the opportunity to meet the chef, who was conducting a private cooking session. He walked us through the recipe for the restaurant’s famous seafood chowder-a creamy concoction plump with halibut, salmon, clams, scallops, potatoes, bacon, onions, and a mishmash of other tasty morsels and spices. Chef, as everyone called him, told us that the restaurant makes 10 gallons a day of the seafood chowder and serves 300 pounds of halibut a week. Something else I learned about Chef is that he had recently lost about 100 pounds on very unique diet: nothing but salmon. Track him down if you visit Ketchikan and learn his secret; it could very well be the next hot diet fad.
Steamers on the Dock
Steamers, as the name suggests, is located on the dock and, like Cape Fox lodge, also offers some very nice views and delicious seafood. The ambience here, however, is very different than both Cape Fox lodge and Annabelle’s. Steamers is more of an airy, brew pub with a festive atmosphere and an outgoing personality. This is the place to go with a large raucous group.
The menu is mostly fish (naturally) and steaks with a large selection of microbrews to wash it all down. We opted for the shellfish this time and sat back in awe as large metal buckets of crab legs were delivered to our table. It seemed that every type of crab leg imaginable was stuff into these buckets, legs jutting out all askew and looking frighteningly like something out of Aliens. I’ve never been a huge fan of shellfish because of the logistics required to actually get to the meat hidden inside, but all the cracking and prying was worth it at Steamers. The crab meat, when I finally got to it, was excellent! It was fresh, buttery and practically melted in my mouth.
No website: 76 Front Street, 907/225-1600
That One Place
My favorite, low-key restaurant in Ketchikan is That One Place. Or, is it The Other Place? Located just south of the former red light district on the first floor of the New York Hotel, this is one of the more uniquely named restaurants I’ve ever come across. During the day, it is simply called That One Place. But on weekend nights, it changes its name to The Other Place.
The café, in one incarnation or another, has been serving food and drink for 100 years now. Today, it offers a great selection of cheap sandwiches, tapas, and Mexican food for $5-10. The café also has a nice range of coffees and specialty drinks. Naturally, I scoured the menu for fish and ended up wolfing down a couple of outstanding halibut tacos. It was at this point I think I realized I had eaten halibut nearly every meal since landing in Alaska. And, I wasn’t even close to getting tired of it.
Lastly, I have to mention a little bar I wandered across late one evening. Fat Stan’s only has about ten chairs and is actually part of a wine store. It was full of friendly locals when I showed up, many of whom had just finished their shift at the nearby Lumberjack Show. The specialty here is wine but they do have some beers on tap as well.
For the more adventurous bar seekers, I would recommend wandering along Main Street and popping into some of the less savory watering holes found there. One of the locals told me that just a block away on Main Street was a notorious bar where John Wayne used to come to drink and beat up hippies in the 1960s. I could just imagine the Duke dragging them out into the lonely streets of Ketchikan and roughing them up a bit before going back in to finish his whisky.
Don’t you just love Alaska?