by Jennifer Nice / Photo © Joel Palmer House
Dayton, Oregon, a town of 2,500 at the foot of Dundee Hills wine country in the Willamette Valley, has experienced a mini-explosion in its food scene and a renaissance in historic-buildings-turned-eateries. Many of the historic structures in downtown Dayton, in the not too distant past, sadly languished under the pall of neglect. If it’s been a few years since you’ve visited Dayton, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you’ve never been, be one of the first to savor this little town that’s claiming its rightful place as a food destination—and a model of historic preservation—in this ever-burgeoning valley.
With a rich agricultural heritage that dates back to the days of the Oregon Trail, Dayton is capitalizing on its location in the “flats” with its numerous farms and orchards. On top of that, local preservation advocates, such as Bill Stoller, who grew up in the area and founded nearby Stoller Family Estate, envision the potential and take personal ownership in keeping their native town alive.
Dayton’s Courthouse Square Park, dominated by lofty Douglas firs and the 1800’s Fort Yamhill Blockhouse, anchors the compact town center. The park makes foot traffic and play a natural part of exploring great food in the downtown core. Three newer restaurants, one situated on each block, have captivated locals and visitors alike, with their nod to the town’s history, friendly atmosphere and use of locally sourced ingredients.
The Blockhouse Cafe
Housed in a former First Baptist Church built in 1886, the Block House Cafe evokes community and warmth in the repurposed and restored historical space. Exposed brick, natural wood ceilings and original arched windows provide a divine backdrop for homemade soups, lively salads, and hearty burgers made with beef from Turley Farms, just down the road. Open for breakfast and lunch every day but Monday, the gooey cinnamon roll pancakes and customizable scrambles are favorites. For the ultimate power breakfast, you can’t go wrong with the Blockhouse Burrito—eggs, sausage, bacon, or ham, potatoes, cheese, gravy and your choice of veggies.
Owners Jason and Erin Aust opened the Block House Cafe in 2009 and moved it to the renovated church building in the autumn of 2014, anticipating that its choice location next to Courthouse Square Park and consistent delivery of comfort food would help downtown Dayton find its food niche. They were right. theblockhousecafe.com
The Barlow Room and The Joel Palmer House
The Barlow Room, named for Sam Barlow, a pioneer who accompanied Joel Palmer along the Oregon Trail (Palmer co-founded Dayton in 1848), showcases casual yet upscale family dining. It is the latest venture of Chris and Mary Czarnecki, owners of The Joel Palmer House, Dayton’s flagship fine dining destination since 1996. Just three blocks from downtown, The Joel Palmer House features a massive vegetable and herb garden that supplies the restaurant with the freshest produce year-round, inspiring creations by Chef Chris. Known for its inventive mushroom-centric menu, the restaurant’s “mushroom mafia” forages for matsutake, morels, gold and white chanterelles, porcinis and lobster mushrooms. Thus, the menu varies by Oregon’s forest seasons.
When the Czarnecki family started growing with the birth of their two daughters, they were motivated to open a second restaurant that was family-friendly yet still delivering a quality dining experience. The Barlow Room, situated across from Courthouse Square Park, was the 2014 recipient of three awards from the Oregon Main Street Convention. Prior to its grand opening, the long-vacated space was gutted and renovated, revealing original plate glass windows and brick walls. The rich mahogany bar and dark wood floors add to the warm and classy interior. The Barlow Room features an array of appetizers (NY strip steak bites from Painted Hills beef are a favorite), and a focused menu of salads, pastas, and mains. The full bar showcases inventive cocktails like Dayton Tea (made with Absolute Wild Tea Vodka) and The Barlow Mary (house-made and spicy). thebarlowroom.com,
Archie’s Ice Cream & Eatery
Who doesn’t make room for ice cream? Archie’s is worth a stop thanks to its dose of nostalgic fun. Tool around the town square in one of their bike cruisers; rides are complimentary for the customers. Archie’s doubles as an antique store with all of its retro and vintage decor for sale. Savor your scoop of Umpqua creamy goodness and browse or just kick back at a 1950’s dinette set.
Last summer, Archie’s owners, the Archibald family, commenced Dayton Friday Nights by hosting a cruise-in each Friday evening. It quickly grew a following and became the catalyst for a festive community gathering. Live music, cars, local dining, wine and, of course, ice cream attract scores of residents and visitors to Courthouse Square Park. Mark your calendar: Dayton Friday Nights 2015 will kick off on June 5th. (No website; Archie’s is located across from Courthouse Square Park.) For more information about visiting Dayton, Oregon, go to daytonoregon.org.