In an earlier series of columns titled “The Chowder Chronicles”, I described both my passion for seaside dining and the informal journey which has grown out of a love for food history in general and coastal cuisine in particular. My New England roots predisposed me to a particular search for the “best” clam chowder, admitting from the outset that any such comparison was a reflection of a high degree of culinary arrogance at the worst and at least somewhat subjective at the best; human tastes are after all not without personal preferences and even a level of food prejudice. I also admitted that while I liked both Manhattan style and New England style chowders, I would always choose the latter if presented with an inescapable choice. In light of many years of familiarity with coastal New England north of Boston, my choices there came down to a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and two in - respectively - New Harbor and Camden, Maine.
My “foraging” in the great Northwest began about ten years ago, as coastal Oregon began to loom larger as an annual vacation destination and I admit to a preconceived notion that a true “New England-style” clam chowder was unlikely to be found there. And to begin with, that turned out to be largely true, even - if not especially - among those who yelled the loudest about how great they were.
Our first visit to Doogers in Cannon Beach not only impressed us with a menu loaded with interesting choices, but the trial cup of clam chowder was a pleasant surprise, the balance between flavor, creaminess and thickness bringing back memories of Maine’s finest. Still hesitant, I remember thinking, “oh well, anyone can get it right once in a while”.
Since that introductory visit, my wife and I have returned each year, and whether in Cannon Beach or nearby Seaside Doogers has become our “go to” place for dependable seafood dining and a return engagement with a bowl of what we believe is the Northwest’s best clam chowder. But it’s not as simple as that, and our affection for what we realize has become a “family institution” goes much deeper..
Restaurants with good menus and noted chefs in their kitchens seem to come and go with disappointing predictability, victims of a changing economy, restless management staff, and the vagaries of a fickle clientele. What has impressed us about this particular Oregon culinary touchstone is the absolute consistency in the food delivered to the table, and the unmistakable good cheer and friendly professionalism exhibited by everyone involved, from greeters and kitchen workers to wait staff. Because I am a “story-teller” to the core, and because I was sure what I was seeing had to involve a “good story”, I began discreetly questioning Dooger employees, especially the waiters and waitresses who seemed actually anxious to talk about the job they so obviously loved. Among other questions was the one that became the tip-off: How long have you worked here? Followed closely by a key follow-up: WHY?
The answers to the first question ran the gamut from six years to thirty years, with the number ten the inferred average. The answers to the second were more diverse, but a lovely young lady whose anonymity I will protect summed it all up: “Here, we are not just employees; we are one big family; I know one waitress who is the sixth of seven siblings to work here, and the remaining brother starts today!”
My final question was this: How would things work if Doug Wiese (the real “Dooger”), or his son were not here on the premises? She didn’t hesitate with her reply: “Exactly the same! Our working family are like a well-oiled machine. Doug is here because he loves being a part of all this; he works just as hard as the rest of the crew!”
Doug Wiese started all this thirty years ago, some of his culinary inspiration coming from his mother, and at least two items on today’s menu are named for Wiese children, one of whom is part of the management team today. If I had the ambition and audacity to open a restaurant of my own, I know just how I would do it. I would copy Dooger’s formula to the “T”
When restaurant owner Doug Wiese was a young college student, he and a close friend named Ruger came to be known to their jovial comrades as “Ruger and Dooger”. The name stuck, and to a generation of loyal patrons, the restaurants in Seaside and Warrenton will always be “DOOGERS”.
Chocolate-fudge cake, a dessert favorite so rich and delicious, it is bound to be “illegal”, tops off a delightful June visit to DOOGERS for the Coopers..