Seven long-time faves on the culinary scene
Alaska has gained quite the reputation among foodies—and deservedly so. Using the best of what Alaska has to offer, the state’s chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs have added a distinctly northern twist to their food service. Fresh Alaskan seafood is always a featured ingredient; game may be on the menu, too, as available. Locally grown produce, such as berries and vegetables that do well in Alaska’s northern climate, are used whenever possible. And a tempting assortment of homemade treats for dessert is meant to warm the heart as well as fill the stomach.
The results are, well, delicious. From rural roadhouses to urban steakhouses, Alaska’s culinary scene has something for every palate and budget. Among the many choices, certain local landmarks stand out. They have earned a loyal following over time for offering a unique and distinctly Alaskan dining experience. What’s more, they are beloved not only for their food, but for their genuine Alaskan hospitality. Here are a few of our longtime favorites:
Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant
Whenever I’m in Anchorage, no matter what time of day it is, I make a beeline to Gwennie’s for breakfast. Apparently, I’m not alone, because the place is always packed. What’s the big draw? Generous servings of comfort food served on plates piled high. I prefer a simple meal of scrambled eggs, home fries, and toast, but many people recommend the reindeer sausage or crab Benedict. If you’ve already had breakfast, no problem—there’s a full diner-style menu of salads, sandwiches, burgers, seafood, barbecue, and daily specials to choose from. The namesake founder of Gwennie’s—Gwennie Thornton—was herself a longtime fixture on the Anchorage restaurant scene, owning more than one local eatery named Gwennie’s and even working a stint at the Crow’s Nest in the Hotel Captain Cook. She sold the restaurant and retired to Washington state decades ago (opening yet another restaurant named Gwennie’s), but virtually everything else at Gwennie’s has remained unchanged over the years, from its location on Spenard Road to the all-day breakfast menu. The décor is a kitschy amalgamation of historic photos, Native imagery, and “old time” memorabilia to go along with the hearty fare. In a word, eating here is just plain fun.
The Hangar on the Wharf
Alaska is all about views, and The Hangar in Juneau has some of the best. Overlooking the harbor in the historic Merchants Wharf mall near the cruise ship docks, the bar and dining room facing the water has big picture windows to watch floatplanes come and go, or—if it’s a warm sunny day—you can enjoy the takeoffs and landings from the outdoor deck. So it’s not surprising that The Hangar has been a Juneau favorite for more than 25 years. Thanks to its downtown waterfront location, residents and visitors mix easily, making it a good spot to share experiences or strike up a conversation about what it’s really like to live in Alaska. The menu features big portions of American cuisine, with typical bar fare such as burgers, steaks, pasta, soups, and salads. Because we’re in Alaska, you’ll also find king crab, halibut, and local oysters. But the real attraction here is the beer selection: some 25 taps and over 125 bottled choices, including locally and regionally brewed Alaskan beer. Last winter, the interior was completely redone with new carpeting, furnishings, and artwork, prompting the owners to dub it The “New” Hangar on the Wharf. The establishment was recently voted Best Seafood Restaurant in Juneau in the annual Best of Juneau contest.
This is probably the fanciest restaurant on our list (not to mention the highest in elevation) and perhaps the most expensive, but worth it. The restaurant—set atop Mount Alyeska at 2,300 feet—began serving customers in 1994, the same year that the Alyeska Resort’s gondola system and 300-room Alyeska Prince Hotel opened 40 miles south of Anchorage. Since then, it has developed a reputation as one of the finest dining establishments in Alaska. Access is via the tram, which is an integral part of the overall dining experience. Once at the top, you’ll enjoy tables elegantly set with linen and stemware; a wine list that’s earned the respect of national magazines; and exceptionally prepared nouvelle cooking that’s won a AAA Four Diamond rating (the second highest), indicating “a culinary experience to savor and enjoy.” As if that’s not enough, the dining room is surrounded by picture-window views of the seven hanging glaciers that give the restaurant its name. Seating is by reservations only for a three- or four-course prix-fixe dinner (adjustments made due to the pandemic). Menu items change regularly according to what’s in season—with an emphasis on artisanal providers and Alaskan-sourced ingredients, from seafood to bison to game—and the artful plating means the food looks as good as it tastes.
The Pump House
Located in what once was a water-pumping station for gold mining dredges, The Pump House is now a landmark for casual fine dining in the Interior. The structure was reimagined in 1978 to create a turn-of-the-century atmosphere with authentic Gold-Rush-era furnishings, and in 1982 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the Senator Saloon you can rack ‘em up on a Brunswick pool table that at one time resided in Dawson City and came down the Yukon River via Eagle and Circle, or have a drink at the solid mahogany bar built in Kansas City, shipped to Alaska, and reassembled in Fairbanks piece by piece. The classic American cuisine features certified Angus beef, always-Alaskan salmon, and game such as reindeer or elk, often cooked with herbs grown on the premises. The saloon, meanwhile, is home to “The World’s Most Northern Oyster Bar,” supplied fresh by Alaska Airlines, and the drink list includes hometown Fairbanks microbrews. For a fun (and filling) dining experience, try the Sunday brunch during the summer. Choose a seat outdoors on the deck facing a bend in the Chena River—if your timing is right, the Riverboat Discovery paddle-wheeler may pass by for an added touch of historical ambiance.
Italian-inspired, nouvelle-influenced cuisine that changes with the season is the specialty of the house at Fat Olives, a Homer favorite for 20 years. Located just off the Sterling Highway inside a former school bus maintenance barn, the décor is modern and chic. Drawing heavily on the abundance of local seafood, the restaurant is especially known for its oysters right out of Kachemak Bay. “We sell a ton of them,” says owner Lisa Nolan. Gourmet pizzas, which routinely garner rave reviews online, are another specialty of the house. The pies come in three sizes (12, 18, and a whopping 28 inches) in more than a dozen combinations, ranging from “Straight Up Cheese” and “Standard Veg” to the meat-laden “Carnivore.” “It’s our dough,” she says, that makes the pies special. “Everything’s fresh; nothing comes out of a can.” Desserts, too, are made fresh in-house by a full-time baker. On the beverage side, the eatery offers a nice selection of locally brewed craft beer and even has its own private label, Washington-state wine called Schooler Nolan (a combination of family last names). The vineyard has gained a following beyond Alaska for its highly regarded reserve cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and malbec. “We’ve won a lot of awards for our wines,” Nolan proudly says.
Resurrect Art Coffee House
For 30 years and counting, the Resurrect Art Coffee House in downtown Seward has been a part of the community. Located on 3rd Avenue (just a few blocks from the waterfront), the structure was originally a Methodist Church built in 1917. The building was turned into a coffee house and art gallery in 1992 and bought by its current owners, Micheley Kowalski and Michael Stewart, in 2015. The couple added a bakery, which “really upped our game,” according to Kowalski, who says she used to come here as a young girl. A plaque outside, erected by the Seward Historical Society, details the history of the church with photos of how it’s looked and changed over the years. Inside, the dining space retains much of its architectural interest. It does double-duty as an exhibition space displaying pottery, paintings, and ceramics—90 percent Alaskan-made, primarily from Seward—and also serves as a gathering place for concerts, readings, and sometimes plays. The setting in a hundred-year-old repurposed church couldn’t be more inviting, and the free WiFi makes it easy to sit and while away the time. Daily specials include lovingly made scones, muffins, sweet breads, and more. “We’re very proud of all of our rustic, hand-built pastries and savories,” Kowalski adds. “And our coffee is so delicious!”
Sheep Mountain Lodge
Located at mile 113.5 of the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Glennallen, the rustic Sheep Mountain Lodge has been operating on this site in one form or another for over 80 years. The property began in 1941 as a small log cabin to serve trappers. It was expanded in the mid-‘40s when the highway came through, and the restaurant was added in the 1950s, according to current owner Mark Fleenor, who bought the property in 2015 from Iditarod musher Zach Steer. Today, the lodge offers 14 cabins, plus an RV park and campground. Two photographs of the original lodge are hanging in the restaurant, a throwback to those pioneering times. The location remains remote, along a sparsely populated but scenic stretch of highway. The menu focuses on Alaskan seafood—“That’s why people come to Alaska, right?” Fleenor quips. Homemade baked goods, including sourdough bread from a 58-year-old starter, are another emphasis. Special “Matanuska Margaritas” are made with actual glacier ice flown in by helicopter, or—conversely—they’ll fly you out for a private dinner overlooking the glacier. Produce is sourced from local growers in Palmer and the Mat-Su Valley, and the restaurant has its own commercial-grade refrigerated truck, which it sends to Anchorage to get food fresh rather than buy it frozen. “We take food quality seriously,” Fleenor says.
Comments are closed.