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Brand-new Canoe brings seafood to the Sandy

After extensive renovations, legendary
by: Carole Archer, Shirley Welton bought the long-running Tippy Canoe last year and spent the past several months transforming it into an appealingly casual restaurant.

The funky rustic aura remains. The rough-hewn wood paneling-and-black-stripe wall motif is still there. The L-shaped bar centers the cozy, cavern-like main room as it has since the 1940s. Towering over the Historic Columbia River Highway, the warm neon glow of a Native American paddling through choppy waters can mean only one thing.

The Tippy Canoe is back.

Throughout its lengthy run along the Sandy River just northeast of Troutdale, the Tippy Canoe Bar and Grill has been described a lot of ways. A fun, fashionable, safe place for casual family dining is generally not one of them.

With new owner Shirley Welton at the helm, that may change.

After several ownership shuffles and a lengthy $300,000-plus remodeling process, Welton has injected new life into a rundown watering hole that just last summer looked like its race was run. A grand opening at 6 a.m. Monday, Jan. 7, launched a new era in which breakfast, lunch and dinner will be available seven days a week. An experienced staff of 10 promises to keep service, which includes a catering business, flowing like the nearby Sandy River.

'I'm happy to see the old Tip back,' said Welton at a pre-opening event on Thursday evening, Jan. 3. 'I want to make it nice and comfy for everybody and make it work.'

Owner of Shirley's on 'D' Bay in Newport, Welton built her local restaurant reputation with the former Shirley's Café, a popular downtown Troutdale eatery. She splits her time between Troutdale and Newport. Her connections in the latter provide the Tippy a fresh source for seafood.

'The seafood comes directly off the Newport boats,' she said. 'It's all fresh. Having lived down there I know how to prepare it.'

Welton provided free food and beverages at the preview event, which attracted a cross-section of East County residents, including several local officials and longtime patrons, eager to experience the new Tippy. As the duo of Ollie and Harry played soft jazz and blues in the dining room, attendees milled about while sampling crab cakes and freshly carved prime rib, turkey and ham. Many expressed a sense of wonder at what Welton accomplished with a tavern that most agree had seen better days.

'I'm just amazed. I don't know what to say,' said David Ripma, a Troutdale city councilor and 18-year resident. 'It didn't look all that inviting before. I wouldn't have recognized it. It's a wonderful thing she's done.'

Diane McKeel, executive director of the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce, concurred. She admitted stopping by the Tippy 'once or twice' in its more rough-and-tumble days.

'This is a huge change,' she said. 'This is a wonderful addition to the West Gorge region.'

Welton's renovations add dashes of comfort and sophistication to the riverside tavern feel that is indisputably Tippy Canoe. An inviting conversation area - complete with green leather sofas and table - graces the corner fireplace by the main door. Next to the fireplace, the old Tippy Canoe front door hangs at an angle, providing patrons a portal to the past.

A fenced deck and yard out back complements the revamped interior's glow. With a stone fire circle and shade from several towering Douglas Fir trees, the courtyard promises to be a popular warm-weather spot.

Welton clearly took a leap of faith when she bought the building and property in early 2007. Since its mid-20th century prime, the Tippy became as famous for its instability as its reputation as a good-time roadside attraction. Owners changed hands. Repairs were neglected. By the time Welton rescued the two-story structure, she was left with little more than a shell. Plumbing, wiring, kitchen appliances and fixtures are all new.

Ironically, Welton had to work within Columbia River Gorge Commission guidelines meant to preserve the gorge's scenic history. She was allowed only to 'repair, replace or maintain' any aspect of the property's exterior. Welton faced the obstacles with her typical, good-natured tenacity.

'My intention was to pave the whole parking lot,' she said, referring to the mostly gravel area outside the Tippy. 'Sometimes it's difficult to upgrade and stay within your means.'

Jean Ice, a real estate agent with ERA/Freeman and Associates in Gresham, jogs by the Tippy each day before work. Even with her agent's flair for fixer-uppers, she had a hard time seeing the possibilities of the dilapidated Tippy Canoe - until now.

'I've fixed up a lot of places,' she said. 'I was struggling with what I'd do if I bought it. (Shirley) really had a vision. She did an absolutely excellent job. Everything she did was to perfection.'

Welton's transformation of the Tippy charmed even her competition. Jim Warren, owner of the Springdale Pub and Eatery just a few miles up the road, feels Welton brings something new to his neck of the woods.

'What Shirley's presenting is something this area craves,' he said, 'a non-smoking restaurant with outstanding seafood.

'A lot of people really appreciate that this place is resurrected. We thought it died.'

Tippy Tips

What: Tippy Canoe Bar and Grill

Where: 28242 Historic Columbia River Highway, between Troutdale and the Stark Street Bridge

Offers: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week; full bar; catering and private party service.

Hours: 6 a.m.-10 p.m. weekdays, weekend closing time to be determined

Contact: 503-492-2220 or visit www.shirleysfood.com