You can easily work up an appetite cruising the rugged, blustery Oregon coast as it displays nature’s serenity and drama often in the same afternoon: The pounding surf, afternoon mists, cool pine-scented ocean breezes, the shifting chiaroscuro of brilliant sunshine quickly obliterated by a herd of charging gray storm clouds.
You pull over and inhale the spray-flecked Pacific air. You hike over sand dunes and across beaches at the feet of rocks shaped like Indian chiefs and maidens and feel an aching in your soul and a craving in your gut for plump oyster stew, for bacon-flecked clam chowder.
They were on my mind as we headed into Florence, a village once inhabited by the Siuslaw nation that now survives on fishing, agriculture and tourism.
I’ve been escaping to the Oregon coast for 25 years, ever since the great American novelist and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey told me of Yachats, a jewel on Oregon’s central coast, where at his “Key-Sea Koast House,” he said he’d fill his lungs with “a whif of pungent sea air” and try to write.
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Famous for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion” – the latter a novel about a troubled Oregon coast logging family – Kesey, who died in 2002, confessed: “I can’t sit out there, look at the ocean and get any work done – it hammers the hell out of me.”
On the way to Yachats, we’d hit Florence for our first meal at Mo’s, a chain of wallet-friendly chowder houses.
The southern-most Mo’s rests on pilings near the Siuslaw River Bridge, built during the Great Depression. The graceful span, one of several arching along the Oregon coast, can be enjoyed from Mo’s western deck. The wall above the welcome sign advises customers: “Menu choices: 1) Take it. 2) Leave it.”
We had arrived at Old Town Florence in time for dinner, about eight hours out of Sacramento (up I-5 and west at Eugene). We took a pound of steamer clams ($10.95) steamed with garlic, butter and chardonnay and a bowl of Mo’s signature oyster stew ($9.95) swimming with plump, fresh Oregon oysters. To mop up the savory broth, we ordered a fresh-baked house loaf ($1.95) and washed it all down with a half-carafe of cabernet ($9.95).
To cap it off, we shared Mo’s famous Oregon marionberry cobbler, a warm, sweet, well-crusted pie topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream.
Like the oysters and marionberries, Mo’s is native to Oregon. Its six locations dot the coast between Florence and Cannon Beach.
The walls at Mo’s are festooned with articles, testimonials and portraits of a salty, salt-and-pepper-haired “Clam Chowder Queen of Oregon,” the late Mo Niemi, who started it all in 1942 in Newport.
Legend has it that Mo was an Oregon Indian, but she was born Mohava Marie Kutzner in the Mojave Desert, according to a biography by her granddaughter Cindy McEntee.
Mo moved to Newport with her parents in 1946 and worked the bar at the Bay Haven Saloon with her dad. She soon got a job as a receptionist at radio station KNPT that turned into her own show when somebody called in sick.
A colorful character who sported red rhinestone-studded reading glasses and “loved to party,” she became “the voice and heartbeat of Newport,” a persona she cultivated for 30 years, McEntree said. With her smoky, gravely voice, she launched a news show called “Moseying Around With Mo,” an on-air garage sale called “Best Buys” and reported on every birth, death, wedding, divorce and graduation.
Mo also ran Freddie and Mo’s, which became Mo’s when partner Freddie Kent took ill. It soon became a 24-hour hangout for local loggers and fishermen, including Mo’s second husband, Finnish immigrant Kaino “Dutch” Niemi. Mo’s legend grew when a woman who’d parked outside Mo’s tried to back her car out, throwing it into forward gear by mistake and plowing through the front of the restaurant. “A notoriously poor driver herself, Mo was sympathetic,” and told the errant driver she’d put in a garage door and raise it in the summer to turn Mo’s into an open-air eatery, her granddaughter wrote.
When hippies flocked to her joints in the ’60s and ’70s, she declared: “They all eat, and they’re good company.”
The rich and famous discovered Mo’s, too. Paul Newman, Henry Fonda and other actors making “Sometimes a Great Notion” ate and partied at Mo’s Annex along with Kesey himself, gorging themselves on Mo’s crab and oysters. Sen. Robert. F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, sampled Mo’s famous chowder during his presidential campaign in the spring of 1968, months before he was assassinated in Los Angeles.
Mo’s spread up the coast, opening branches along the water at Cannon Beach, Lincoln City and Otter Rock.
Mo shared her success, once taking all her employees to Hawaii for vacation. To ensure the quality of her signature chowder and oysters, she bought an oyster farm and built a chowder factory that whips up more than half a million pounds of fresh clam chowder a year. She died in 1992.
After a couple of nights at Yachats, we drove up to Newport, which sports two Mo’s eateries across the street from each other – Original Mo’s and Mo’s Annex on the water, where you can dine while watching ships unloading tons of “hake,” a.k.a. Pacific whiting, used to make imitation crab.
Mo’s eateries have a comfortable 1950s feel. As Erin Wisner, her red hair piled a foot high in a beehive, waited at tables at Mo’s Annex, five young women feasted on a family-size bowl of chowder at a window table. They had driven two hours from Silverton, a break from community college and high school.
“It’s delicious,” declared Katherine Pilmore, 18. “It always tastes good.” Her running buddy, Jordan Teney, 18, said their families had been dining at Mo’s all their lives. “It’s a family place, with a lot of memories,” including the herd of sea lions that hang out in the waters just outside.
At the Annex, we ordered up a classic Mo’s meal: grilled Yaquina Bay oysters ($13.95), baked oysters ($12.95), a grilled shrimp skewer ($2.00) and a side of sweet bay shrimp ($2) to add to the cup of chowder that came on the side, washed down with “Mo” ale ($5). The fresh shrimp combined with the chowder equals another Mo’s classic, slumgullion stew. Just saying “slumgullion” is fun.
We sampled the cheese bread, garlic green beans and another slice of marionberry pie, while others dove into the peanut butter pie.
All Mo’s eateries are covered with reminders of the ocean, from fishing nets to hatch covers to ship wheels. One waitress wore a pink T-shirt declaring: “Eat like a pirate, drink like a fish.”
At Mo’s West at Otter Rock, which is open seasonally, we reveled on the cliff overlooking one of the state’s most beautiful, rugged stretches of the coast. Customers can take oysters, chowder or cioppino out to the picnic tables at cliff’s edge to overlook Devil’s Punchbowl.
When it came time to head back to California, we pointed the car down the coast through Florence – slumgullion, anyone? – and cut across to I-5 on Highway 38, a sleek road that hugs the primordial Umpqua River. We passed the Elk viewing area at Dean Creek and flocks of turkeys, geese and sheep along with cattle and horses at the Peaceful View Ranch.
By the time we got to Mount Shasta, we were already hankering for Mo’s.