In February 2009, a very young Ellie Carpenter and her mother Gretchen Carpenter head to the CoHo in what would begin a long history of visits to Dorene’s famous breakfast hangout. Photo by Sue Shellhorn

Every small town has one — an isolated little restaurant tucked away that only locals know, where they gather for food and gossip on a regular basis. 

Such was the Cordova House (CoHo) Restaurant and Bar, nestled on Main Street between Laura’s Liquor Shop and the Alaskan Bar.   

Brave was the newcomer that would open a beat-up aluminum door and traipse down a dim hallway so out of kilter it reminded one of a rough ride on the now defunct fast ferry. 

Despite several layers of plywood scabbed over walls and floor, that entry way was eventual closed off; and better yet, one had to pass through the bar, often complete with a janitor cleaning up beer bottles from the prior night’s festivities. 

Beyond the bar, a tiny restaurant that held six tables and a counter with eight stools welcomed intrepid diners for a unique breakfast experience.  

The atmosphere was classic. Legs of chairs and stools did not balance, and the tables themselves were equally wobbly. A fish tank at the end of the counter contained a goldfish so big it could barely turn around. The water in the tank was so murky only an occasional swirl revealed it was still alive. 

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Shelves along the walls were lined with dusty porcelain cookie jars and who knows whatnots, probably donated by customers who didn’t know what to do with them. 

On most mornings, loud chatter and clouds of tobacco smoke capped off the surreal dining endeavor. 

Back in the kitchen, visible through a service opening in the wall, hard at work at the grill, was Dorene Wickham, often with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. 

What she was making was the best sourdough pancakes in the Last Frontier. In golden uniform size, with the perfect combination of chewiness and sour flavor, they were absolutely sublime. 

Coffee, in no two mugs that matched, was served by waitress Kelly Bray, who often simply asked “the usual?”   

Asking for a menu was a sure sign of a newbies, and Lord help them if one asked for French toast, the messy arch rival for sourdoughs grill space. 

Kelly and Dorene had worked together at the CoHo for a long time, and it would have been longer if Dorene hadn’t repeatedly fired her, usually after a particular trying morning. 

I still remember Mike Noonan, a CHS ’64 classmate of Dorene’s, exiting out through the bar, shaking his head and chuckling while warning us “Well, she’s done it again.”  

We started going to the CoHo in 2009, meeting on Saturday mornings with friends John and Mary Davis, plus our daughter Gretchen and granddaughter Ellie. At that time Ellie was only seven months old and traveled in a car seat baby carrier. 

Over the years we became weekend regulars, and Doreen and Kelly adopted Ellie as part of the CoHo scene. In fact, when she started walking, she was merrily greeted by many of the customers as she toddled about. 

One morning she vanished, and we looked up to see her head through the service window. She was sitting on the counter helping Doreen sprinkle cheese and ham on the omelettes. She had wandered through the opening into the kitchen and been put to work. From then on they made her part of the regular crew. 

Perhaps the pinnacle of Ellie’s popularity arrived when one Saturday we arrived  and noticed a small hand-printed sign on the counter which read “NO SMOKING WHEN CHILDREN PRESENT.” 

And then there was a Saturday breakfast before Easter, when Ellie discovered a huge stuffed bunny with a special basket just for her in front of the counter. 

Ah, Cordova and its cast of characters — Pierre DeVille serving drinks at the Powder House in his panhandle long johns and ready to toss you out if you ordered a drink that required a blender; Stella Muma at the Hoovers and then Shoreside selling you gas with some extra tidbits free of charge; and Dorene at the Coho, with sourdoughs and unique charisma. 

Dorene passed away on March 2, 2024, and she was preceded in passing by the CoHo itself, which was condemned and demolished in December 2019. 

A large throng of onlookers gathered to watch heavy equipment knock the aging wooden three-story structure down. It had been built in 1908 as a boarding house. 

Almost every one of them had their favorite CoHo tale to tell, with Dorene and her famous sourdoughs most often the central characters. 

Farewell Dorene.  

Thanks for the short stacks — and memories on the side.  

This story was originally published in the April 5 issue of The Cordova Times.

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