The decision to turn off the Parks Highway and drive into the little town of Nenana is easy. Deciding where to eat is a little more difficult.
There are at least five different restaurants to choose from in Nenana these days.
“And we’re all different,” said Annie Williams, who operates the Rivertime Cafe, in the striking Victorian-looking structure built by longtime Nenana resident Ted Suckling.
Getting drivers to turn that wheel and drive into Nenana has always been a challenge. But an energized local community of just about 400 people is finding ways to make that happen.
Visitors are greeted at the town entrance by the Alaskan Gallery and Nenana Visitor Center, a log cabin gift shop filled with handmade wares by more than 50 Alaska artists, including owners/photographers Evelyn and Samuel Verhagen.
“We want people to feel a sense of peace and authenticity when they come here,” Evelyn Verhagen said. They also keep tabs on what’s happening both north to Fairbanks and south to the Healy/Denali area and share that information with travelers.
Their four young sons wear personalized aprons and man the adjacent Lemony Snackets booth. They offer refreshments, ice cream, and kettle corn, all by donation. That helped the boys pay for a family trip to Disneyland last year. Starting this year, those donations are going to savings accounts for college.
The past couple summers, thousands of tourists visited the Alfred Starr Nenana Cultural Center and the Nenana Artisans Market, on the shore of the Tanana River, arriving by tour bus. But the coronavirus pandemic forced closure of those this summer and the town’s focus is now on main street.
There is still a walking trail, complete with interpretive signs, down by the river. But all the Alaska-made crafts and items sold at the cultural center are now available at Coghill’s General Store. A local Farmer’s Market, just across the street, is just getting started.
If you’re hungry, there’s lots of options.
The Roughwoods Inn and Cafe has been open for 23 years and since 2013, has been a micro-brewery, with a selection of three micro-brews. It’s a family affair with all three kids helping run the operation. Tables are both inside and outside.
Breakfast sandwiches are the specialty, according to manager Kari Irish. That is because she finally developed enough patience to learn how to bake the bread, she said with a laugh.
Owner Annie Williams said the Rivertime Cafe provides a “laid-back atmosphere.”
“It’s like I’m feeding family,” she said, and recommended her cheese steak and fresh hot sausage.
Any food left over every day gets donated to the senior center or to community elders. The next day, all the food at the restaurant is fresh again.
Kat and Don Reeves are the new owners of Rivertime Pizza. They have been open for only a couple weeks but are already developing a following.
On Saturday at 6 p.m., the city’s public works director Jaret Laurence will accept their special pizza challenge. If he can finish a 40-by-26-inch pizza filled with meat and veggies, in less than 45 minutes, he’ll get the $50 pizza for free and be the first to have his photo posted on the wall. That challenge, Kat Reeves said, is open to everyone daily. This is just the first.
Bitchin’ Kitchen is a fast food stop at the Nenana A-Frame convenience store and always seems to be busy. And of course, the iconic Monderosa, just north of Nenana, has a sign that proclaims: “Still The Best Burgers in Alaska.” The Monderosa, open since 1982, is operated by Donna Mather. When her husband Nick Monroe died, many thought the Monderosa closed. It is open year round.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris