Ben Moore’s is back, and it’s better

Minh Smith decided to renovate and reopen; she’s amassed help from the former owner and chef Alvin Ng

rboone@theolympian.comFebruary 19, 2014 

New co-owners Bonnie and Minh Smith, from left, hope to return the iconic Ben Moore’s Restaurant back to community prominence. They’ve recently renovated and reopened the restaurant in downtown Olympia.

STEVE BLOOM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Six months ago, Ben Moore’s, the iconic restaurant in downtown Olympia, and its longtime landlord and former operator, Minh Smith, were at a crossroads.

The business on Fourth Avenue had closed after its former operator fell ill, leaving Smith to decide whether to run the business herself or sell it, she said.

“Part of me wants to let it go, part of me wants to keep it,” Smith told The Olympian last year.

But on Feb. 7, following several months of renovations, the business quietly reopened for dinner, letting word-of-mouth marketing and the “open” sign generate customer activity.

Ben Moore’s is not the same place it used to be, co-owner and Minh’s daughter, Bonnie Smith said. And that’s a good thing, she said, because she acknowledged that the business had become a different kind of place, the kind of place known for its darkened interior and strong drinks.

“It was a dive bar,” she said.

But not today.

It has new tables, new lighting, and walls have been removed. And where once stained glass was featured inside on an interior wall, it can now be seen in the main windows of the business along Fourth Avenue.

Black-and-white interior and exterior photos of Ben Moore’s dot the walls, and there are plans to rehang the giant, historic city of Olympia map that used to be a fixture inside the bar.

That’s the other big change: The bar has become a serving bar, meaning it serves the restaurant, but there is no longer seating at the bar.

The menu has changed, too, with an emphasis on more healthful options.

You can still get a burger at Ben Moore’s, but you can also get a caprese salad or zesty lime chicken skewers for an appetizer, or dinners such as grilled salmon and mixed exotic mushrooms. All dinners come with soup and salad, with an emphasis on vegetarian soups. Healthier oils, too, have been incorporated into the cooking, Minh Smith said.

Food prices range from $7 to $18.

The staff so far is Minh, her daughter, Bonnie, two bartenders, the former operator, Michael Murphy, who is well enough to return to Ben Moore’s on a part-time basis, and chef Alvin Ng, the former co-owner of the South Pacific restaurant in Tumwater.

That 31-year-old, family-run business was sold last year, and then Ng took the summer off before deciding to help out the Smiths.

Taking the menu in a new direction was the right thing to do, said Ng, citing the demands of a new generation of diners who are more adventurous but also more health conscious.

The business, too, has several beers on tap and in bottles, still makes cocktails and sells wine as well, although nothing out of a box, Bonnie Smith said.

In a tribute to the building’s history, which was once home to a business called the Weidner Rummy Club, a “Saint of the Weidner” cocktail was created, combining vodka with St. Germain liqueur.

Although most of the business has received a much needed facelift, including a renovated kitchen, there’s still work to be done: The back of the building needs work, and Ben Moore’s neon sign needs to be repaired, likely at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000, Minh Smith said.

Smith and her then-husband Roy Smith bought the business in 1973 and then bought the building in 1980.

Murphy began working at the business in 1984, then agreed to a lease-to-own arrangement to buy the business from Smith, but encountered financial difficulties and health problems. He finally had to close the business July 30, 2013.

Ben Moore’s is open 4 p.m.- 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403 rboone@theolympian.com

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