It seems clear that Joel Hart was meant to be a chef, but he fulfilled that destiny only after a long strange trip.
Make that two long strange trips — a literal one to Spain and the metaphorical one we all take through our lives.
Today, Hart is the chef and owner at Hart’s Mesa, a west Olympia brunch restaurant serving both Latin-inspired and classic American food.
Along the way, he was part owner of Dino’s Coffee Co., Page Street Café and Dino’s Diner (though he wasn’t in the kitchen during the short-lived diner days).
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Hart’s Mesa — in the former Eddie’s Groceries location that housed Page Street and the diner — opened in April 2015 and settled into its current brunchtime schedule and menu in July.
Before all of that came Hart’s trip to Spain. In 2002, Hart, then 21, sold his web design company, iBuilt, and headed abroad to sing and play guitar and bass with European alternative band Pull.
He unspooled the saga in the middle of his busy restaurant on a recent Friday.
“I ended up giving my dog away and dumping my girlfriend and selling my business and selling everything I owned to move to Spain,” he said. “I knew it was an important opportunity that I might never get again.
“It was a big experience full of lots of twists and turns and crazy people and wild nights, but food is what I took away from it.”
After about a year of touring, singing, playing guitar and bass, he started apprenticing in restaurants and learning to cook traditional Spanish dishes.
“I would have liked to have done it exclusively,” he said of the cooking, “but I needed to play music in order to make a living.”
By the end of his time in Spain, he’d given up music and switched his focus to cooking. “I really learned about fresh ingredients and how food relates to a culture and how a culture relates to its food,” he said.
If that was a pivotal experience, it wasn’t the first time food had called to Hart. In high school, he studied culinary arts at New Market Skills Center in Tumwater, though he had no special love for cooking before that. He entered that program because he had friends who were taking it.
“I don’t think that I was inspired in any special way to begin with,” he said, “but I excelled at it immediately. It was something that I sank my teeth into. It was maybe one of the first things I ever took seriously as a teenager.”
Before starting iBuilt, Hart worked in restaurants, including The Place, a popular breakfast spot in the Madrona Beach Road building that’s now home to The Shipwreck Cafe.
“It was lines out the door on Sunday morning, covered in gravy, throwing toast across the room,” he said, crediting owner Sylvia Raves with giving him his first opportunity to get involved with a dynamic locally owned restaurant.
After his time in Spain, Hart returned to restaurant work. In 2011, he opened Dino’s Coffee Co. in the same building that houses Olympia Framemakers, owned by his mom, Carolyne Hart, whom he calls “an Olympia small-business icon.”
That’s right. Joel Hart didn’t come from a family of foodies — he remembers eating “a lot of fresh vegetables and cabbage and tofu” — but he was raised by a successful entrepreneur with more than 40 years running a business.
Thus began the last leg of Hart’s journey to the Mesa. At Dino’s Coffee Co., his food drew crowds too big for the tiny space, and in 2014, he had the opportunity to move to the Rogers Street space that had been Sage’s and Rosey’s — all after being Eddie’s Groceries.
Hart is frank that he had a lot to learn about running a restaurant, and that, along with a health crisis, created some bumps in the road. Page Street closed and so did Dino’s Diner.
But Hart kept on, steering in a different direction. He reinvented the restaurant as a taqueria, inspired by a passion for tacos he picked up on a teenage trip to Mexico.
Breakfast wasn’t part of the plan, but customers had been eating breakfast in the building for decades, and they were not to be denied. He eventually decided that three meals a day was too many — particularly given that he wanted to spend more time with his son, Sylas Emiliano Hart-Lucero, who’ll turn 2 in December.
“It took me two and a half years to figure that out,” he said. “The demand is very clearly for a brunch place in this location.
“I lost; the customers won.”
He also relented on the menu, which now includes corned beef hash, French toast and build-your-own scrambles, omelets and skillets alongside the huevos rancheros and migas. “Immediately, when I added the American items, our business went up by 20 percent,” he said.
He’s far from the only fan of the Latin-inspired dishes, though. Chipotle Benedict, a customer favorite, has won over diners once devoted to the veggie scramble Hart served at Dino’s Coffee Co.
“People literally wanted to have their cake” — or in this case, their pancake — “and eat it, too,” he said. “So we gave it to them.”
What: Brunch isn’t just for weekends at this westside restaurant, offering both Latin-inspired and classic American fare. There are numerous vegan options, and most of the food is gluten free.
When: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays
Where: 903 Rogers St. NW, Olympia
More information: 360-878-8490, facebook.com/hartsmesa/
- Chipotle Benedict, with carnitas, poached eggs and chipotle hollandaise atop masa cakes
- Chilaquiles, fried corn tortillas with enchilada sauce, onions and cheese, a specialty inspired by The Place, a now-closed Mud Bay breakfast spot where Hart’s Mesa owner Joel Hart once worked
- French toast, made with thick-cut sourdough bread, a favorite at Hart’s first restaurant, Dino’s Coffee Co. on Harrison