When Phil Brown III heard about the fire that destroyed The Oyster House early Friday morning, it sparked a childhood memory.
Brown, whose grandfather founded the restaurant shortly after World War II, remembers the fire that gutted the building once before — on Nov. 18, 1957.
“I was 8 years old at the time,” he said. “I remember going down there in the middle of the night and watching it burn.”
Brown was one of many Olympians who have mourned the loss of the nearly 90-year fixture at 320 Fourth Ave. W., where first dates turned into marriages and legislation began on cocktail napkins. Located in the former culling house of the Olympia Oyster Co., it is the only remaining building from Olympia’s oyster industry left in downtown, according to the Olympia Historical Society.
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“It was such a shocking piece of news to wake up to, you know,” said Ed Echtle, a South Sound historian who wrote a cultural history of the Olympia Oyster. “I find it a serious, tragic loss for Olympia” because it’s an “institution.”
Oyster House owner Tom Barrett has vowed to rebuild, just as Brown’s grandfather remade the restaurant after the ’57 fire. That year, the Daily Olympian dubbed it “the Capital City’s most widely known restaurant.”
STARTED WITH OLYMPIA OYSTER
The Oyster House sits in a building that dates to 1924 as a packing and storage facility for the Olympia Oyster Co. But the restaurant’s fortunes can be traced back to the mid- to late-1800s, when the native Olympia Oyster became a gourmet favorite.
In the 1880s, Capt. Woodbury J. Doane opened a restaurant called The Oyster House on Fifth Avenue and Washington Street, roughly where the Wind Up Here toy store is now, according to Echtle. Doane popularized the Olympia Oyster with his famous recipe, the “Pan Roast”, inspiring a succession of restaurants to serve the beloved bivalve. The modern Oyster House, Echtle said, continued that tradition.
Olympia Oysters became a boom business in the late 1800s with the arrival of the railroad, Echtle said. Oyster companies dotted Fourth Avenue near Budd Inlet.
The Olympia Oyster Co. built the structure that would house The Oyster House in 1924. It was designed to be utilitarian, a culling and shipping house for oysters. But in 1925, the owners added a small oyster bar on the side of the building.
By 1949, the building evolved to a full-service, sit-down restaurant, and Brown’s grandfather ran it. A menu, circa 1955, offers browned Olympia Oysters for $1.50, including salad, dessert and coffee.
Memories came rushing back this week to Brown, who said he spent almost 28 years working there, from busboy to bookkeeper. Every day, he saw a lot of oysters.
“When I was a young kid working there, they came in by the gallons,” he said. “It wouldn’t be unusual to get 10 or 15 gallons of the oysters in and run out.
“I remember going back and cooking my own dinner and doing my homework … waitresses helping me,” he said.
“My fondest memory is going down on Sunday mornings before they opened and my grandfather would have them cook us up a special breakfast.”
Legislators were common sight in the dining room, and often would call ahead to request their favorite waitress, Brown said.
“There was a lot of legislation written on the back of a cocktail napkin,” he said.
SIMILAR FIRE IN 1957
Brown said some of the upper timbers of the building were still charred from the 1957 fire that almost totalled the building.
“If it wasn’t completely gutted, they had to gut it to rebuild it,” he said. “The roof was intact. There was parts of it gone.”
According to The Olympian archives, a flash fire began in the kitchen just after 7 p.m. on a Monday night. Most of the city’s doctors had finished the first course of their dinner, given in honor by the Catholic sisters who ran St. Peter Hospital. They escaped.
“The masonry walls apparently escaped serious damage, but the interior will have to be rebuilt,” The Daily Olympian article reads.
Brown said none of the inventory could be salvaged, save for some liquor. But his grandfather and the building’s owner rebuilt the place.
Shortly after reopening, his grandfather had a stroke, and couldn’t use his right arm. So the younger Brown literally became his right hand man, helping him do the bills. It started his career in accounting.
Brown’s grandfather sold the restaurant to Jerry Craig in 1968, who owned Jerry’s Drive-In in the Tanglewilde area. Brown continued to work in bookkeeping until about 1986.
The eatery closed in January 1995. By 1996, Tom and Linda Barrett had bought the restaurant and renovated the interior to its last incarnation, with an open dining room and windows that run the length of the building.
That’s the way Amy Morgan remembers it. In 1995, she had her first date with Dave, the man who became her husband.
“I always tell everybody that I had one of those lightning bolt moments” when her future husband walked in. When Dave proposed the next year, their engagement dinner was at The Oyster House.
“It was just such a nice spot downtown,” she said, though she hasn’t visited it since moving away to Washington, D.C., in 2006. “And now I’m really regretting it.”