When three longtime employees of Tacoma’s Engine House No. 9 struck out on their own to remake a historic tavern and eatery in Tacoma’s downtown Brewery District nearly two decades ago, more than a few of their contemporaries thought they had lost touch with reality.
The Swiss tavern at South 19th Street and Jefferson Avenue was in a gritty part of Tacoma, and while it had a long pedigree — the tavern had been open continuously since 1913 — it had seen better days.
“It was just gross,” said Bianca Sanders, daughter of one of The Swiss’ owners. “The UWT wasn’t there then, and it wasn’t exactly the best part of town.
“I remember people saying, ‘You guys are crazy,’” she said.
But the three, Bob Hill, Jack McQuade and Gayl Bertagni, and another investor bought the business and spent months tearing out the ’60s-era suspended ceilings and chiseling away stucco that covered the windows. They opened a business that became a Tacoma icon and a successful gathering place for the lunch and dinner crowd and for those who enjoy nighttime music.
The three bought out the investor two years after they reopened the restaurant. And Bertagni died more than three years ago in an accident with her truck.
On New Year’s Eve, one of The Swiss’ remaining co-owners, Hill, drew his last beer for a customer.
Those who know Hill and who have worked for him for years say he will be greatly missed.
“This man is a Tacoma icon,” said Jen Hermann, a server at The Swiss for 15 years. “People came from all around to The Swiss because of Bob. He’s a genuine rock star,” she said.
The low-key Hill, who says his leaving is “no big deal,” had an ability to make people feel at home, to make them feel comfortable and appreciated, said those who know him.
“He’s really good with people,” said Joe Straight, the restaurant’s kitchen manager, “He could make anybody feel special.”
Hill’s Swiss co-owner McQuade agreed with that assessment.
“He just a great people person,” he said. “Bob made people feel they were always welcome at The Swiss.”
Hill himself says the greatest reward for working 33 years in the restaurant business (13 years at Engine House and 20 at The Swiss) was meeting people.
He met waterfront workers when the Longshore Union hall was just down the street, he met business people from downtown who stopped in for lunch or after work, and he met students, professors and administrators from the University of Washington Tacoma after the university rehabilitated the nearby old warehouse buildings to create a new campus.
“I consider myself lucky to have met such a great diversity of people,” he said.
Though Hill was co-owner of the establishment, said Hermann, you’d never suspect it from watching him work, she said. “He wasn’t like some owners who’d bark out orders. He’d grab a tray and help you bus tables.”
Besides tending the bar and helping out the staff, Hill booked the tavern’s entertainment. He’d occasionally join in with those musicians.
Hill is an accomplished musician who could hold his own with many of the professionals he hired to entertain the crowds, said Straight.
Why is he retiring?
“I just thought it was time,” said Hill, 63. “I like the outdoors. I’ve got a cabin near Randle. I like living off the grid.”
What will he miss?
“I’ll miss the people. I’ll probably go crazy,” he said. “But while I’m no hermit, I like solitude.”John Gillie: 253-597-8663