Before it opened, Deanna Harris Bender recalls her intimate restaurant space on Opera Alley as “comfortable” and “a little hidden.”
“It wasn’t new and polished and flashy. I just fell in love with it,” said Bender, chef-owner of Over the Moon Cafe. “We were 10 years ahead of our time.”
It was 2001 and building owner Ruby Chambers (who intends to open her own nightclub across the alley) took Bender on a sprawling journey through the building’s parking garage to a ladder that took the duo into the space under serious renovation. Bender’s reaction was “Sign me up.” She opened later that year.
Bender knew tough times were ahead for the isolated locale. “Because of where I was, nobody could find me by just driving by. But I figured that would give me some time to get it together.”
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What she’s built is a charming cafe tucked into a hidden alley near Tacoma’s theater district. Her Mediterranean-kissed Northwest menu carries a sub-theme of “elevated old school,” a remnant of family suppers she enjoyed eating at her grandmother’s house in Puyallup.
Her restaurant is one of a handful I hear called Tacoma’s most romantic and I think that’s a fine description. Whether you agree will depend on your need for table separation (not much) and penchant for quiet (the display kitchen downstairs is bustling, but not overly annoying).
The sense of romance percolates from tabletop boxes holding letters from diners. There are funny quips, customer raves and romantically woven tales. The boxes originally were board games, but diners replaced missing game pieces with the little love notes.
“I have a dresser drawer full of notes from throughout the year,” said Bender. “The kindness of people is incredible. It’s really cool.”
The two-tier dining room, bedecked in floor-to-ceiling swaths of soft Victorian-esque fabrics and moody dark paint with matching linens, also sports a come-as-you-are vibe. Diners may dress up or down with the occasion. Bender herself is without pretense, and that’s how I view her restaurant.
Bender’s a South Sound native who started her cooking career “reeking of fish and chips” at University Place’s Sea Galley and then Charlie’s in Puyallup. She briefly worked at a high-end California chain, before returning to Tacoma to become a full-time mom followed by work at a law firm. Her children, now adults, grew up with the restaurant and still work there. Daughter Dani picks up server shifts when she’s not in class at the University of Puget Sound.
In the beginning, Bender didn’t have a grand plan, but she did see a need to be filled.
“At the time, Tacoma didn’t have much,” Bender said. “Charlie (McManus) had just opened Primo Grill. I met Elisa Marzano, and I fell in love with what she was doing there (at her Parkland restaurant, Marzano).
“I wanted Tacoma to grow up a little more. I’ve been here my whole life. I wanted Tacoma to have something nicer. And I wanted to create a comfortable space where people could go and have an elegant night. We didn’t have a whole lot of that at the time.”
Bender’s not just the owner, but also the restaurant’s lead chef. “I figured I’d hire somebody,” Bender recalls, but she never did find an executive chef. I’m glad she didn’t, although Chef Billie Graham excels as the restaurant’s lunchtime chef.
Weekend suppers at her grandma’s still color her menu. Shepherd’s pie. Green goddess dressing. Meatloaf.
“I think a lot of chefs do that, elevated comfort food, because it’s easy. It’s a go-to and it’s so much fun to play with — to take something you eat every night and give it a distinct flavor and expand on it with modern ingredients we didn’t have back then,” Bender said.
Comfort showed up in a wine-licked bowl of beefy short ribs topped with buttery mashed red potatoes ($24), Bender’s take on a shepherd’s pie. It tasted of the Mediterranean, with a thump of herbs and whisper of cinnamon.
Chops also took on a comforting tone. A three-finger-deep bone-in pork chop ($27) spilled a sausage stuffing with an artichoke chimichurri base. A dynamite flat-iron steak ($29) perfectly intersected beefy flavor with a buttery texture, the steak fortified with a creamy mushroom-whiskey sauce with a restrained brush of horseradish. (The sauce felt inspired by cream of mushroom soup, but elegantly done.)
Skinless duck breast ($30) cut easily, a beautiful leftover of being cooked in its own fat. It was paired with a robust sauce of port wine with cherries and apples.
Side dishes that could have been afterthoughts were not, showing the kitchen’s attention to detail. Veggies were pan-seared to a turn, mashed potatoes silky.
From the surf side of the menu, a sure thing is anything made with shrimp or crab. On the starter menu, crab cakes ($15) flavored with cumin and lemon carried a memorable remoulade tweaked with champagne vinegar. A starter cup of crab bisque ($4) tasted softly of crab (perhaps too softly for some).
An entree-sized portion of cioppino ($24) proved a fresh take on the seafood stew laced with calamari, mussels, bay scallops and shrimp; the soup base favored the flavor of tomatoes over fish.
A generous portion of beautiful jumbo shrimp ($19) crowded a bowl of linguine with a boozy tomato and white wine sauce lightened with cream.
Those same snappy oversized shrimp — a dozen this time — topped a delightful Louie ($13, lunch) of romaine lettuce with kalamata olives, sliced boiled eggs and tomatoes that were so juicy-red, they betrayed the winter calendar.
I rarely find starter salads worthy of mention, but Bender’s lemony sour-cream green goddess dressing ($7) commanded praise, as did her appetizer of wine-soaked croutes de fromage ($10), which might be the fanciest grilled cheese sandwich in Tacoma outside of the Art House’s egg-topped croque madame.
Comfort carried right through to the end of the meal. Fudge-topped banana pudding ($7) tasted more custard than pudding, and a cinnamon bun cake ($8) was rich and feathery.
The one stumbling point on three visits was with service. Two of three servers carried the cadence of career servers: frequent table check-ins, questions answered quickly, glasses remained filled.
On one visit, however, a new server botched dinner with no table check-ins, a failing grade on wine patter (she offered none, despite prodding), and a plague of empty water glasses. But even the best restaurants come with service problems.
I almost never note bathrooms in a review, but Over The Moon’s are worth a gander. Created by the building’s owners, they’re striking layers of fabrics, lights and funky knick-knacks. Find them down the hall, out the back of the restaurant. Ask your server for the key.