TNT Diner

A Tacoma icon: After half a century, a remodel for Harbor Lights

Vacationing in Maui, Donivan Fowlkes sat down at a bar. The bartender asked his hometown. “Tacoma,” he replied. The bartender shot back, “You ever been to Harbor Lights?”

You bet, Fowlkes has his own drink there. An uncomplicated concoction of vodka and water with a splash of Rose’s lime juice. His favorite Harbor Lights bartender asks Fowlkes if he wants “a Donivan” every visit. He has been dining and sipping vodka waters at Harbor Lights for 25 years with his wife, Becky, at his side.

Like many Tacomans, Fowlkes counts the waterfront restaurant and bar as an institution belonging to the people. The nearly 54-year-old restaurant’s got a far-flung reputation — from here to Maui, as Fowlkes discovered. Everyone in Tacoma's seemingly been to Harbor Lights and if they haven’t, they’re too embarrassed to admit so (or should be).

But the iconic restaurant will be closing down for three weeks for remodeling, starting Monday, and Fowlkes’ hand wringing has begun. You can hear the undertone of “don’t mess with it” in his voice. He’s more diplomatic with his words.

“My concern is seeing part of Tacoma go away,” he said. “I understand you have to upgrade things, but something in me wants to keep that piece of Tacoma there.”

Harbor Lights isn’t just a waterfront restaurant. It’s been a destination, a restaurant without pretense, a gateway to Tacoma’s treasured waterfront, a place where deals were brokered by old Tacoma in an era when the waterfront was populated more by fishermen than by joggers. It’s still the restaurant for anniversaries, prom dinners, birthdays and, of course, happy hour. It is treasured for its flashy light-bulb sign of yesteryear, a reliable menu of surf and turf, water views, a come-as-you-are vibe, its legendary stiff cocktails, and doting staffers who have spent entire careers shuttling steak and lobster.

You can see why word of change would be met with a grimace.

Tacoma resident Mary Sudar struggles with what might happen to her beloved haunt. She’s been dining there for more than 45 years.

“It wouldn’t be Harbor Lights without the cramped but cozy and private bar – sort of like sitting in someone’s living room, the red leather banquettes, the kitschy wall art,” she said.

Sudar is worried about her favorite dishes. “And as for the food, where else in town do you get calamari steak done right, a deep fried captain’s platter, the best coleslaw in town, nectar-based clam chowder?”

She and Fowlkes pleaded with the corporate owners of Harbor Lights to keep one important thing through the remodel: “the very generous pour,” as Sudar described, laughing.

Don’t worry, say the owners of Harbor Lights, the regional seafood restaurant chain, Anthony’s Restaurants. Strong cocktails? Here to stay. The flashy sign stays, too. There are no staffing changes.

Other things? The bar? The menu? The front entry newspaper clippings and photos that tell the restaurant’s story?

Well, change is coming.

Anthony’s Restaurants purchased Harbor Lights in 2000 from LaMoyne Hreha, whose father, Anton Barcott, founded Harbor Lights in 1959 after managing his father’s restaurant, the California Oyster House, which opened in Tacoma in 1919. Barcott had a reputation for being as fair to his employees – who called him “Boss” – as he was to his patrons. He’s the one who started the tradition of the Harbor Lights strong pour, which he called “a toot.” Barcott died in 2000, Hreha in 2008.

When Anthony’s bought the place in 2000, it pledged to honor the Harbor Lights legacy, and they did for the most part when they cleaned up the interior, say regulars. Anthony’s spokeswoman Lane Hoss knows there will be resistance to the remodel because, as she said, “we’re protective of what we love.”

“You have a loyal base. You have to be reassuring when you’re doing facelifts that you try and preserve the unique history of the restaurant and the role it plays, but you’ve got to move it forward too. You know what happens when a restaurant isn’t clean or needs a new kitchen,” she said. “We’re going to be so respectful of that history. As the Barcotts did – and LaMoyne did – we’ve got to bring it into the future.”

Hoss characterized the changes as a facelift. There will be new bathrooms, tables, carpet, paint and – gulp – a change in that cozy bar. Plans call for opening the bar to the water views, which will change its private character.

The kitchen also will get more attention. “When we bought it in 2000, we did quite a bit of work on the kitchen, (but) we didn’t do enough. Now we get the chance to go back in, look at kitchen and floor, the way it’s laid out,” said Hoss. The exhibition style of the kitchen – a novelty for a restaurant that opened when Eisenhower was in office – stays put, said Hoss.

And those newspaper clippings in the entry that trace the history of the restaurant and Tacoma itself? Like the clippings talking about Hreha’s puppet television show “Penny and her Pals,” which she hosted in the 1960s on KTVW? Will those remain?

“We want to make the front entry more accessible. We’re figuring out how to incorporate it into the restaurant,” said Hoss.

Laura Carlson, who ate her first lobster as a child at Harbor Lights, worked at the restaurant for 10 years and now owns Laura’s Bayview in the St. Helens neighborhood. She said it’s time for a fluff and buff of the dated restaurant, but she hopes the newspaper clippings stay.

“In my humble opinion, you’ve got to carry over some of that nostalgia, people will want to cling on to the nostalgia,” said Carlson. “Change makes people nervous, whether it be good or bad. A lot of people, you know, they have a lot of memories there. … People went there on their first dates or proms, sometimes with their parents. They’re trying to keep some feeling in that era. For the older (diners), it’s a security.”

Beyond that, Carlson said change would be good. “It gets outdated – everything is needing a lift,” she said. “You eat with your eyes before you eat your plate.” As a restaurant owner, she knows that diners find worn surfaces unappealing, even in a beloved restaurant.

“They’re definitely overdue,” she said.

Harbor LightsWhere: 2671 N. Ruston Way, Tacoma, 253-752-8600, anthonys.comClosing: March 11, but Anthony's plans to reopen in three weeksRead my 2009 review of Harbor Lights and the restaurant's 50th anniversary here.