At Tacoma’s Katie Downs, it all starts with the view. The expanse, the stare out, the diamond speckled water skimming and shimmering in the distance just beyond the restaurant. It’s what makes the city’s beloved spot one of a kind and unique. With a red brick exterior, a castle-like tower, and a sight of the lapping waves, the Tacoma eatery Katie Downs is something to behold. But so are the many luscious items on the menu, from deep-dish pizza to robust salads and charbroiled fish. Indeed, the place is immersive, appropriate in aura for an important occasion out.
“It’s precious to me,” says owner, Dan Hilger. “Over the years, Katie Downs has become iconic in the city. It’s truly a gem for Tacoma.”
Hilger, who grew up in Tacoma and has since raised a family in the city (in fact, his son went to the same grade school and high school Hilger did), loves and respects his hometown. He cares about the relationships he builds with his patrons, staff and the vendors that help to service Katie Downs. He’s seen the restaurant grow from its inception in 1982. Hilger’s father, a surgeon, invested in the spot to get it off the ground. Later, Hilger, who’d worked for years as a pharmacist, decided to make a career change and manage the restaurant. So, his first job in the business ended up being his only one. Some 32 years later, he now owns it. But unlike many restaurant owners, he stays on-site daily.
“Every day, I’m in the kitchen,” he says. “I wear a chef coat. One reason why owners don’t go out and talk to guests at tables is because they don’t want to get embarrassed. But since I cook all the time, I know how every single thing is made.”
With his hands-on approach, Hilger has helped to steward Katie Downs, along with a dedicated kitchen manager and tight-knit staff, from an appreciated local spot to a polished destination. The average cost per diner generally runs about $30, but that accounts for fare that’s often above and beyond. Tall burgers, light fish and chips and rich-crusted deep dish pizza pies top some of the fan favorites. The spot’s most-loved item is their Sicilian pizza, made with peppers, onions, black olives and savory sausage. That’s followed closely by their Great White pie, which is made with chicken, black olives and white sauce.
“My favorite is the Fearless,” says Hilger. “Which has fresh garlic, provolone cheese, white onion, pepperoncini and smoked bacon.”
Like many establishments in 2020, Katie Downs had to scramble at times to keep up with the changing and precarious work conditions due to COVID-19 and statewide restrictions. Now, since those limits are almost entirely removed, the spot is thriving again, and more and more pairs of eyes can enjoy the Katie Downs view with a pizza or a glass of wine in front of them.
“With COVID, I worked every day,” Hilger says. “So did my son and key people on our staff. These people have become family. For me, the restaurant is who I am now. Katie Downs is part of me, and I care about it so much. I don’t want anything to happen to it.”
Sometimes, in his most sentimental moments, Hilger thinks of the restaurant as a person, fancy and beautiful, adorned with simple, subtle touches but allowed to shine honestly and brightly. “Super beautiful people don’t need much,” Hilger says. It’s that sense of seaside glamor that continues to buoy Katie Downs and refine it into the hotspot it is today. And all of it stems from Hilger’s adoration and appreciation of the family-run spot.
“I own the business and the building and the land it’s on,” Hilger says. “Over the 32 years I’ve been there, we’ve added a deck, done several remodels and added a tower. Over the years, it’s gotten busier and busier.”
Today, Hilger notes, he couldn’t make another Katie Downs if he wanted to. Because it stands in water overlooking Puget Sound, it would be against the city code to create another one just like it. This even makes some repairs or remodels difficult. Recently, though, Hilger instituted tableside service and a new point of sale system that’s helping to streamline visitor’s experience. For a restaurant overlooking the water that serves delicately made charbroiled salmon and portobello mushroom crust pizza, Katie Downs has become a local favorite for many reasons, as far as the eye can see.
“I have the keys to Katie Downs right now,” Hilger says. “But the truth is that the true owner of Katie Downs is the city of Tacoma — the people. It’s their restaurant.”
Katie Downs Tavern & Eatery
3211 Ruston Way