I’m not a foodie, dining blogger or restaurant critic. Unless I’m ordering Thai food, I don’t care about three-, four- or five-star ratings. But I do know good food from mediocre, appreciate nonstandard fare and seek out small, comfortable spaces. Tibbitts@FernHill meets all that criteria, plus more. Its unique, made-from-scratch dishes and cozy ambiance are part of its allure. Yet the passion, pride and compassion of owner and chef, Shawn Tibbitts, is the piece de resistance.

Tibbitts@FernHill Shawn and Sunday crew
Owner and chef Shawn Tibbitts and his crew take time to pose for a photo on a bustling Sunday morning. Photo credit: Michelle Robinson

Shawn’s passion for his trade is obvious. His menus change with the seasons. This way he can offer the freshest ingredients possible by purchasing from local businesses such as Blue Max Meats, SmithCo Meats, Sterino’s Farms, Adams Mushrooms and Tacoma Boys. His high ratings on Yelp and Where to Dine – Pierce County are well earned. Each day he arrives at work five hours before the restaurant opens to plan and shop for fresh ingredients, which means that he arrives at 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and 3:00 a.m. on weekends.

This chef frequently delivers his colorful, layered food art to the table, feeding on his customers’ smiles. This meet, greet and mingle approach blended with his enthusiasm create his special sauce. Often, he invites interested patrons into his two-burner, one-oven kitchen to see where his creations are designed. His excitement is infectious and has spread to the staff. With a smile and twinkle in their eyes, they serve delectable dishes.

Tibbitts@FernHill restaurant outside
Tibbitts@FernHill is nestled next to old-time repair shops and Grace Community Church in Fern Hill’s historic district. Photo credit: Michelle Robinson

The restaurant’s location in the historic Fern Hill South Tacoma neighborhood is no accident. Shawn grew up in this ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhood that he proudly refers to as home. His sixth grade class photo displayed on the wall is evidence of his pride.

It’s popular these days for businesses to promote their community contributions. However, the tears that creep into Shawn’s eyes as he describes the ways he gives back to his community are authentic. He was raised by a single mom. Money was scarce. Now that he’s able to care for those in similar situations, he hopes to make their lives a bit easier by giving back where he can.

Shawn’s path to success was not sudden or easy. His culinary inspiration began at 19 with a dishwasher job at Tacoma Golf and Country Club. He knew shortly after joining them that he wanted to be a chef when he grew up. However, culinary school was not an option for him. He needed a job (or two) to support his young family. Instead, his skills were acquired on the job over 20 years of watching and working with chefs in various restaurants. He learned to flip eggs, cut fish, cook meat, prepare pasta and make desserts from the experts while working his way up from a sous chef to a head chef. CI Shenanigans, Stanley and Seafort’s, Gateway Cottage and Green Turtle were his local training grounds complemented by jobs at Michael’s on the Lake and the Rock Top Burgers and Brew in Moses Lake, Pinocchio’s Bar and Grill in Nevada, and Jake’s Steak House in Montana.

Just prior to opening Tibbitts@FernHill, chef Shawn worked at Arista Pasta in Puyallup, which is now closed. The time was right for him to open his own place, so he found the Fern Hill space and worked two jobs to save the money needed to start the business. He initially planned to open in November 2016, but wasn’t quite ready. In mid-December, the opening was on the horizon when his mom unexpectedly passed away from a car accident. The money he saved for his business went to catering her funeral. His dream was fading when a good friend asked him, “What amount of money will it take to make your dream come true? I’ll write you a check.” Shawn initially resisted his generous offer, but the friend persisted and insisted.

Tibbitts@FernHill crowded restaurant
Tibbitts@FernHill welcomes families, friends and couples weekdays and weekends. Photo credit: Michelle Robinson

On February 25, 2017, Shawn opened his restaurant for lunch only. He had $32 in his personal bank account. He now serves “fun food by Shawn Tibbitts” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Business is good. Space is limited. Reservations are recommended.

8237 S Park
Tacoma, WA 98408