Some of the most memorable events in our lives involve food. We gather over turkey and ham for Thanksgiving to share well wishes with family and friends. We celebrate the merger of two people into a marriage with toasts to good health and happiness. We mark the passage of time with annual meals involving flames, cake and ice cream.
It only seems fitting then that the places for such festivities become treasured parts of our shared experience, whether Sunday brunch spots, greasy-spoon diners where secrets and troubles were shared well after last calls were made, or family dinners when parents finally let us order off the main menu. Everyone has that one restaurant they hold dear long after it has closed. But some rise above the rest to become icons of the gastronomic arts entire regions remember with smiles and stories.
Here is a list of local Pierce County restaurants that have disappeared but are still talked about with reverence:
Any list of legendary eateries gone by must include Bimbo’s Restaurant, which started as a lunch counter in a building that was once the Hotel Grand built by Father Peter Hylebos along the 1500 block of Commerce Street. It then became the Grand Café in the heart of Tacoma’s Japantown under the mindful eyes of Japanese restaurateur Kyuhachi Nishii before changing to an Italian eatery in 1921. Vittorio “Bimbo” Perniconi wielded the big spoon, and partner John Teglia did the books at the lunch spot that changed its name in 1935 to the Avenue Café before returning to the Bimbo’s name in 1953 after Teglia died. Perniconi died in 1978. The business would draw pasta lovers searching for the best sauce the Earth could create for 80 years as the city prospered and fell and prospered again as the decades passed. However, it would ultimately be the Tacoma Renaissance of the late 1990s and 2000s that would cause its demise.
The City of Tacoma bought the restaurant — and recipes — in 2001 to give way for the construction of the Greater Tacoma Convention Center. One last meal was served in September of that year, and the bricks were sold by nonprofits to raise money for their operations. The famous sauce can be found at Stadium Thriftway.
Pizza and Pipes
On the border between University Place and Tacoma’s Westside was a family restaurant like no other.
Pizza & Pipes was a restaurant along Mildred that was less known for its pizza, which was inexpensive but eatable. What made this pepperoni-pie location stand out from the rest was the grand Wurlitzer organ that rocked kitschy tunes and rock classics as patrons ate or watched children try to catch the bubbles the piano spewed out during particularly rousing renditions. The restaurant was the brainchild of Dick and Margaret Daubert, who opened the must-see location in 1974. It was “the spot” for family dining in the early evenings and then pre-or-post movie date eating for generations. Those keys must have played “Stairway to Heaven” thousands of times over the years.
Everything came to a tragic end when a fire broke out one evening in August of 1999. Organist Sherrie Gibelyou was reportedly playing “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song to the movie “Titanic” when the fire started. It started in the oven vent and caused whiffs of smoke to alert customers slowly. Everyone was able to leave the restaurant safely because it all seemed minor at the time. But the building was declared a total loss after flames collapsed the roof. The Wurlitzer’s parts were salvaged and sold to a Portland man. It was the last restaurant in the region to have a Wurlitzer organ playing as part of its regular offerings.
Former journalist and local history author Walter Neary just happened to be on the scene as events unfolded. He was there with his son, who was celebrating the end of his team’s softball season.
“We smelled smoke, and when it was clear they were evacuating the building, we took the pizza outside in anticipation that the fire would be put out quickly,” he said. “There were no indications when we evacuated that it was going to be a total loss. I took the tray out because I figured we’d have a couple of slices of pizza, they would put a fire out, and we go back in. It didn’t turn out that way, and I still have a pizza tray from the place.”
Steve’s Gay 90s
Down on South Tacoma Way was another great restaurant that locals have vivid memories of even after decades since it disappeared.
Steve Pease opened Steve’s Gay ’90s along the 5200 block of South Tacoma Way in 1941, first as Steve’s Friendly Tavern and then added the Gay ’90s room a decade later and a Cable Car Room in 1954. The spot was part family restaurant and part bar with a saloon-style vaudeville show and a roster of campy can-can dancers with the piano just for more fun. It was a place to celebrate the 1890s, not the 1990s, after all. Bits of history were added over the years, including a dining bell from Western State Hospital that was salvaged and installed in the mid-1960s. The restaurant was the go-to spot for music, special events, campy shows and live theater for generations, with a staff of about 75 and seats for 700. It finally closed in 1997.
Top of the Ocean
Top of the Ocean was one of the most popular restaurants in Tacoma and is easily among the most- talked about these many moons after it closed. The destination eatery opened on December 15, 1946, and quickly became a top choice for many clubs, associations and organizations to hold their activities. The Tacoma Athletic Commission, for example, had private facilities within the restaurant along the working waterfront of Ruston Way. But all good things come to an end, as Top of the Ocean was destroyed by an arson fire on April 3, 1977. The fire would play a vital role in the downfall of what was known as the Enterprise, a group of would-be mobsters and bribe slingers that went to the top of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s most wanted list.
Over in the suburban city of Lakewood was another landmark that drew patrons from miles around for generations. The Schooner Pub and Galley was a nautical-themed watering hole that opened in 1972 at the corner of Lakewood Drive and Bridgeport Way. Clover Park and Lakes High School teachers and coaches would notoriously gather there after school to hold “staff meetings” outside of the ears of students and administrators during the 1980s and 1990s. The fish and chips brought crowds, for sure. But owner Donald Kitchens died in 2013, and then the site was demolished to make way for a Chick-fil-A.