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Behind the Line: Food with a view
Oyster Bar owners build a legacy on Washington's Samish Bay
By Lauren Kramer
September 01, 2010
When Guy and Linda Colbert bought the Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive in Bow, Wash., 23 years ago, the California couple thought they'd bring a few healthy changes to the menu. They eliminated the cheese soufflé, a side dish that had accompanied all the entrées. However, the Colberts soon learned that guests not only wanted the soufflé back, they demanded its return to the menu. The restaurant's loyal patrons weren't about to sit quietly and watch their favorite side dish bite the dust.
Many Oyster Bar patrons have been dining there for a long time. They love the view of Samish Bay at the restaurant, which sits on a cliff 150 feet from the ocean, and the elegance of the fine-dining establishment that makes it a great venue for celebrations.
The Oyster Bar has been a fixture on western Washington's picturesque Chuckanut Drive for decades. Built in 1927, it was once an oyster stand for Rockport Oyster Co., now Taylor Shellfish, based in Shelton. In an effort to sell more oysters, Rockport set up a stand on Chuckanut drive that eventually evolved into a restaurant.
The Colberts had previously run Steinbeck's Creative Cuisine in Newport Beach, Calif., but when the lease of that restaurant was up for renewal and they learned they would not be able to purchase the land, they looked for an opportunity elsewhere.
"We knew the Oyster Bar and loved it, so we jumped at the opportunity to buy it," says Linda Colbert.
Changes came slowly over the years: Linda oversees the front of the house and Guy handles a wine list that has expanded to include more than 600 bottles from all over the world. The couple added booths inside the 60-seat restaurant, remodeled the outside to include a deck in 1999 and slowly inserted healthier options into a larger menu that now offers seafood and game.
"We lightened the sauces, eliminated the cream from some of the soups and used more vinaigrettes," says Linda Colbert. "We also started offering desserts like sorbet with no fat, and fruit desserts so people can eat healthy if they want to."
The food style is Pacific Northwest, but the Colberts add eclectic dishes if there's something they love. For example, Steinbeck's had featured abalone on its menu and the Colberts decided to offer it at the Oyster Bar, too. "It filled a niche that no one else was doing here," says Guy Colbert.
Almost since the restaurant first opened, its slogan has been "The oysters you eat today slept last night in Samish Bay." To a large extent, that's still true, thanks in part to the Oyster Bar's proximity to Taylor Shellfish, located a stone's throw from the restaurant. At times the restaurant features up to six different oysters on its menu. Taylor Shellfish supplies Samish and Kumamoto oysters, while Penn Cove Select Oysters are from Whidbey Island, Wash., and Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia are brought in by truck.
Seafood is 90 percent of the menu, and the Colberts make a point of trying to feature products that other restaurants don't offer.
"We feature items like Yukon River salmon, Alaska king salmon, red Idaho trout and Alaska halibut," says Linda Colbert.
"Occasionally we also feature species like barramundi, Tasmanian salmon, mongchong (pomfret), moonfish, blue prawns, spearfish and Columbia River sturgeon. Our diners are used to eating seafood all the time, so sometimes they're in the mood for something different."
Chef Justin Gordon presides over the kitchen, ordering the majority of the restaurant's seafood from Ocean Beauty in Seattle and Hawaiian Fresh Seafood in Honolulu. On a hot summer day the menu featured Maine lobster tails with yuzu honey butter sauce and gremolata garni, Gulf Coast hopper prawns, California red abalone and troll-caught Alaska king salmon.
"Most of our purveyors are well versed in which fish are sustainable," Gordon says. "Whenever possible we get sustainable seafood. I rely on my purveyors a lot - they know not to give me fish that's overfished. But I also check online with organizations like Seafood Watch to determine what is and isn't sustainable. I try to stay away from species that are overfished."
The restaurant is open seven days a week now, closed only on Christmas Day, and opened for lunch, too, over the course of the recession. While other restaurants were suffering, the Colberts saw their revenue drop by only 5 percent.
"We found that if people want to go out for a meal but don't want to spend too much, they tend to come for lunch," says Guy Colbert. "During the economic downturn our revenues for dinner dropped, but lunch attendance increased and picked up that slack."
As the Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive approaches its 74th year, some things haven't changed since its inception. The bald eagles still soar over Samish Bay, and the oysters are still harvested from the shallow waters nearby. The Colberts have a team that makes the operation run seamlessly, and have no intention of slowing down or entering retirement. "Winters can be long and slow, when the weather turns bad, but that's when we take our break," Linda Colbert says.
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia