Story By Kellie Ann Benz, Photos by Kyle Mittan
After 62 years and a devastating fire 3 years ago, this popular destination resort restaurant gets new life.
To enter the foyer of Ocean Crest Resort’s newly restored restaurant makes you feel like you’re stepping into luxury. The warmth of the room instantly soothes your senses and you calm knowing that — even for just a little while — the rest of the world can wait.
Perhaps that’s part of the intent of the new design, or perhaps as General Manager Jess Owen puts it, “We hope that when you get here, you can relax, be in the present and let any troubles just drift away.”
Owen knows a thing or two about letting go of the past.
In the summer of 2011, after 62 years as one of the North Coast’s most noteworthy resort destinations, a devastating fire nearly took it all away. It took a community-wide, all-out firefighting effort to save the much-loved resort, but when the smoke cleared, the 24-table restaurant where Owen had developed his career was ashes. Firefighters were able to stave off damage to the resort’s hotel and spa, but the dining areas were memories.
“I’m not prone to crying, but this experience had me in tears,” Owen said. “I mean it hurt, this was everything that my family built.”
For a family-run business like Ocean Crest, a destination resort that has been owned and operated by every generation since Jess’s grandmother, Barbara, the loss was heart-breaking.
It wasn’t just the structure and the dip in business that stung, but gone as well in the fire were original works by Grays Harbor artist Elton Bennett, a private collection that had been carefully curated over the decades.
“We considered all of our options, we had some long family meetings and in the end, we knew what we had to do,” Owens explained.
They started the rebuild process immediately.
After three years of re-imagining the location and restoring the structure, the restaurant re-opened last summer and its re-envisioning feels a little like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Today, the restaurant at Ocean Crest Resort is a smaller room, offering a more intimate, exclusive dining experience. Each of the 12 tables allow patrons an unparalleled view of the ocean. And that view, oh what a view. Through a sheer curtain of tall evergreens, the lapping Pacific Ocean at the shores down below invites the imagination to wonder about a stroll along the sand. Especially enticing is the easily walkable, gradually descending wooden staircase that looks perfect for an after-meal stroll.
The décor inside is equal parts glass, wood and silk paintings, all of it made or derived from area artists. That includes the interior design.
“The cedar is locally harvested, and it mattered to us to have local artists fill our walls again,” Owen said. “My family has a tradition of showcasing our local artists, and we’re happy to have walls again to show that art off.”
Owen is referring to the dazzling glass jelly fish that dangle from the ceiling and the enticing centerpiece that fills the main bar wall, all originally designed for the new restaurant by Johnny Camp of Opal Art Glass. But, he could also be referring to the silk screen Elton Bennett hanging that the Bennett family gifted to the Ocean Crest as a salute to their longtime commitment to each other.
Of the native sculptures that filled the walls of the original restaurant, some actually did make it through the fire. Two of Randy Capoeman’s original pieces are on display, charred but still recognizable, and now carefully preserved and lovingly on display as a testament to one family’s determination to stay true to its past.
Though the room might be new, the delectable dishes and sure-bet culinary traditions remain the same.
Owen revels in the joys of discovering new dishes, but admits that he still loves cooking with Dungeness crab and the Pacific salmon, both delivering that uniquely West Coast taste to the palate.
Their menu ranges from breakfast, including their “Beach Breakfast,” a panko-crusted razor clam with rémoulade, two eggs made to order, served with roasted Yukon gold potatoes and toast; their lunch where you simply must try their “Grandma’s Famous Clam Chowder,” a recipe that dates back to the resort’s inception.
For those avoiding chowders due to gluten intolerance, this famous chowder is gluten-free. At dinner, the entrée offerings challenge the visitor to pick just one item, like the Elk tenderloin with braised cippolini onions , mushroom, fondant potato, Cabernet veal jus in a huckleberry reduction or the Dungeness crab pasta made of fresh linguini, Dungeness crab, tobiko, snap peas, Parmesan and black pepper.
Particularly of note for wine lovers, the resort’s wine list has been honored with awards from the Washington Wine Commission since 2004. Their wine program is specifically designed to complement their Pacific Northwest menu. The restaurant hosts a number of wine events through the year, so be sure to check their website for updates.
While Owen says the restaurant is open to all and doesn’t require reservations, he notes that since it’s “such a long drive” he recommends reservations to those who plan to come in for a visit.
For those storm-chasers who make winter along the Washington Coast a seasonal tradition, the new restaurant has a heated patio that will surely provide the perfect cover for a windy, winter day.
When you get back to Ocean Crest Resort doesn’t really matter anymore. Now that the restaurant is back and thriving once again, all that matters is that this must-see culinary destination has returned.
Ocean crest’s clam chowder
Forget the blue ribbon, and the cooking contests it has won, Ocean Crest Resort’s famous clam chowder has been winning hearts since the 1950s.
“It’s been with Ocean Crest since the beginning,” said Jess Owen, general manager of Ocean Crest Resort and a grandson of the recipe’s creator. “They started offering complimentary clam chowder on Friday nights for people who would stay Friday and Saturday, and it worked.”
When the resort’s restaurant was destroyed by fire — and along with it the hand-written recipe — Owen feared that the fire ended the tradition of his family’s famous meal. To remember the beloved recipe, he shared it with The North Coast News, a weekly paper in Ocean Shores, right after the fire. Below is an excerpt from the original story by Angelo Bruscas that details the making of the chowder (now served again in the re-opened restaurant).
The Family Recipe
“Technically, it is a New England clam chowder because it is milk-based. Now, it is not a New England clam chowder that most people would recognize because we don’t use the rue to thicken it, so there is no flour in ours,” Owen said. “It’s fine for people who have wheat allergies or intolerances.”
Another twist is that Owen uses evaporated milk in the process, which he said thickens naturally as potatoes break down. Also, as you heat the evaporated milk, the sugars caramelize, producing an almost pink color.
“Some people think we have added cheese or tomato to it, which we do not,” Owen said.
The process starts by cooking the potatoes, celery and onions together with bacon and special Ocean Crest Seasoning Salt. Once the vegetables are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed or evaporated, a counter-base is made and cooled. The base is mixed with the evaporated milk and reheated in a double-boiler, then the clams and the rest of the ingredients are brought together to make the full chowder.