Update: Read this great follow-up article published April 2014 in the Grays Harbor Talk
Enjoy this great interview with Jess and Sarah of Ocean Crest Resor
t as they recall family history, creation of The Culinary Madman™ and eager anticipation of their re-opened dining room Spring 2014.
reprint care of Seattle DINNING!
Ocean Crest Resort... An ocean oasis
A bluff, a tree-filled ravine, the unending ocean. You, being treated like family, relaxing in your rustic-beach room with a view and fireplace. It's no dream, it's Ocean Crest Resort
, about three hours from Seattle and 18 miles north of Ocean Shores.
Barbara Curtright bought the one bedroom home and four cabins in 1953, moving in with her four children. Ocean Shores was still a ranch, and the Washington coast was not a tourist destination. To be in the AAA guide, there had to be six rental units, so the garage was converted, and a sixth cabin built. Guests came for Saturday night, but the family wanted them to stay longer, so they began serving complimentary clam chowder around a campfire on Friday nights. Barbara had acquired the previous owner's recipe for the chowder. The unchanged recipe has been shared over the years, and won two blue ribbons at the Ocean Shores Razor Clam Festival.
Barbara's husband Jess suggested they open a restaurant. Not crazy about the idea, she relented, only
if it was by reservation. In 1963, in a small town, no one thought this was a good idea. Yet they cantilevered a dining room from their house over the bluff. By 1964, they had to open a second dining room. The house and restaurant have been the nucleus of the resort ever since. When people made reservations, they also placed their dinner order. This allowed the family to grocery shop. They offered 5-6 items plus clam chowder, dessert, coffee. Everything was produced from Barbara's home kitchen. "Things have changed so much," laughs Jess Owen, one of Barbara's grandsons and assistant general manager of the resort. "No Health Department, no commercial kitchen."
Ocean Crest was the first resort on the Washington coast to stay open year round. "Other owners were snow birds," recalls Jess. As Jess's wife Sara says, "It wasn't just about the restaurant, it was about entertainment as well." Grandpa would smoke salmon on the bluff, wearing a buckskin jacket and Indian headdress and bring the salmon into the restaurant to beating drums. "It was a whole different time," recalls Jess. He thinks they may have been the first restaurant on the mainland to serve steak and lobster. His grandparents had visited Hawaii and came home saying it was good, but wanting to use higher quality ingredients. The first menu priced the meal between $4 and $5. At one time, part of the restaurant was the Gold Room and was black tie.
"The idea is that you come and stay with our family," says Sara. "At Grandma's house, hospitality was old school, and still is today. Every Curtright worked at the resort, at least until they went to college." Jess started at the restaurant at age 11. At 15, his parents moved to Eugene where his high school had a very advanced computer lab. He did an internship as a computer systems operator and was offered a job in Tennessee. Deciding to stay in the Northwest, he worked at the resort for a few years, then returned to Eugene for business school. He met Sara in Eugene; they talked about him wanting to help run the family business. She agreed, as long as she had a commitment. They married in 1996 and headed to the resort in February 1997. They have worked every position in the resort.
Staffing changes led Jess into the kitchen, where he found a passion and talent. "I had no culinary training, but spent most of my life in the kitchen." Winemaker dinners were based on the wine, and he would stress about creating menus to complement the wines. "Jess would walk around muttering 'potatoes!' or 'shrimp, I like shrimp!' kind of like Rain Man," laughs Sara. "We began calling him The Culinary Madman™." His dishes sound crazy, but people love them. To go with an elk dish, he matched the side dish with the huckleberry sauce rather than the elk and developed white chocolate whipped potatoes. He paired chai halibut with Syrah, cooking it in parchment and serving over braised fennel and apples. He's made chocolate chip crimini cookies with espresso panna cotta, and a chocolate soup ('like a liquid brownie' sighs Sara).
"We started the winemaker dinners because of our wine list. It was ridiculous for a small town, but we had over 400 wines, including Quilceda Creek verticals back to 1998. Our wines are primarily Washington and we've won numerous awards," says Jess.
Many famous people have dined at Ocean Crest, including Joe Namath, John Wayne, Anthony Geary, Greg Nichols, Maria Cantwell, John McCain, Ted Nugent, and Apolo Ohno. In 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle named it The Best Restaurant North of San Francisco.
The restaurant fun ended on June 20, 2011, when a suspected electrical fire burned down Barbara's home and the restaurant. "We lost family history, photos, original menus, computers. They let it burn for three days because the bluff was sliding from all the water. We had to remove 11 trees, and rebuild the stairs to the beach," says Sara. "We worked for two years getting help with permitting, insurance, contractors. We miss our guests and look forward to reopening the restaurant in spring of 2014. We'll have to learn a new flow in the restaurant. We take wine and food seriously. Once we've got it, we'll re-start the winemaker dinners."
The exterior will still have multiple sloping rooflines; the interior will be completely different. It will have the same view through the trees to the ocean, "Very Swiss Family Robinson," says Sara. Seating capacity will be about 70 with the bar and dining room. Eventually, they'll have a small outdoor dining area.
The resort and spa have remained open. There are 45 rooms in different configurations: ocean view, partial view, no view; studios, one and two bedrooms; no kitchens, kitchenettes, full kitchens; a duplex ¼ mile away with ocean view and adjoining door for large groups; pet-friendly rooms. The Cedar Serenity Spa is open 365 days a year with hot tub, tanning bed, heated pool, sauna, exercise room, massage.
When it's time to truly relax in a gorgeous setting, it's time to make your way to Ocean Crest Resort.
Ocean Crest Resort
4651 SR 109
Moclips, WA 98562
Photos courtesy of Ocean Crest Resort
Connie Adams/January 2014