City landmark closes after 21 years
“It’s a dying part of a dying business,” said a sad but grateful Joe Slevin earlier this week, sitting with wife Pat in the bar of what up until last week was one of the better known restaurants in the area. The Slevins closed their popular Harbor Cafe June 1 after a continuing decline in patronage due to border problems associated with 9/11, the depressed Canadian dollar and their increased costs.
“The way the trains sit blocking Marine Drive didn’t help, and when the casinos opened up we lost the bulk of our pull-tab trade, too,” said Joe Slevin, “but the biggest thing I want to say is thanks to all the people who worked here and ate here over the years. That’s been priceless.”
At its peak Harbor Cafe employed almost 50 people but was down to about 31 when it closed. Locally well-known employees were waitress Donna Devore, now Mrs. Ken Kellar, and morning manager and pull tab manager Fred Cederquist, and his wife Vivian, floor manager and book keeper. The Cederquists started with the Slevins when they bought the business from Lou and Mary Laraia in the early 1980’s.
The Harbor Café started life during the early 1940s as a small pool and beer hall. “It was mounted on skids, and by the time we bought it from Lou and Mary they’d made it into a bar. We rebuilt the entire building,” said Joe Slevin, “with all new stuff and turned it into a real restaurant.” The facility seats 130 in the restaurant area and another 36 in the bar.
“Another thing was that when we came here there weren’t any windows in the front (north) side of the building,” said Pat Slevin, “so that was one change we made in putting in the restaurant part.” In good summer weather sunlight floods the restaurant, which offers an almost 180-degree view of Semiahmoo Bay.
“The old fishermen used to sit here and judge the weather by the way the grass was blowing across the street,” laughed Joe Slevin. “And we’d play jokes on each other. Wayne McGee got this old Navy bell in 1945 and we put it up on the wall to signify happy hour. They’d tie some light fishing line to it and run it through the chair legs and so on and tie it to my toolbox or ladder. I’d come in and grab it, the bell would ring and just like that I owed everyone a round!”
One particular long table in the northwest corner of the restaurant was by custom reserved for fishing boat captains. Filled with respect for the people who he characterized as “putting their lives on the line every time they go out,” Slevin commissioned a new table from Canadian John Cox and hired a young and unknown Bellingham marine artist named Jim Williamson to draw the names of the captains and the boats on it “in 1983 or ’84,” he said.
“We held a fishermen’s appreciation day then, and had the new top covered with paper, supposedly to protect it while we stood on it to decorate the room,” Slevin continued, “and then at one point I asked if someone could cut it off to get rid of it so we could serve them. When the captains saw that top there was dead silence, and then I cried right along with the rest of them.” Some of the names on the table belong to people and boats that haven’t returned, Slevin added, making it a kind of unspoken memorial.
Probably the most poignant story, Joe recalls is that of the ill-fated F/V Investor, a Blaine based boat on which eight crew and family members, one of whom was pregnant, were murdered. This happened on September 6, 1982, and after the family was all killed the boat itself was burned in a cove in Alaska to cover the crime. Arrests were made but no convictions resulted.
Allegations were made at the time about prosecutorial incompetence, “like there was some good evidence that somehow got lost,” said Joe Slevin. This was just a couple of years before the new captain’s table was built, and feelings were still running high, “as if these [fishermen] didn’t have enough to contend with,” Slevin said.
Williamson had previously drawn a mixed media rendition of the Investor moored in Blaine. The painting hung in the Harbor Cafe along with his other paintings. Crew member Leroy Flammang had a commitment that took him off the Investor, then moored in southeast Alaska, shortly before the crew was murdered.
Flammang took the painting as a souvenir of the Investor, but several of the fishers in Blaine wanted it left in the Harbor Cafe as a memorial. They began taking up a collection, but collections were also being made for the family. Slevin asked the fishermen to back off on their campaign and in return promised to talk with Williamson to see what could be worked out.
“Joe said he always appreciated fishermen. The risks they take and all the hard work they do and he wanted to commemorate their work and lives,” said Williamson, “and then this awful thing happened where the boat was taken out and burned.” Williamson drew another portrayal of the Investor in mixed media water color and pencil and placed it in the cove where it had been burned, drawing the background of trees and mist with uncanny accuracy. “The eight gulls in the painting represent the eight victims,” Williamson added.
The original painting is now in the hands of Flammang’s wife Lois, a snowbird who divides her time between Arizona and Bellingham. The second one still hangs in the bar and has memorialized the tragedy with a brass plaque. “I hope we can put it into the maritime museum someday, when it gets going,” said Slevin, who said he’s turned down offers of well over $1,000 for the painting.
Williamson said he sold over 5,000 paintings out of the Harbor Café in the 20 years he’s been exhibiting there. “It was one of my best venues,” he said, “and I hate to lose it, and I hate to see such a warm and friendly place close.” Slevin honored Williamson’s work by designating the back part of the restaurant as the “Williamson Room.” Williamson has since negotiated with the Seaside Bakery Café for wall space. The new restaurant on Peace Portal Drive is expected to open up early in July.
The Slevins, who previously operated the Beach Drive-In in Birch Bay, are philosophical about closing their business but will clearly miss the many friends they’ve made over the years. “Sometimes you’d see a person only once every six months, but over the years, that’s a lot of contact.”
When asked how long they’ve had the business for sale, both Slevins said in unison, “All 21 years!” and laughed. “We did have a couple of offers toward the end,” Joe Slevin said, “but the last buyer we had failed to qualify.”