Shell by shell, a tradition grows up
A venerable restaurant plans something new: an oyster celebration
Move over Rose Festival. Make way for the humble oyster.
On April 5, the venerable Portland family that built an enduring business on the tasty bivalve will hold its own festival.
An oyster festival.
For nearly a century, the oyster has been the Wachsmuth family's world.
And for nearly a century, Dan & Louis Oyster Bar has been a Portland institution. It has sold, it's said, more oysters than any other restaurant on the West Coast.
The business, at 208 S.W. Ankeny St., is now run by third- and fourth-generation members of the Wachsmuth family.
Doug Wachsmuth, grandson of founder Louis Wachsmuth, views the festival as a chance to promote the Northwest coast's fine oysters. Also, he says, it will be an opportunity to focus on environmental issues that affect the oyster, which depends on clean water for survival.
Oysters reflect their environment in their taste, Wachsmuth says. A Yaquina Bay oyster can be distinguished from an Olympia oyster, or one from Hood Canal or Fanny Bay, he says.
'Every little inlet, every little bay, has its specific taste,' he says, describing a favorite as 'rich, wonderfully plump and nutty.'
Wachsmuth started working at the restaurant when he was in grade school and spent summer vacations at the Yaquina Bay oyster farm that the family owned until 1991.
His son Mike, executive chef at the Oyster Bar, says West Coast oysters are so splendid and varied that, just as with wine, people should be educated about them. And he suggests that the Oyster Bar is a good classroom.
The oyster festival is a new idea for one of Portland's oldest restaurants Ñ a place that treats change with great care.
Consider the bar, added in December 2001. It's to the right of the main entrance, a quiet little room with a wooden wheel from a sternwheeler ship and windows onto Ankeny Street. Its walls are decorated with antique photos, maps and paintings of Portland and the Oregon coast.
The decor fits in so well that some customers think that the bar's been there all along and they just haven't noticed it, Doug Wachsmuth says. When the bar opened, it marked another milestone: the Oyster Bar's first hard-liquor license. The restaurant got a license for wine and beer in 1991.
The bar idea came from Mike and Ted Wachsmuth, equal partners with their father in the restaurant; they pushed for the transformation of what originally was the oyster-
shucking room, then became a bakery, then a catchall space.
'I think the bar is an example of what I wouldn't have done by myself,' says Doug Wachsmuth, who clearly enjoys sharing restaurant management with his sons; Ted is operations manager. 'Because they wanted to, I didn't want to stand in their way.'
The renovation yielded a fascinating bit of history. When workers took out a concrete floor, they found a brick underground cistern about 5 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep. It was kept filled with water for fire protection.
Now, there's a Plexiglas square in the floor, along with a light, to make the cistern visible.
Apart from the bar, however, the Oyster Bar has stayed pretty much the same. Mike Wachsmuth, a graduate of Western Culinary Institute, has made some changes to the menu, and the Oyster Bar's daily specials tend toward trendier dishes. But he's not keen to venture too far away from tradition.
'You don't touch the oyster stew,' he says.
There was a time when the Oyster Bar and Jake's Famous Crawfish 'kind of were the seafood places in Portland,' Doug Wachsmuth says.
No more. Seafood purveyors have proliferated, from the mass-market Skipper's chain to Newport Bay and McCormick & Schmick's. 'It's absolutely more competitive, and the competition is very stiff,' he says.
The restaurant's 30-person staff includes several people who have worked there for decades. Anneliese Parmenter, an Oyster Bar waitress for 45 years, is as familiar to diners as the decorative plates and seafaring memorabilia that cover the walls and crowd the corners.
'This was really my grandfather's thing,' Doug Wachsmuth says of the collection of historic items that have turned the Oyster Bar into a museum of West Coast maritime history.
Louis C. Wachsmuth amassed a collection so vast that the restaurant's age-mellowed wooden walls now are nearly covered with plates, pictures and marine paraphernalia.
Included is a framed letter from the American Biscuit Co., congratulating Dan & Louis Oyster Bar for ordering 23,760 pounds of oyster crackers in 1971. A container of oyster crackers on every table remains an Oyster Bar staple.
There are historic photos of Portland's waterfront, model ships made by Portlander Art Nissen, 'probably in the 1940s,' Doug Wachsmuth says.
There's also a gallery of photos of famous diners, from New York Yankees Manager Casey Stengel to actors Mickey Rooney and Richard Boone, and comedian Jonathan Winters. Former Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., held his 1984 campaign celebration party there.
A brass engine telegraph from the battleship USS Oregon is in the entryway, along with the ship's wheel from the steamship Brother Jonathan, which sank off Crescent City, Calif., in 1865, on a trip from San Francisco to Portland and points north.