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Drop-in Dining: Harborlights

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on June 19, 2009 at 5:27 am | No Comments »
June 19, 2009 5:27 am

The waterfront view at Harbor Lights. Peter Haley / The News Tribune

A surf-and-turf menu, stiff drinks and serious hospitality have kept Harbor Lights an anchor on the Ruston Way waterfront for five decades. It celebrates its 50th year this year.

Sure, Harbor Lights probably didn’t serve rhubarb cosmos in the 1950s – that’s the modern influence Anthony’s brought when the Northwest chain bought Harbor Lights in 2000.

But Jeanie DeSmith, who served as hostess for more than two decades at Harbor Lights before retiring a few years ago, said the backbone of the restaurant – its staff and service – are the foundation, and the reason why Harbor Lights persists. Oh, and the stiff drinks don’t hurt, she said. The strong cocktails are leftovers from Harbor Lights founder Anton Barcott, who later handed over the operation to daughter LaMoyne Hreha before Anthony’s bought it.

"Everyone called him boss," recalled DeSmith of Barcott. "He’d be down there and the guys could come into the lounge, he would have a drink – a ‘toot,’ that’s what he called it. … He was a great man to work for."

"When Anthony’s bought it, I was scared," said DeSmith, a 75-year-old University Place resident. "I thought, ‘Here I am, the oldest employee’ – I worried they would kick me out, but they didn’t." She appreciated that the new owners respected the restaurant for what it was – an institution.

DeSmith recalls volumes about the repeat customers at Harbor Lights. She rattles off the favorites, such as "Little John" and "the doctors," a group of physicians who dine there every Tuesday. They gave DeSmith a Nordstrom gift certificate every Christmas. She always found a place to seat them, even when their group grew to 12 or more.

That’s the kind of hospitality that captured my attention on my visits. On one of my three visits to Harbor Lights, I watched a server graciously tend a customer with a paralyzed arm. I never heard him say a word or even order anything, but she kept bringing him things. She opened the butter packets for him when he motioned for her help. During the same stretch, she capably handled three other tables, cheerily chatting up customers by name at two of them.

That’s the kind of service that sticks.

Harbor Lights has a come-as-you-are vibe that suits Tacoma. You’re just as likely to see men in sports jackets as you are sports jerseys.

The menu might not be fussy and you won’t find balsamic reduction syrups or truffle pumpkin oil – but you will enjoy dependable surf-and-turf in a room with a killer view. Grandmother and grandson both will find something to enjoy about the menu.

It was the halibut that I fell in love with. On two of my visits, it arrived succulent and delicately flaky. In the lunch version as panko crusted halibut ($17.95), it came with a zigzag ribbon of dijon sauce flecked with thyme. As a dinner combo special paired with Copper River salmon ($25.95), the halibut arrived silky moist – with a drizzle of a citrusy bright lemon oregano butter sauce. It’s too bad the halibut was served with dry Copper River sockeye that even a buttery tomato basil sauce couldn’t rescue. Overcooked was the same problem I found with a lunchtime grilled wild salmon salad ($14.95), which came topped with an overdone filet of wild salmon. The orange-lemon-

cranberry-shallot vinaigrette added dimension, but the salad needed more flavor than the avocados and grapefruit segments could deliver.

Harbor Lights wins praise for oysters and clams. A plate of steamed clams bordelaise as an appetizer ($11.95), is just the way to start a meal. Not a grain of sand to be found in that bowl of sweet clams swimming in a buttery wine broth. Pacific oysters are a sure bet for lunch or dinner: a dozen pan-fried oysters at lunch ($12.95) came tucked into crisp jackets of golden bread crumbs. They lose their crisp after sitting some, but the oysters were briny and delicious, and not overcooked. Breading is something the restaurant gets right – the fried artichoke hearts ($6.95) on the appetizer specials menu arrived in the same crispy outerwear. The mild ‘chokes got a spicy bounce from a housemade garlic chipotle lemon aioli.

The bar is the perfect scene to dig into a blue cheese bacon burger ($11.95), loaded with a hefty layer of pungent Stella blue cheese, two thick slices of chewy alder-smoked bacon and a juicy certified Angus ground chuck patty grilled just to the right side of requested medium. Chilled, crisp slices of lettuce, onions and tomatoes come on the side. Golden-brown fries went nicely with some of that leftover garlic chipotle lemon aioli. Fries also showed up in a fish kid’s meal ($7.95) with three chunky pieces of fried cod.

Surf-and-turf is a steal on Sundays. Our server told us the sirloin and lobster dinner we ordered for $27.95 – sirloin and lobster – came at a bargain price of $17.95 on Sundays (along with six other surf-and-turf combos).

The lobster was a killer choice – a bulky tail was sweetly rich and had the most delicate, supple texture. The lobster, harvested from the cold waters of the South Atlantic in Tristan Da Cunha, is one of those lobster tails you’ll crave for days. For a surcharge of $12, you can add a tail to any meal.

Sides are generous at Harbor Lights. Dinners come with a choice of starch, veggies and soup or salad. The pilaf is straightforward, and the potato loaded with the works (whipped butter, studded with bacon and chives). On my visits, bright green broccoli spears were cooked crunchy-crispy. Starter salads come with dressings that confirmed the boast of a server who said they tasted fresh and homemade because they are. The clam chowder is nectar-based with a deliciously clean briny flavor, and loaded with sweet, plump clams.

For ending a meal, the housemade key lime pie ($4.75) provides a puckery blast of lime. Burnt cream ($3.95) comes with a crust of brown sugar. Sinful cheesecake ($4.95) is piled high and creamy-dreamy.

And what people say about the cocktails – it’s true. Anton Barcott would be proud that his tradition of a stiff "toot" in the bar continues.

Harbor Lights

Where: 2761 Ruston Way, Tacoma

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and noon-9 p.m. Sundays.

Contact: 253-752-8600;

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