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First bite: The newly reopened Harbor Lights

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on May 10, 2013 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
May 10, 2013 8:55 am

Three weeks ago, the nearly 54-year-old Harbor Lights reopened after a six-week remodel by its corporate owners, Anthony’s Restaurants.

First the good: The stiff drinks, the this-is-why-we-live-here views of Commencement Bay, and the doting staff are all the same.

Now for the not so good: Regulars might not recognize their beloved haunt on Tacoma’s Ruston Way waterfront.

The new decor? Bland. The restaurant is outfitted in muted shades of gray and blue with walls void of much visual interest. Gone is the sense of place – the red banquettes, funky fish wall art, newspaper clippings in the front entry tracing the history of the restaurant and the Barcotts, the family that opened Harbor Lights in 1959 and sold it to Anthony’s in 2000.

Why take a restaurant that has so much character – although dated and worn – and turn it into something that looks as generic as a coffee shop?

Anthony’s corporate spokeswoman Lane Hoss explained that the restaurant is a work in progress.

“We wanted to wait and see how the restaurant felt,” Hoss said. Anthony’s is working with the Port of Tacoma and other Tacoma institutions to find artwork, “things that represent Tacoma.” She added, “We want the restaurant to represent what Tacoma’s about and that’s what we’re working on.”

The restaurant does have the eatery’s old ship models on display, but you might miss them. They’re in the private dining area, another is in an alcove between the bar and a walkway to the dining room.

What about those newspaper clippings and Barcott family memorabilia that lined the front hallway? The visual montage tracing the restaurant and its founders? Wouldn’t that contribute to warming up the interior?

Hoss said those are heading back to the family that founded the restaurant. The mementos were a point of contention last month between the restaurant and Roxane Hreha, granddaughter of founder Anton Barcott. Roxane’s mother, LaMoyne, was the daughter of Barcott and the public face of Harbor Lights before it was sold to Anthony’s. On behalf of the family, Roxane Hreha asked for the memorabilia back. Initially, Anthony’s resisted. But the two parties are working on an agreement, and it appears the issue is just about resolved.

About the entry makeover: The narrow entry always was difficult to navigate, but the remodel that widened the hallway and shifted the kitchen and bathrooms created a new problem. Twice when I entered the restaurant I walked into a wall of staff lined up at a kitchen window where plates of food are handed to servers.

So how about that menu? It was shortened and reordered, and a few new items were added.

I’ve heard from diners irked that baked potatoes no longer are a choice as an entrée accompaniment. Salads and the restaurant’s famous nectar clam chowder no longer accompany entrées, either. Instead, those are listed as à la carte options, priced $1.25-$1.95 and up.

But here’s something good diners rarely see: lower entrée prices, even after factoring in the cost of adding a soup or salad to the meal. The sunset dinners are a dollar more at $16.95, but were bumped from three to four courses.

Kitchen execution was off on my two post-remodel visits, as it was on a visit prior to the remodel. On one visit, a top sirloin steak ($16.95) was overcooked beyond the requested medium rare. On another visit, the steak was tough. The fried shrimp, oysters and fish on the Captain’s Platter ($24.95) were soggy with grease. A calamari steak ($14.95) had just the right texture, but the breading was greasy.

As for sides, the asparagus and mashed potatoes were fine. However, the french fries tasted stale and straight from a freezer bag. The nectar chowder – something diners revere – was underseasoned on two visits.

What has remained is one thing I don’t think Anthony’s will ever change – a staff that works to please customers. I don’t see that ever slipping at Harbor Lights as long as they keep fabulous career staffers employed.

Harbor Lights
Where: 2761 Ruston Way, Tacoma, 253-752-8600,

Sue Kidd dines anonymously. The News Tribune pays for all meals.

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