If the best news from July 4 came from the many hilarious reactions to President Donald “The Rain Made Me Do It” Trump’s historical conflation of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Age of Flight, the worst news – at least, for many Oregonians – may have been the fire Thursday evening that seems to have destroyed the legendary Otis Café.
Shannon Gormley’s story today in Willamette Week reports that there were no injuries from the blaze that swept through the landmark diner, which sits – or sat – bright-red and beckoning just a few miles east of the coast on the way to Lincoln City, “but owner Jeff England tells WW the damage appears to be a total loss, and the historic cafe will likely have to be demolished.” While damage is still being assessed, England tells Gormley he plans to rebuild: “We all will learn and grow as we pull together and work together to bring the Otis Café back. Will it be as quaint as the 1920s building that we very possibly have lost? It’s hard to recreate that.”
England’s point is well-taken. As with an Old Master painting, much of the Otis’s charm derives from a patina built up over many years: the way the woodwork dents and shines, the just-right sagging of the floors, the inevitable pocks and marks of time. It can’t be renewed. It can only approximate and begin again. Its people, of course – the cooks and servers and deliverers and local regulars and weekend drop-ins from the city and workers in the nearby woods who stop in for a loaf of pumpkin bread or a fresh pie on the way home – will re-create it in their own image, and, if all goes well, a tradition will begin anew.
Learning about the destruction of the Otis – which constitutes something of a personal loss, though of course far less for me than for the people who work there and count on it to feed them every day – made me recall that it was the lead subject of the second weekly ArtsWatch newsletter I sent out, before it was renamed ArtsWatch Weekly (and if you aren’t getting it every Thursday in your email in-box, you should: Here’s how). Here’s what I had to say about it, almost six years ago to the day, on July 9, 2013. And here’s hoping for a followup, noting the happy settling-in of a new tradition, in early July 2025:
COMFORT AND THE JOYS OF SUMMER
Like a lot of Oregon flatlanders, I try to make a habit of escaping to the coast on a semi-regular basis – especially when the temperature’s dancing around the mid-90s in the city and it’s 20 or 25 degrees lower at the beach. I tend to head down Newport way, which takes me through the edge of wine country, past the slot machines and blackjack tables of Grand Ronde, through the Van Duzer Corridor, on through Lincoln City, south past Depoe Bay and that jut of ragged rock known dubiously but often accurately as Cape Foulweather. For probably 30 years this drive has usually included a stop just a few miles inland at the tiny junction of Otis, whose shining star is a little red pointy-roofed shack called the Otis Café.
ln all those years the Otis
hasn’t changed much: same short row of funky counter stools, same wooden booths
around the edges and crammed-in pair of four-tops in the center, same clear
jars of homemade salsa, same wander through the tiny kitchen past the pantry
and bread-and-pie ovens to the little latched-door bathroom if you want to wash
your hands or otherwise ease your travel pains. Sometimes, even the same waitresses
as a decade or two ago, who don’t look any older than you do. Same German
potatoes or hangtown fry or prodigiously proportioned omelette. Same loaf of
thick molasses bread to go. The whole place is as snug and organic and
well-fitted as the insides of a nicely packed turtle shell.
There are likely better places to eat along this drive, but not necessarily better places to stop. Hitting the Otis is a ritual, a comfort, a touchstone, a fleetingly borrowed home away from home. And it strikes me, having just made my most recent stop there, that this sort of ritual and comfort is important in our cultural lives, too. Art thrives and grows on its daring leaps into the unknown. But it’s nurtured by the familiar, by the repetition of experiences that somehow along the way have accumulated meaning.