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Friday, December 1, 2023
Dec. 1, 2023

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Clark County restaurants offer blasts from the past

In a time of rapid change, culinary continuity is precious and rare

7 Photos
Top Burger in Camas, pictured in 2018, serves ice cream treats as well as burgers.
Top Burger in Camas, pictured in 2018, serves ice cream treats as well as burgers. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Food writers often focus on the hot new dining spot, but I thought it would be interesting to visit Clark County restaurants that have remained relatively unchanged for 50 years.

I pored over the Clark County Historical Museum’s copies of Polk’s Vancouver City Directory from 1907 to 1972 and supplemented that with a search of The Columbian’s archives to find five restaurants that take you back in time.

I looked for continuous operation but not necessarily continuous ownership. I excluded the drive-in Dairy Queen at the corner of Main and 27th streets, which opened in 1948, because it doesn’t have indoor seating. I left out Burgerville’s first location, which opened at East Mill Plain Boulevard and Morrison Road in 1961, because it has undergone major renovations.

I visited these five places not as a critic but as a curious observer checking on old friends to see how they’ve held up over the years. My favorite spots still felt relevant and alive. A kid sharing a booth with his grandpa gets the same joy from his pancakes with whipped cream that the older man felt when he visited that restaurant as a child. This continuity is precious and rare, particularly here in Vancouver, where lately everything seems to be changing.

Joe Brown’s Cafe

817 Main St., Vancouver; 360-693-6375; open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

Joe Brown’s Fountain Lunch first appears in the 1952 edition of Polk’s Vancouver City Directory. All these years later, the restaurant continues to serve eggs with hash browns and strong coffee in ceramic mugs — all with a side of Main Street Americana that continues to draw a crowd. Chatter and the sizzle of food hitting the steel griddle fill this compact space where customers sit in cozy booths or along the counter on tall swivel stools.

I like to perch at the counter to watch the choreography of servers grabbing napkins, silverware and glasses of water. After exiting into the dining space, they refill coffee mugs and write orders on their pads, while customers peruse photos of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean as well as a cluster of signs that announce things like “It’s illegal to be normal and work here” and “Nothing is finer than your neighborhood diner.”

Paul’s Restaurant

1800 Broadway; 360-694-3552; open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.

The door to Paul’s presents a choice of two paths. Customers can enter the Elbow Room Lounge or the main restaurant, depending on whether they seek adult beverages or diner classics like pancakes or country fried steak and eggs

Paul’s opened in 1970 and gives groovy vibes with its fluted chandeliers, ornate mirrors, wood paneling, carpet decorated with bubbles, and so many shades of brown. It wouldn’t seem odd to see Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry stop by for a cup of coffee or a go-go dancer sauntering over to the counter for eggs and hash browns after a long night.

Smitty’s Family Dining

1816 N.E. Third Ave., Camas; 360-834-4257; open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays through Tuesdays; closed Wednesdays.

Smitty’s opened in 1960. On a recent Tuesday morning, a sparse group of breakfasters watched cars and trucks move across Third Avenue as the tunes veered from the mellow sounds of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy” to the funky chaos of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”

At about 11:30 a.m., a steady stream of customers appeared for all-day breakfast or lunch classics like a hot open-face turkey sandwich served with mashed potatoes and gravy.

That day, the restaurant was short staffed. The waitress was scrambling to get everyone what they needed. As a couple headed to the entrance, she called to them by name and said, “I love you guys. It may not seem like it today, but I really do love you.”

Top Burger

1436 N.E. Everett St., Camas; 360-834-3867; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays.

Top Burger first shows up in The Columbian’s archives in 1967. This drive-thru burger spot near Crown Park in Camas exudes the energy of bobby socks, poodle skirts and Elvis’ pompadour. The seasoned fries are a standout, as are the milkshakes, which come in mix-and-match flavors like birthday cake, root beer and huckleberry.

On a recent visit, a fall-themed mural depicting a scarecrow, a turkey and a pilgrim with one hand held to his ear as if gripping a cellphone greeted customers in the parking lot. The dining room was closed temporarily for repairs. My cheeseburger, grilled cheese, hot fudge shake and seasoned fries were delivered to my car in the parking lot not long after I placed my order inside.

Don & Jo’s Drive-In

21903 N.E. 10th Ave., Ridgefield; 360-887-8111; open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; closed Sundays.

Don and Joanne Zumstein opened Don & Jo’s Drive-In in 1968. In 1982, their son, Mike, and his wife, Connie, bought the business. The dining room fills at lunch with men in work boots and baseball caps seeking soup, burgers and fries. A line of cars outside steadily moves past the drive-thru.

At around noon on Halloween, a tall man in a skeleton costume walked in with his small child dressed as a superhero. “Batman wants a strawberry milkshake,” he said. The woman behind the counter smiled and got to work on the young hero’s order.

Test of time

After a week visiting each place on this list, it’s clear to me that a restaurant’s survival isn’t based solely on the food it offers but on an alchemy that combines owners’ dreams, special care offered by staff and longtime customers’ memories. This is what fuels an institution and draws people through the door decade after decade. Anyone can scramble some eggs or flip a burger. It takes something extra to overcome the test of time.

Rachel Pinsky: couveeats@gmail.com

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