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News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Beaches’ finest offering: community service

The Columbian
Published: February 23, 2024, 6:03am

When news broke this week that the owners of Beaches Restaurant and Bar would retire at the end of the year, surprisingly our first thought wasn’t about the Beach House Salad.

In fact, it wasn’t really about the restaurant at all.

It was about the sense of place and community its owners, Mark Matthias and Ali Novinger, have created since that first signature salad was served in 1995.

Every town has landmarks that define it. Some of them are physical, like the Interstate 5 Bridge. Some are civic, like Esther Short Park, or historical, like Officers Row. Beaches is one of Vancouver’s social landmarks.

Beaches was never about fine dining. There are a lot of great restaurants in Vancouver, particularly in the last few years as the Waterfront Vancouver developed and Clark County grew both in population and sophistication. But Beaches is special.

Community service and charitable work was baked into Matthias’ original business plan. Only six weeks after Beaches opened, The Columbian carried its first mention of this, a note that Beaches was a sponsor of that year’s Camp Opportunity, which provided abused or neglected children with socialization and services.

Many, many more opportunities followed. Over the years Beaches has raised more than $4 million for local nonprofits, from the charity table with a view to events like the Wednesday night Cruise-In car shows at Portland International Raceway. During Read Across America Week, a generation of local schoolchildren ate free green eggs and ham, served by Dr. Seuss characters, and went home with books. When longtime restaurateur Chuck Chronis could no longer provide free Thanksgiving meals, Beaches stepped up to partner with Rich Melnick and fed thousands.

There were plenty of business collaborations, too, including with The Columbian, where for many years employees received Beaches gift certificates as part of their Christmas bonus. During the pandemic, Beaches teamed with owners of the Main Event to offer curbside pickup dinners to everyone who missed having a night out on the town. Of course, part of the proceeds went to charity.

Jennifer Rhoads, who was the longtime head of the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington and now leads the Firstenburg Foundation, had this to say to Columbian reporter Sarah Wolf this week: “I have never known a business that has done the work that they have done.”

While Novinger is always at the restaurant, directing the food, drinks and friendly fun, Matthias is the face and voice behind the public outreach and charity work. In 2008, he was honored as our community’s First Citizen. “I truly enjoy meeting strangers and connecting with them,” Matthias said this week. “That’s what our business is — it’s about meeting strangers and creating friendships.”

Even though they are retiring, Novinger and Matthias say they won’t sell Beaches. Its last day will be Dec. 31. Presumably the landlord, C.E. John Co., will lease the building to a new operator who will bring a new concept.

We’ll miss that Beach House Salad, with the mixed greens, pea pods, jicama, candied cashews, black sesame seeds and light dressing with just the right amount of acid. (True to form, Novinger and Matthias shared the recipe with Columbian readers in 2020.)

Even more, we will miss the sense of place and community that Matthias and Novinger and their team have fostered over the past 29 years and will live on long after the doors have closed.