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In 1973, a young Peter Stanley bought a derelict building on the waterfront in Gig Harbor, Washington. He didn’t yet live on this side of the singular Narrows Bridge, but his search for an existing tavern in Tacoma had turned up nothing but cinder block.
Raised in New England, he had a penchant for wood paneling, cold beer, hot pizza, maybe a lobster roll if you could get it — preferably at a table on the water.
Buoyed by family and friends, Stanley bought Tides Tavern 50 years ago from the locally infamous Three Fingered Jack. That bearded beatnik, Jack Hanover Miller, was known for picking a modified four-string guitar with the hand that lost several knuckles on three digits in, reportedly, a gunpowder explosion on a golf course in Missouri. He played music at the bar before briefly running it from 1969-1973.
“It was a well-known dive, and a lot of fun on weekends,” recalled Stanley, 76.
In 2012, just shy of the business’s 40th birthday, he passed the baton to his son Dylan, who, also with friends, had founded Old Town Bicycles in the 1990s.
“He convinced me to come on board, which I had sworn I would never do,” said Dylan, 54, who purchased it in full by 2018.
We spoke with father and son about the advent of The Tides, what makes it special, whether it’s become more of a restaurant than a bar, and what it means to reach this golden anniversary.
Kids allowed by the centennial? Stop wishing.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE TIDES’ BUILDING IN 1973?
Peter: I had been looking for an existing tavern building. Not necessarily a tavern but something with a license already. I graduated college [University of Puget Sound] in 1969. The ‘60s, music, experiences, changes — it was an incredible period. I wanted to let the light shine in!
All the taverns, all the restaurants were dark around here — and old. I had traveled a lot; I had seen what could be done. I looked in Tacoma for about a year, and all I could find was cinder block. I ended up at The Tides after somebody had mentioned it [was for sale].
I grew up in Connecticut. On the New England shoreline, there’s a lot of old wooden buildings that were on the water, that had a dock. You could always find a red-and-white checkered tablecloth with lobster rolls — and a beer! I was really used to old wood buildings.
SO YOU MOVED TO THE NORTHWEST AT 18, AND NEVER LOOKED BACK?
I was ready for a change. You don’t need a three-piece suit out here. Nobody asks you what your father does. I like to say: I got out here and I had skiing and sailing.
DID YOU WANT TO OWN YOUR OWN BUSINESS, OR DID IT JUST KIND OF HAPPEN?
[Laughter] I didn’t have any ambitions to do a craft or a trade, become a doctor or a banker or a commercial fisherman. I really liked the idea of having friends over, having a beer and eating pizza — stuff like that. In my travels, I would try to figure out what felt comfortable and what didn’t, looking at places and asking: “Why is this place busy, and why is this one dead?”
What could be better than pouring beer and making pizza for your friends? That’s really kind of how it started. This could be fun.
Back then, there weren’t so many barriers to getting something like that done; getting a permit back in the old days was really easy — really easy. You could do stuff on the cheap and on the quick. [Laughter] We’ve been putting money into that building ever since. It’s better than ever.
WITH HELP FROM PLENTY OF FRIENDS, YOU RESTORED IT IN 1973. WHAT WAS THE GOAL, AND HAS IT SHIFTED?
For me, it’s all about the ambiance of the place. How does it feel when you walk in the doors? Do you feel at home? Do you feel comfortable? I like it to feel warm. All of those other things that come with it — people follow their nose.
The top of the bar is old shuffleboard tables. We’ve changed [the back bar] three times. The last one was a big change: In the mid ‘90s, we had a tavern license, so you could sell beer and wine. We were sort of an odd duck for a while. We were a tavern but we really enjoyed food — that’s what people were coming for to a large extent.
Gig Harbor in the ‘70s was a very quiet place. As it’s grown, we’ve grown — we’ve grown up together.
AT ANY GIVEN TIME, THE TIDES IS BUSTLING, AND EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FOOD IN FRONT OF THEM. THE KITCHEN IS AGLOW. DO YOU CONSIDER THE TIDES A BAR, OR A RESTAURANT?
Dylan: [Sigh] You know, I don’t know.
Sometimes I call it a restaurant. Everybody that has food has a drink.
We are a bar. There is certainly a casualness of our staff, we’re a friendly place, we have a lot of regulars that have friends that work here. We’ve become a big extended family.
I definitely consider us a tavern.
Peter: Originally it was a very small kitchen. We weren’t foodies, maybe, but we all enjoyed food: If we’re gonna make it, let’s make it good. We never tried to be a certain kind of restaurant. We had three or four taps. We got busier and added more stuff. There were two pool tables. We didn’t plan on having music, but we got talked into it: We had great country-rock and rock ‘n’ roll, with people dancing their brains out down there. It was really fun. God it was fun.
We put in a grill so we could make cheeseburgers, but we didn’t have fryers. In the ‘90s, we did the last big kitchen remodel and put in deep-fryers. Customers wanted a cocktail, so we put in a full cocktail bar.
That was a huge remodel. I agonized over that for a year. I had more drawings, more stuff, more trips to Bargreen Ellingson [the Tacoma-based restaurant supply and design company]. I finally got what I wanted and pulled the trigger. It really works, but it was a big change. I was anxious about it.
Six months later, a guy came in I hadn’t seen for six months. I asked him: “How do you like the new bar?” He looked around and he said: “What new bar?” I knew I got it right.
SO… A BAR AND GRILL?
Peter: When we wanted to add liquor, we had to petition the state. Statutes [at the time] were if you had “tavern” in the name, you could not sell hard liquor. They said you’d have to change the name. They pushed me for a while on that. Call it Tides Bar and Grill. No! We’ve had the name for 20 years.
We made a compelling argument: Why would someone open up a tavern today? They gave us permission to keep the name, add liquor, and continue to exclude minors.
AH, THE NO-KIDS RULE. SOME LOVE, SOME HATE. WHAT SAY YE?
Dylan: We wanted to keep it as a 21-plus tavern. Sometimes we’ll get a one-star review saying: “We couldn’t bring the kids in.” Some people don’t get it.
I have kids; I love kids. I get asked a lot, but we’re never going to change that. I think it’s fun to have an adult place. No matter who you are or what you do for a living, you can pull up a stool and just be an adult.
We’re still at heart a tavern. We’re much more mild-mannered than we used to be, but it still gets lively. We have a good time.
THERE IS ANOTHER OPTION, THOUGH, FOR FAMILIES WITH YOUNG ONES TO EXPERIENCE THE TIDES.
Right — there is full-service on boats [or other floatables] at the dock. That’s been a great compromise.
SPEAKING OF THE WATER, I ONCE ASKED LONGTIME TIDES FOLK, WHAT’S THE SECRET TO SNAGGING A SEAT OUTSIDE? THE ANSWER: GET THERE WHEN THEY OPEN. ANY TIPS?
Dylan: We turn fairly quick. You might usually wait an hour. If it’s a sunny day, put your name on the waiting list. Go walk around, hang out on the dock.
AND IT’S LIKE THAT YEAR-ROUND?
If it’s 75 and sunny, The Tides will be packed.
Just like everywhere in the summer, there’s just more people out doing stuff [in Gig Harbor]. We’re always excited when summer kicks off, but by mid-August, the staff is getting a little crispy. My favorite time is after Labor Day. If we get great fall weather, you still get beautiful views of the water. The pace has slowed down. Servers can spend more time with guests. If it’s sunny and 55, we’ll seat the deck. We might put the tent back up [a pandemic necessity] for winter. Some people want to go out there; the rain is the issue.
RUNNING A SEASONAL BUSINESS IS CHALLENGING. WHAT’S YOUR RECIPE?
We employ about 110 people in the summer and around 85 in the winter. It takes a lot of people to make this place shake. Our job is to try and make it look easy. There’s a lot that goes on with my management team [of 10] to make sure the stage is set every day.
I didn’t think I ever wanted to work at The Tides, but now I can’t imagine anything else. It’s really similar to the bike shop:
Front-of-house staff is more gregarious and similar to sales staff at a bike shop. The back-of-house tends to grind things out and be problem solvers. Those personalities — even though they’re doing different jobs — they totally resonated with me. The seasonality is exactly the same. We’re selling burgers and beer instead of bearings and wheels.
THE TIDES WAS RECENTLY HONORED BY THE CITY FOR 50 YEARS OF BEING ESSENTIAL TO THE COMMUNITY. HOW HAS GIG HARBOR CHANGED SINCE 1973? HOW HAS THE TAVERN, PHYSICALLY OR OTHERWISE?
Dylan: You’ll talk to some people, they’ll poo-poo what it is. Gig Harbor has gentrified since it was a hard-drinking fishing town. Everybody’s grown up a bit. We’ve become a little bit more of a restaurant — there was no table service back then.
We’ve fixed it up, stained and painted. We would tell contractors that they can’t make it too nice. It should be clean and well-maintained but not brand-new, so you can always come in and feel comfortable. Nobody knows that you fixed something; they just know that it hasn’t fallen apart.
There are still some customers that want 75-cent beers [laughter].
Even since 1995, Gig Harbor has really grown up. You miss the old Stroh’s farm store, and the little farms turned into houses. But it all works. It’s still really Gig Harbor. The heart of the people, and that small-town vibe, remains. I can’t think of a better place to have a family and run a business.
WHO ELSE CAN WE CREDIT?
Peter: Even from day one, it’s always been we — because you can’t do it by yourself. I can make the decisions, and I can choose the paint colors, and I can hire and fire and all that stuff.
We just hit the ground running; we just nailed it. We never had a marketing problem. We just had to learn how to run a business. It took a couple of years to figure it out.
It’s been 10 years since I’ve been on-site regularly, but I still get The Tides. I love The Tides. It’s so much fun to go in there because there’s always somebody that I’ll know. One of our taglines was “where friends meet friends,” and it’s true. When I started the place, I couldn’t imagine being here 50 years, and after being here for 50, I can’t imagine another 50.
During our visit to capture a photo of Dylan and his dad at The Tides, as Peter gestured to the room across from the bar, where two pool tables once stood, he noted the formerly “teeny windows” they knocked out and replaced with much bigger ones to enhance that water view. He pointed out where the kitchen had at least doubled in size, and scanned the “bragging wall” of best-of accolades over the half-century. In the front hallway, where you turn left to reach the 18-table deck, he stopped in front of a plaque with photos of the same family in multiple places, all of them wearing Tides Tavern T-shirts. “See all these people? They’ve planned it all ahead!” he said, laughing. They know it’s an opportunity to get on the wall. At another image of two friends scuba-diving, he said, “There’s people underwater — with shirts on! I don’t know. I love this place.”
He turned around, shook a guest’s hand and kneeled down to ask, “Hey, how’ve you been?”
This story was originally published September 17, 2023, 5:15 AM.