Things we love about Tacoma: Harbor Lights

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Home to restaurants, parks, and a jogging trail, and a destination for families and people walking their dogs, Tacoma’s Ruston Way has changed dramatically since a century ago, when Tacoma was known as the lumber capital of the world.

Yet the Harbor Lights restaurant—an iconic Ruston Way fixture for nearly 50 years—seems almost frozen in time. Outside, the blue siding, pink trim, and twinkling sign recall The Jetsons, while the wood-wrapped, copper-colored interior offers a trip down memory lane with framed photos and newspaper articles chronicling the restaurant’s history. Likewise, the menu—featuring standards like shrimp Louie and fish ‘n’ chips—remains uninfluenced by fads.

But it’s this antiquated charm that has earned Harbor Lights such a devoted clientele. In fact, when the restaurant’s longtime owner, LaMoyne Hreha, sold Harbor Lights to Anthony’s Restaurants in 2000, she made them swear to leave its name, menu, staff, and traditions intact.

Another big attraction at Harbor Lights, of course, is the views. Stationed over the water, the restaurant is lined with giant windows, offering diners a panorama of Commencement Bay. One can imagine spending an afternoon on the deck, enjoying a cocktail and a bucket of steamed clams, gazing across the water to Browns Point, watching the sailboats and commercial ships drift by while a seagull squats on the odd abandoned piling.

Hreha’s father, Anton Barcott, a Croatian immigrant, founded Harbor Lights in 1959. He had followed his father to America in 1921, and, upon completing the fourth grade, went to work washing dishes in his father’s Pacific Avenue restaurant, the California Oyster House. As a restaurateur, the big-hearted Barcott was adored by customers and employees alike.

Today, a Tacoma city monument in Barcott’s memory sits outside the restaurant. Upon the monument’s dedication, Kathleen Merryman, a columnist for Tacoma’s News Tribune, hailed the event and the restaurant “that for decades defined Tacoma style: Good food. Generous portions. Fair prices. No pretense.”

— Andy Boynton