By Jennifer Crain
As soon as Sara and Nate Reilly heard from the producers of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives that their restaurant, Darby’s Café, would be featured on the show, they started planning a community shebang.
Soon a live screening at the Capitol Theater was in place for the episode’s premiere, which took place on January 21, along with a fundraiser and food drive for the Thurston County Food Bank and a showing of a 2004 independent film about a legendary New York diner.
The Reilly’s say a “food night” was the perfect way to throw a party in honor of the restaurant being chosen for the long-running show.
The community agreed: over 250 people showed up, cash and cans of food in hand, and cheered when the opening shot for the segment, the Darby’s sign, came up on the screen.
The event raised a thousand dollars in cash and a truckload of food for the food bank, an effort Sara Reilly thinks “definitely says something” about the measure of local support the café enjoys and the character of Olympia.
“It felt like a real honor to be on the show and to be able to represent our community. The community was shown in a really great light and we’re proud to be here, especially downtown,” she says.
The “Triple-D” host, Guy Fieri, filmed in the kitchens of two Olympia restaurants, Darby’s and The Fish Tale Brew Pub, during his stay in the South Sound, where he also spent time at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and hosted the St. Martin’s Gala as the guest celebrity chef in November.
In July, Darby’s received a phone call letting them know that they were in the running for the show. Half a dozen phone interviews followed, interspersed with requests for nearly all the café’s recipes. For three weeks before the film crew arrived, the Reilly’s and their employees spent off-hours scrubbing and painting every inch of the Darby’s kitchen. Food prep for the filming itself was a blitz of chopping, measuring and preparing the featured dishes in various stages.
Following the first airing of the episode, new customers came from all around Seattle and from Gig Harbor, Tacoma, Vancouver and Centralia. Darby’s chef Johanna Vasseur, who has been at the café for about three years, reflected on the two days of filming and their record-breaking week, saying the experience left her feeling reinvigorated.
“I have a lot of passion for the place and the food as it is,” she says, “but seeing us filled with brand new faces – it made me really excited to keep creating things.”
Vasseur has to think about it for a moment when asked about her approach to food and her process when she creates a new dish.
“It’s difficult, I guess, to talk about because it’s kind of a quiet process of just looking at this, and looking at that. Then it sort of clicks in my head to put a couple of things together,” she says.
Where Vasseur is understated, Reilly is quick to praise.
“Johanna has an exceptional ability to flavor profile and she has a very good sense of balance of the savory with the sweet. Well-rounded flavors really shine in her daily specials and the soups.”
Perhaps Vasseur’s variety of dishes, her soups in particular, are what keep the Darby’s entourage so loyal (Reilly estimates that over a hundred customers told her they nominated the restaurant for the show). Vasseur doesn’t make a weekday soup more than once, for instance, basing the daily offering on available seasonal ingredients and pure creativity.
This joy of creation, a Fieri-esque cooking to make people happy, may be the X-factor that landed the café on the show in the first place, the secret ingredient that has helped Darby’s draw a devoted crowd for years.
But its popularity is deeper than that. Longtime customers know that this café is more than a place to sit down to Oysters Creole. It’s a place where people feel connected to Olympia itself. The je ne sais quoi factor may have more to do with the unseen philosophy of its owners than anything else. Big hearts, after all, draw a crowd.
Sara Reilly, who was “born and raised Olympia,” wants to be involved in “whatever way we can” in the downtown community. She and Nate, who has been here a not-too-shabby 15 years himself, say because of their roots and the location of the restaurant, they give as much to charities as they can, choosing to make a bigger impact by partnering with a few organizations. Throughout the year they give to Stonewall Youth, United Community AIDS Network and the Olympia Film Society. The restaurant is also a gathering space after hours for an AA group and for Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights (POWER), an Olympia-based advocacy group.
Asked about plans for the future, Vasseur says she’s happy creating new dishes and hints, with a smile, that she wouldn’t shun another shot at the small screen. Reilly admits that they’ve dreamed of saving up seed money for a new business in the community – someday. But for the time being their plans don’t expand further than continuing to support community causes and serving up a heck of a lot more Winter Squash and Apple Hash.
If you missed it, you can catch the next airing of the Darby’s episode in the weeks to come.
211 5th Avenue SE in downtown Olympia
Hours: Wednesday through Friday – 7:00 am – 9:00 pm
Saturday and Sunday – 8:00 am – 9:00 pm
Closed Monday and Tuesday