The sound of sizzling fries floated out from the Masthead’s kitchen as servers picked up plates piled with steaming mozzarella sticks and bacon cheeseburgers for hungry lunchtime customers Saturday. It was one of the last meals served at the iconic Longview restaurant, which will shut its doors Sunday night after 46 years on Ocean Beach Highway.
Over the years, the restaurant has endured changing fads, tastes and generations to become a cornerstone in the Longview community. Saturday was full of bittersweet moments for loyal customers and longtime employees, many of whom found friendships and even marriage during their time at the Masthead.
“I have guests that had babies in car seats and now those kids are driving!” exclaimed Barb Turner-Bell, general manager, who has worked at the Masthead for 20 years.
“It’s like a lifetime of knowing people,” said Turner-Bell, 56.
Owners Rick Carns and Don Maki sold the restaurant earlier this month to Oregon-based K.B. Development L.L.C., which typically operates Carl’s Jr. restaurants.
Nearly all of the restaurant’s 20 employees will move to a new restaurant, called The Castaways, which will feature similar dishes, said Turner-Bell, who will own the new restaurant. Turner-Bell said she is still negotiating a lease so she isn’t ready to announce the new location and does not yet know when it will open.
The Masthead closure felt like the end of era for Turner-Bell and others.
“It’s bittersweet, let’s put it that way,” Carns said earlier this month. “It’s been a really big chunk of my life.”
The Masthead opened when Carns and Maki, graduates from R.A. Long High School’s Class of 1963, decided to start a tavern together in 1971. They purchased the nearly acre-sized plot of land and built the 5,500 square foot restaurant on Ocean Beach Highway with little financial cushion. Carns said they had to borrow money from his dad to pay for the first shipment of beer.
In July 1971, Carns said they stuck a cardboard “open” sign in the front parking lot and within hours the place was packed and parked cars lined Ocean Beach Highway.
Popular for its variety of beers, fish and chips, burgers and chowders, the Masthead tavern eventually evolved into a restaurant to appeal to baby boomers with families.
“This has been a fixture in this town forever,” said Kevin Jester, 67, who now lives in Idaho but was visiting his hometown of Longview Saturday with his wife, Patti.
Jester, who was classmates with Carns’ brother, said he’s been going to the Masthead since it opened. When he came home from college as a 21-year-old, the Masthead was the first place he had a legal drink, he said. As he aged, the restaurant was a spot to meet friends and family when he visited home.
“This would be a place we could always count on,” Jester said.
Customer Clifford Brown, 50, said the Masthead was the first place he tried seafood as a kid. Brown sipped beer and munched on a fried egg sandwich alongside his daughter, Alissa, their friend Sarah Vanoni, 20, and Vanoni’s three-month old daughter.
“You always see families here,” said Alissa Brown, 21, taking a sip of Pepsi. “When my boyfriend’s mom found out the Masthead was closing, she was devastated because she said, ‘They have the best club sandwich in the world! We have to go one last time!’”
Vanoni, who previously worked at the Masthead, said she was obsessed with the oversized onion rings, which were dipped in homemade batter before they were fried.
“Sometimes I would call in an order just to get the fries!” she said with a laugh.
So Vanoni was relieved to hear that onion rings would be one of the many dishes that will be carried over to the employee’s new restaurant.
Turner-Bell said The Castaways’ menu will have several new additions too, such as more salads, gluten-free and vegetarian options, authentic Mexican food dishes and a senior menu. There will be 13 beers on tap featuring popular and local Northwest brews.
To give The Castaways a familiar feel, Turner-Bell purchased many of the Masthead’s decorative items and other pieces. And the paper mache mermaids that hang in several places of the Masthead will migrate to the new spot, too. The mermaids were made by a former longtime employee, Pam Saxon, who died in 2011. So Turner-Bell said incorporating the mermaids was a way to honor Saxon’s memory.
Turner-Bell said she’ll miss her customers at the Masthead the most.
“So many people have come to me and said, ‘Do you know how many birthday parties and family get togethers we have had here?’ ” she added. Several customers even got engaged at the Masthead.
Server Leilani Spain, 29, said the Masthead was her first real job out of high school. She never thought she would work at the restaurant for a decade, but she became close friends with her coworkers and even met her significant other there.
Spain said the announcement of the restaurant’s closure has been particularly hard on the baby boomer customers who were in their 20s when the Masthead opened as a tavern.
“They like to come back here and reminisce. They say, ‘I remember when I was your age …’ For them especially, the Masthead has been a pillar,” Spain said.