Kate Phoenix has a soft spot for old things and thrives on being busy. Her current business – the Beach House Restaurant – combines both.
This casual dining restaurant sits in the heart of Cordova Bay, a string of homes and businesses along the Pacific shoreline facing San Juan Island in the United States.
The décor is modern, the atmosphere relaxed and the views stunning, as the restaurant overlooks the local beach.
An air of tranquility, only broken by the clinking of glasses in the background, has settled across the main dining room floor.
As the afternoon passes the sounds from the kitchen grow louder as staff prepare for the arrival of the evening crowd, now just a couple of hours away.
Phoenix appears unfazed, seemingly used to everything.
“My first job when I moved to Victoria in 1984 was to work at the Willows Galley fish and chip shop …in Oak Bay,” she says. “I worked through the Tea Party weekend and it was so busy – lineups around the corner and people out the door, us running out of food and just grinding out the orders. And I have always just enjoyed things being busy.”
She applied the same attitude to Rogers Chocolates, the famed chocolatier on Government Street, where she started as a three-month contractor in the mail-order department and left as vice-president of marketing and sales 15 years later.
That part of her career helped Phoenix develop an appreciation of local history.
“There are so many interesting things about Victoria, and Cordova Bay is an interesting part of that,” she says. “I think old things are interesting and I’d love to fix them up, take care of them.”
One property that caught her attention was the combined restaurant and ballroom that locals in Cordova Bay colloquially called “McMorran’s.”
With some help from her family, she purchased and renovated the property. Open 350 days a year, the restaurant and its staff of 70 bring in almost $4 million in sales per year.
For Phoenix, however, the Beach House Restaurant is more than just a commercial ambition in the competitive here and now of the culinary industry.
It is also repository of memories mingled with the collective history of a community that looks towards a bright future.
Kate and her sister Joan were born to Albert and Dora (nee Steven) Hennesy.
Their courtship would take them to Cordova Bay, where they danced on the very floor that now serves as the tableau of the main dining room.
“McMorran’s on Saturday night,” writes a local history, “was the most romantic spot in town, especially when they would turn down the house lights and let the moonlight flood in.”
Whatever the ambiance might have been, it worked for Albert and Dora, who remained married for 63 years until Albert’s passing in 2011.
While they spent most of their time in Edmonton, they eventually returned to Victoria, where life would return them to the romantic geography of their past.
This moment occurred in 2010, when Phoenix told them she was going to buy “McMorran’s” from the surviving family members, a move that bore risk.
Nearly a century old, the “cobbled together” building as Phoenix describes it, had fallen into disuse and disrepair. But she saw an opportunity to “do something that would be pretty” and took it. “I just wanted it to be what it has become,” she says. “I am really proud of it.”
Renovations uncovered a dusty, empty whiskey bottle underneath the roof.
“It was from the 1940s and reminded me of my father, who was very fond of rye whisky,” she says. “He died during the construction process, so we put the dusty old bottle in the belly of the fish sculpture over the bar and called it Albert.”
Her mom, meanwhile, is also a regular “and very pleased with everything.” In fact, she spun across the dance floor on the occasion of her 90th birthday last June, as the music of the late Dal Richard and his eponymous big band paid perhaps one final tribute to a period now slipping away.
But for all of her historical roots, Phoenix has her eyes firmly fixed on the future, a future defined by culinary diversity and increasingly sophisticated tastes.
“People are open to trying new things, but they are very pointed in their criticism at the same time,” she says. “They have very strong opinions. We are all watching the Food Channel.”
The Beach House Restaurant has helped revive the area, and as Phoenix looks forward to what lies ahead, she draws inspiration from her young staff.
“When you deal with…the young people in the restaurant business, they are full of optimism and hope and energy,” she says. “And they believe that you can do things and they want to try. That’s a big inspiration, at least for me – how excited the kids are and how hard they work to overcome criticisms and problems and make things better.”
And perhaps some of them will meet just like Phoenix’s parents did and continue to keep their memories alive.