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Dog is still Smilin'
"Change is tough."
This has been a thought that has been on Marty Fernandez's mind since April 2, when he and his wife, Peg Moe, signed the papers that made the Smilin' Dog restaurant theirs. That day, the couple didn't just buy a restaurant, they bought a South Whidbey institution.
The little eatery, which is located in a turn-of-the century house attached to the back of the Bayview Cash Store, has been a magnet for about five years for high school students, customers at the Bayview Farmers Market, and people who wanted somewhere to have their Saturday or Sunday morning coffee that was not quite home, but wasn't quite a coffee shop either.
That feeling has remained intact since Fernandez and Moe purchased the place from former owners Jonni and Dennis Reed. There is still a couch, chairs and living room lamps in a part of the restaurant that looks much like, well, a living room. Elsewhere, it is almost impossible to find two tables or two chairs that are identical. Just like home, only it's not.
Even Fernandez and Moe, who physically resemble the Reeds, seem familiar.
Things are a little different now, but only a little -- and mainly on the menu. Fernandez, a former Microsoft interface designer, has added some items to the Dog repertoire that remind him of the cafes he frequented when he was a student in Berkeley, Calif. The new owners also have a long-range business plan that gave the Smilin' Dog a beer and wine license this year, and will bring live music, guest chefs, a professionally trained staff, and perhaps even a pub area to the place.
Even as he and his wife make all these plans, Fernandez said he wants to preserve what he found at the Dog when he and Moe moved to the island in 1999.
"It had a level of funkiness," he said. "It had a character."
Longtime Smilin' Dog customers feel the same way. Saturdays are more crowded now than in the past -- Fernandez said he has seen business go up by 50 percent -- but, said customer Pam Mitchell, she likes the mix of kids, parents, young people and older people.
"It's comfortable, there's culture, it's close to home (cooked) food, and it's a fun place to be," she said. "It's definitely community."
Sally Mills, a regular since the Smilin' Dog first opened, said the mix of people and a good latte draw her every weekend.
"I just love the people," she said.
With the atmosphere taken care of, Fernandez said he is concentrating on the menu. In the Dog's kitchen every morning and afternoon, he personally makes items like the restaurant's ubiquitous rice and bean quesadillas, Mediterranean mezo, and chicken and turkey sausage sandwiches. Starting next year, more of the ingredients in these items will come directly from South Whidbey farmers and gardeners, and almost every food item will be prepared on site, including tortillas and salsa.
Fernandez said he wants Smilin' Dog diners to get more than just a meal when they sit down in his restaurant.
"I just wanted to raise some food consciousness," he said.
Fernandez and Moe have also made some changes they hope will make the Smilin' Dog more inviting. Smoking is not allowed in the restaurant or outside on the deck. The pair have also put work into the landscaping in the Dog's front yard. Moe said between the house-like features retained by the restaurant and all the time she, Fernandez, and the couple's 5-year-old daughter, Sofie, spend there, they want the place to be more than just work.
"This place felt like home to us," she said.
More than anything, Fernandez said he is looking forward to bringing more live music to the Smilin' Dog. After all, he said, music is the reason coffeehouses exist.
"Dylan and Baez came out of the back rooms of coffeehouses," he said.
Even with their musical plans, Fernandez said he does not know whether he and his wife will add more space to the restaurant in the future. A renovation of the Bayview Cash Store in 2000 nearly doubled the seating space indoors, and added a significant amount of outdoor seating.