Neil Colburn recently closed Neil’s Clover Patch after about 40 years in Bayview. (Photo by Jessie Stensland /South Whidbey Record)

Neil Colburn recently closed Neil’s Clover Patch after about 40 years in Bayview. (Photo by Jessie Stensland /South Whidbey Record)

After 36 years, luck changes at Neil’s Clover Patch Cafe

To the surprise of many, the doors were locked, the grill turned off and menus boxed up at a restaurant that was a gathering place serving down-home fare on South Whidbey for nearly four decades.

The end of Neil’s Clover Patch Cafe in Bayview was undeniably sad for Neil Colburn, who ran the restaurant with wife, Candace Culver, since Ronald Reagan was president and “Return of the Jedi” was in theaters. But the outpouring of support in the wake of the closure reminds the former mayor of Langley of the local support that kept the business afloat for so many years.

“It’s been a wonderful ride,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful, supportive community.”

The story of the cafe is also the story of an important figure in South Whidbey history.

Colburn moved to South Whidbey in 1976 and found it was a place that fit his long-hair, hippy aesthetic and progressive ideas. The Vietnam vet lived in a tee-pee on the McVay property for a time. He met his wife at the iconic Doghouse tavern in Langley, where he and his friends would often hang out before making their way to Cozy’s in Clinton.

He and Culver ran a sawmill and worked as loggers, but stood with other activists to protect “Classic U,” a large parcel of land that contained one of the few remaining stands of old-growth forest on the island. In the end, the activists won when the property was added to South Whidbey State Park.

The couple moved to Belize with their sawmill around 1978 but returned to the island after about a year. Colburn started working at restaurants.

“I was fortunate to work with some of the best chefs ever to work on the island,” he said.

Colburn was eventually hired as a chef at the Clover Patch. He remembers the lesson he learned making veal scallopini, a delicate dish that literally takes days to prepare.

“The first time I saw some guy dumping ketchup on it, I said, ‘I’m not doing this again,’” he said.

Colburn said he started listening and paying attention to what the locals wanted.

“We considered ourselves a blue collar kind of place,” he said, adding that he also introduced locally grown and healthful items to the menu long before it was trendy.

The motto, he said, was “redefining casual dining.”

It was the kind of joint that depended on regulars and was filled with “dice shakers” and coffee drinkers first thing each morning.

A wide range of people frequented the cafe. The menu ran from chicken fried steak to fresh halibut, he said.

Colburn’s activism and unabashed love for Langley led to politics. He served as a councilman and then as mayor. He said the city experienced a record amount of development applications during his time in office.

But things became difficult in recent years. He continued cooking until about five years ago, when he turned 70 and his knees went bad and he was forced to step away from the kitchen. He said he had a wonderful crew of amazing people, but the numbers simply didn’t pencil out when he wasn’t working 50 to 60 hours of work a week. He admits that it wasn’t running at its best in recent years.

He said he and his wife had to borrow money and mortgage their home to make payroll. After two heart attacks, he decided it was time to hang up the spatula for good.

After the surprise closure, social media was filled with people’s thoughts on the cafe. Many bemoaned the loss of a piece of South Whidbey history.

“It’s like coming home every time,” one long-time customer wrote.

Someone else taped a message on the front door that says, “Rest in grease.”