The historic building at 2095 U.S. Highway 199 in Hiouchi has served many roles since it was built in the 1940s. First as a gas station with a combination garage, grocery and bait store inside.
Later, when the gas pumps were removed and stills built out back, it became a bar that grew into a favorite honky-tonk for loggers, fisherman and locals. The building has long since dispatched its reputation for serious drinking and nightly fistfights and is now more renowned for its 16-inch pancakes, eggs Benedict and stuffed pork chops.
Under new ownership and a new general manager, big plans are cooking for the Historic Hiouchi Cafe.
“There’s a real drive here to make the community our guests every day. We have our tourist season, which is wonderful, and appreciated, but our locals are our bread and butter, all year long,” said Ginneen Thompson, head server at the cafe for the past 14 years.
Thompson said that 100% of the history recounted on the cafe’s menu is true. That was just the amount that would fit.
“At one time an airplane wrecked right in front on the highway. There was a brothel next door. It had a piano bar here. Just a lot of activity in the area,” Thompson said.
After decades as the go-to diner for residents from Brookings to Crescent City, the Hiouchi Cafe was ready for a facelift. Out-of-towners Jim Murcock, from Santa Barbara, and Johanna Hill, from San Diego, purchased the restaurant four years ago with a vision to take the historic cafe into the future.
They brought on Kevin Findlay as general manager last summer to help them get the cafe to meet their vision.
“It had too much lipstick and not enough paint,” Findlay said. “So they did a wonderful job getting this redone, up to code. They also bought the motel and mobile-home park. So they’ve done a lot for the community.”
Findlay grew up in Crescent City, graduating from Del Norte High School in 2004 and Le Cordon Blue Culinary Arts Institute in Portland, Ore., in 2005. He had been running restaurants in Las Vegas for 15 years when the opportunity to return to his home town arose.
“My sister was having kids, I’m Uncle Kevin, and Uncle Kevin is missing them growing up,” Findlay said. “I’d gained enough experience and wanted to bring that back here. My plan anyway, was to come back and open something up in town. Might as well do it with somebody else’s cash flow.”
Since his return last July, Findlay has overseen upgrades in the walls, paint, booths and seating. He plans on taking out a whole wall before April and extend the front counter and wrap it into the new space.
“The plan is to match it with the level of food and service going on in this place, to make it a diamond in the rough where people wouldn’t know what’s going on inside just by looking from the outside,” Findlay said.
“It really has come a long way,” Thompson added. “The same quality of food, we just added a little bit of spice. Kevin’s brought forth a lot of energy and menu ideas. But we still keep the basics — biscuits and gravy and stuffed pork chops.”
Findlay describes the Hiouchi Cafe’s menu as comfort food with seasonal specials.
“We always have local ingredients. We use Rumiano’s cheese, I go once a week. I go to Taylor Sausage once a week and the Blueberry Hills Farm,” he said.
The menu has attracted faithful, local diners for decades. Susan Owen, from Crescent City, said she tries to eat at the cafe at least once a week. Her go-to meal?
“The eggs Benedict. It genuinely is the best,” Owen said. “I’ve lived here going back 30 years. I knew the previous owners. They’ve always had great people working here.”
And with a “historic” in its name, there are still those who find their way to the Hiouchi Cafe for the first time.
Humboldt State University students, Delaney Kelly, Jackie Moran, Destiny Rivera and Nayma Khan, recently on their first trip with the National Resource Club for a Smith River Alliance Restoration project, stopped in for a hearty breakfast. Rivera had the 16-inch pancake, stuffed with fresh blueberries, literally as big as a manhole cover.
“The blueberries are perfect. For the amount of pancake you get, it’s the biggest I’ve ever eaten. It’s wonderful,” Rivera said.
Thompson said the Redwoods, and tales of Bigfoot, bring the tourists. To keep them up to date, she also likes to inform guests about all the movies that were made around the Hiouchi Region thanks to a map by the Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commission. The cafe just received an award from the Humboldt film commission for Film Friendly Restaurant of the Year.
“Sometimes we want you to believe Bigfoot is in the area,” Thompson said. “Plus Kevin just put this in (pointing to a tourism video playing on loop on a TV screen above the doorway), showing the car show, raft races, fishing, crabbing and kayaking. Soon we’ll be doing something with the golf course.”
Findlay plans to bring back evening dinners on Friday and Saturday nights, expanding the menu to include steaks, pizza, prime rib and barbecue tri-tip. He also plans on expanding the space, indoors and out, for live music and patio dining.
“The drive up from Crescent City is not going to be so bad when we have a nice, little hangout,” Findlay said.
To keep up to date on the Historic Cafe’s progress, go to www.hiouchicafe.com.