If these walls could talk

The neon sign for Omarís glows against a night sky Tuesday along Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland. MT file photoJamie Lusch

Contenders have come and gone, but what is believed to be the longest continuously operated restaurant in Jackson County is housed in a cinderblock building known for its mural inspired by a cigarette mascot.

Omar's Original Steak and Seafood House in Ashland has drawn a steady business since it opened in 1946 on Siskiyou Boulevard near what was then Southern Oregon College.

Omer or Omar?

The owners of Omar's Original Steak and Seafood House say the founder's name was really Omer (Hill) and that when the restaurant's neon sign was made weeks after the restaurant opened in 1946, it came back spelled wrong. Rather than replace the sign, Omer accepted the new spelling.

On the web: www.omarsrestaurant.com

As the college has grown up around it, Omar's has remained a favorite among students and local residents for its beer, food and welcoming atmosphere.

The walls are adorned with photos of family birthdays, anniversary meals and after-work get-togethers that have marked Omar's 65 years. Photos of early Ashland include everything from hot springs and community leaders to Omar's former staff members and a signed photo of SOC's undefeated 1946 football team.

Its signature camel mural was created by artist Deitz Vilks in 1975, inspired by a box of cigarettes over a quarter-century before Oregon restaurants and bars became smoke-free.

Owners Bruce Dwight, James Williams (chef) and Don Mercer have preserved the building very much as they found it, acknowledging its significance to the community.

"If walls could talk, there are a lot of stories here," says Dwight.

"Anyone who's spent any time in Ashland has at one time or another come through the doors of Omar's, whether they've worked here or eaten here or had a beer here."

Chef Omer Hill and his wife, Hazel, built the restaurant in 1946 after selling their namesake Hill Café at Klamath Junction, which now rests beneath present-day Emigrant Lake.

Chef Hill had garnered experience at renowned restaurants such as Harvey's rail houses, the Brown Derby and Savoy Hotel in Hollywood.

Hazel Hill Robertson, who now lives in Lebanon, remembers when Omar's was built it was "out in the country."

On opening day, Nov. 6, 1946, hamburgers sold for 30 cents, tenderloins were $2 and milk shakes were a quarter.

A special "Omar's picnic chicken" came complete with shoestring potatoes, hot rolls, butter and coffee for $1.35.

"The food was good," Robertson recalls. "The burgers were fresh ground meat.

"You could get cheaper burgers in town, but they weren't anything like we made."

The owners say when the restaurant was built on the former site of Berkeley Hot Springs, workers found mastodon bones during excavation. A complete mastodon skeleton was found nearby during the building of the college's Student Health Center in 1964, though it was in poor shape, according to geologists.

By the mid-1950s, the Hills sold the business to Al and Betty Jo Brown, who ran Omar's until July 1974 when it was taken over by Mercer, Rolar Yondorf and David Wiley. Wiley left in 1980, replaced by Dwight, a then longtime Omar's chef. Yondorf went on to co-found Porter's in Medford.

Omar's has seen its share of mishaps over the years.

Motorists have crashed their cars into the building three times, one of which prompted new rest rooms and another touch-ups to the camel mural.

In 1994 its signature pink-and-green-edged neon clock above the entrance overhang was stolen. It was replaced a year later after one of the owner's wives happened upon an identical twin in a Medford antique shop.

"It wasn't the same one, but it looked like it could have rolled off the assembly line a few seconds after the one that was stolen," Dwight says.

As for Omar's longevity, Dwight and Williams both say it has to be the quality food and prime location at the corner of Siskiyou Boulevard and Highway 66.

Robertson, who remarried after Hill died in 1985, agrees.

"My husband wanted his own restaurant so he could cook whatever he wanted to. I guess people liked what he made," Robertson says.

"It's in a good location and we always had good people come to work for us. We trained a lot of hard workers who went out on their own after they worked for us."

She adds, "I had a girl tell me one time, 'Omar's really taught us how to work hard.'"

Omar's has been named Ashland's favorite steak and seafood place in a local poll every year since 1991. Its chefs have made the finals in the town's Food and Wine Classic three out of four years since the chef competition started in 2007.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffypollock@juno.com.


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