Alive After Hours [Jan. 2, 2011]

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A group of dancers gathered for dessert on a recent Friday evening at Shari’s restaurant in Orchards. The restaurant’s most popular items for late-night crowds include slices of pie, milkshakes, mozzarella sticks and chicken strips, said Nadine Waldon, an assistant manager. (Photo courtesy of The Columbian)

It didn’t take long for a post-show Shari’s stop to become a tradition for the Heritage High School drama department.

It began during the 2005-2006 school year, when cast and crew members met friends and family to unwind at the Shari’s restaurant in Orchards after the department’s production of “Oklahoma.”

That first outing drew about 40 people. “We’d be all across the restaurant,” said Chrissy Lewis, who was a freshman at the time. “There would be people all around the entire circle of the restaurant, and people would have to walk around the restaurant to talk to each other.”

Lewis, 20, knew it would be the first of many gatherings. “It was so fun, and we were like, ‘We have to do this next week,’” she said. “It became this unspoken tradition. We always went to Shari’s afterward.”

A sense of community had formed over mozzarella sticks, pie and milkshakes.

But the genesis of the tradition wasn’t the food. Early on, it was all about convenience. “At first, it was just because it was probably the only thing that was open 24 hours that was big enough to hold a whole bunch of people,“ Lewis said. “And it was really close — right next to the school.”

Shari’s is one of the few sit-down restaurants open late enough to accommodate restless 21-and-younger crowds in Clark County. The family-style restaurant dishes up breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert at all hours of night, and it’s gained traction with high-school students as a late-night gathering spot where friendships are formed and inside jokes are created.

The late-night scene is more than high-schoolers. On any given night, the staff might serve retirees, families, diners looking for food after a trip to the bar and working professionals, said Nadine Waldon, an assistant manager at the Orchards restaurant. It’s not unusual, even at 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday, for at least one-third of the restaurant’s booths and tables to be filled with diners of all ages and backgrounds.

But for all the diversity, young adults and high school students dominate the late-night scene at Shari’s.

And the drama students from Heritage High School are a mainstay at the restaurant, convening in groups that range from five or six to 40 or more.

The students might eat an appetizer or order a slice of pie, but for the most part, they’re there for the conversation, which can last until well after midnight.

‘Open our minds’

They flit from topic to topic. At around 11 p.m. on a recent Friday, a couple of friends started talking about “Harry Potter,” which led others to interrupt with rapid-fire tangents about the languages spoken in “Lord of the Rings” and a revelation that one of the group members has never seen “Star Wars.” That led to an aside in which one student admitted that, until recently, he didn’t know about the rivalry between the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. Meanwhile, the other group members carried on with their own conversations, some raising their voices to be heard over the other banter at the table.
The group tries to police itself but occasionally gets loud enough to prompt glances from nearby diners and a visit from a waitress. The reminder to quiet down usually works — for a few minutes, anyway.

It’s not all pop culture and inside jokes.

“Conversation leads to different mind-sets,” said Katie Dunne, 15, a sophomore at Heritage. “The easy-going, laid-back atmosphere gives us the chance to open our minds to talk more deeply and philosophically. We’re talking incessantly and nonstop about the most random things, and then these philosophical, theological and political viewpoints will pop up.”

Late nights at Shari’s were a tradition for Dunne long before high school. Growing up, she would make late-night trips to Shari’s with her father, where they would talk over slices of pie. “We’d sit, and we’d talk,” she said. “There’s no bridges or burdens, we’re just talking.”

The restaurant — and the conversations that have taken place within its six-sided walls — has been instrumental to Dunne’s upbringing. “It seems like you’re going through the different stages of life. Not only are we growing up at Heritage or in our homes, but we’re growing up in Shari’s,” she said. “And it’s really become part of our life.”

Folks at all stages of their lives relax at the restaurant. “It’s nice to sit down and unwind here, just relax,” said Lowell Weiss, 71, of Vancouver.

Weiss spent a recent Friday evening enjoying dessert with his wife, Shirley, and their friends Donna and Jim Gratton after dancing at the nearby Clark County Square Dance Center. It would be almost midnight before the group went home for the evening.
It’s the familiarity and convenience that attracts Donna Gratton to Shari’s after a long night of dancing to big band music.

“They’re always there, there’s one on every corner, and they’re open 24 hours,” said Donna, 73, of Vancouver. “The waitresses are usually friendly.”

It’s that chance to bond that keeps the diners coming back, Waldon said. “I think this is their favorite restaurant, you know? When somebody’s got a favorite restaurant, it becomes more than just a place to eat. They could put together a club sandwich at home,” she said. “They come here not just for the food, not just for the friendliness, but there is an experience that they get here that’s real close to family.”

The Shari’s staff has seen the Heritage students grow closer together over the years.
The group might get boisterous at times, but the restaurant staff largely enjoys the camaraderie and fun-loving spirit of the students. “Everybody from the football team to the drama team, they just love it here,” Waldon said. “They get a little loud, but it’s happy loud. They’re not pouring the salt and pepper out of the shakers or anything. They’re no trouble at all.”

That group passed the Shari’s tradition to incoming students over the years. The gatherings have expanded beyond post-show gatherings to include stops after football games and other school events.

That communal feeling keeps Dunne coming back.

“The best part of Shari’s is the memories that have collected over the years,” Dunne said. “There, you just have the ability to open up. That’s what Shari’s is — a comfortable place. It’s almost like a second home.”

Read the original article on Columbian.com.

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