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Chef at Tacoma’s Yelp Top 100 restaurant: ‘It’s the people that make me successful’

“I’m kind of crying because you’re like, ‘Why am I being put on this pedestal?’ I love it, but thank you everybody — and now I gotta work!”

Shawn Tibbitts, the chef and owner of the tiny-but-mighty Tibbitts @ Fern Hill in Tacoma, told The News Tribune he was honored to receive recognition on Yelp’s list of top 100 restaurants in the United States. Where he landed on the list mattered little. (For the record, it was No. 65, based on the number of reviews and five-star ratings, plus local input from Yelp’s community managers.)

“It’s a humbling experience to be able to do this, but to be — are you kidding me? — top 100? It’s a blessing,” he said late Tuesday by phone. “I have a small, tiny restaurant, with two campfire burners and a stove. I try to keep my menu small. I only deal with local purveyors. It’s a blessing, but it also makes you think.”

Tibbitts, who opened his 24-seat restaurant three years ago at age 43, grew up in Fern Hill but did not graduate from high school. He points out that he also never attended culinary school but trained in 40 or so kitchens, many in the Tacoma area, including Adriatic Grill, Spring Lake Cafe in Fircrest and Stanley & Seafort’s. He also spent time in Montana, Oregon, California and New York. He heeded a common piece of advice from successful chefs: “Don’t ever work in one place too long because that’s all you’ll know.”

He is obviously grateful for this recent accolade, but he doesn’t harp on what comes out of that bare-bones kitchen.

“It’s not about the food. It’s not about anything. It’s about fun,” he said, mentioning the late, great Anthony Bourdain, who in his television shows discussed nuanced civic and cultural issues over meals in restaurants and people’s homes.

“You just don’t go to a restaurant and eat,” he continued. “This is about something different — this is an experience.”

He makes an effort to visit tables, to say hello and how are you. Sometimes, the entire restaurant chimes into a conversation. That ambiance has obviously resonated with Tacomans: Many of his more than 400 five-star reviews on Yelp mention this familial feel.

“It’s the people that make me successful, not me,” said Tibbitts.

Though he’s not looking for all positive all the time.

“You need balance; you need to be able to get critiqued — but don’t take it to heart. Just keep going,” he said.

Sure, he added, not everyone loves the homey decor at 8237 S. Park Ave. It mostly belongs to his mom, who died shortly before he opened in February 2017 with a don’t-pay-me-back loan from a friend in real estate.

The restaurant was closed Wednesday, Jan. 8, so Tibbitts and his brother Michael — who became the chef de cuisine in 2018 — can celebrate what would have been their mother’s birthday. She is the main source of inspiration for not only Shawn Tibbitts’ cooking but his philanthropic nature.

Tibbitts tries to cook for the homeless or less fortunate eight times a year. With this “community of love” supporting him, he cooked some 500 meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, he said.

For Tibbitts, that’s life: “When we all come together, we do big things.”

Asked if he thinks that outlook inspired hundreds of diners to write such positive reviews for him and his restaurant on a site like Yelp, he repeated that he was just having fun.

“When I’m in here, it’s fun because I’m fun. I can’t change and I haven’t changed. I’m just staying humble.”

Fans of Tibbitts will be pleased to know that he plans on opening another restaurant, but don’t hold your breath: It likely won’t happen until 2021. He is staying mum on where exactly that might be, but he did confirm he’ll serve only dinner.

Kristine Sherred joined The News Tribune in December 2019. She spent the past decade immersed in the culinary scene of Chicago and, for a time, covered the global chocolate and snacks industries. An avid home cook and beer/cocktail pro, she now explores all things edible and sippable throughout Pierce County. Reach her also at @kriscarasher on Twitter.