Nostalgia lives anew
It’s deja vu all over again for old-timers passing the corner of Eighth and Ferry streets, across from Dayton High School.
The Pirates Den, a landmark for nearly 40 years, but closed for the last 15, is open for business again. Sporting a fresh coat of white paint outside and a total renovation inside, the little building is bustling with activity again.
From late December to mid-March, new owners Ricardo Fonseca and Anny Bejarano put money, energy and effort into getting the old business up and running again.
Initially, the young couple knew little of the legacy they were reviving. But by the time they opened in March, plenty of enthusiastic locals had stopped by to fill them in and wish them well.
Initially opened around 1964, the Pirates Den catered primarily to hungry teens. But over the years, it became a favorite of locals of all ages.
Before fast food franchises began proliferating along major thoroughfares, the little snack shack served up all-American fare to two successive generations of Daytonians.
The first generation saw JFK, LBJ, Dick Nixon and Jimmy Carter in the White House. It grew to adulthood during the Vietnam War years.
Presidents Reagan, Bush the Elder and Clinton served the second — the one that experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall and rise of Middle East unrest.
Through it all, hamburgers, french fries, hot dogs, soda pop, milk shakes, ice cream cones and coffee served as the mainstays of a single-outlet enterprise that satisfied small town appetites, becoming a local icon in the bargain.
Fonseca said, “We were told this was a gas station in the 1940s, and after that, a grocery store that also pumped gas in the 1950s.
“Then it became the Pirates Den in the 1960s,” he said. “Nobody knew the year, for sure. One guy said the owners asked high school kids to come up with a name, and Pirates was the school nickname so, that’s what they used.”
He has his chronology correct. And a bit of research revealed that the diminutive diner’s longest standing proprietor to be Jean DeLong, who owned and operated it from 1972 to 1988.
DeLong’s daughter, Pam Johnson, worked there most of those years. She said it was a busy and popular place.
“Most of our business came during three short periods each day — just before school, at lunchtime and right after school let out,” she said.
“Our hours were 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and we were usually swamped at lunch. We also stayed open some Friday nights for home football and basketball games.
“Mom had the place set up efficiently, so we could put out orders as quickly as possible. It was a really small work space. You could reach around you and get to almost everything.”
Fonseca said the interior had been stripped bare by the time they came along. They had to put in kitchen equipment, drink dispensers, coolers, a counter and a set of stools.
Following DeLong’s lead, they have also set things up for easy access.
Two years ago, Fonseca’s sister, who lives in Dayton, urged them to relocate from Southern California’s Highland Park, near Pasadena. And they took her up on it.
Both had experience in the restaurant business, so they set out to find a place they could run here.
A little over a year ago, they ran across the building, standing shuttered and shabby. The old Pirates Den logo and accompanying pirate’s head had weathered badly, but were still legible. It was just waiting to be revitalized.
Several efforts to determine who owned the property proved unsuccessful. Then one day they spotted someone inside.
“It was the owner,” Fonseca said. “We started talking to him and before you know it we had a deal.”
Bejarano smiled at the thought.
More deja vu is reflected in the Pirates Express Lunch, a $2.50 special that Fonseca and Bejarano have introduced with students in mind.
Recounting the Den’s heyday, Johnson recalled its lunch special from the ’70s and ’80s.
“We had a full meal deal,” she said. “Hamburger, fries and a drink for 80 cents. It was our most popular order.”
As far as ownership is concerned, Johnson has only scant information. She said her mother bought the place from Ernie Budke in 1972. She doesn’t know whether he was the original owner.
DeLong sold the business to Harold Lyons in 1988. By then, Dayton High had its own cafeteria, which dramatically diminished business across the street.
A string of other owners came and went. Then, in 1999, the little cafe closed.
At the time, it seemed unlikely the site would ever see commercial use again. But now the energy of Fonseca and Bejarano flows through the place, breathing vigorous new life into this tiny patch of commercial real estate.
The new Den features a combination of American and Mexican dishes served in a bright, cheerful and casual dining environment. It even has a couple of pirates’ faces dangling from the ceiling.
You can get it all — burgers, sandwiches, roast chicken, hot dogs, cheese fries, nachos, pupusas, tacos, tamales, burritos, pita, paninis, waffles, muffins, smoothies, slushies, lattes, cappuccino, coffee, tea, juice, milkshakes, soda pop.
Hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, for either on-site dining or orders to go. Breakfast is served from 8 to 11 a.m. and lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. on.
Prices range from 99 cents for an order of fruit to $13.99 for a four-person roast chicken pack. You can call or text 971-213-9353 to place an order.
And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — filled with delight at seeing this nostalgic little spot make its mark on the map once again.
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or phone at 503-687-1227.