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North of Town: Okeover eatery undergoes transition of ownership

Big plans in the works as restaurant changes hands
SCENIC SETTING: [From left] the new owners of the Laughing Oyster restaurant, Scott Wilshaw and Shannagh Avery, on the restaurant’s deck with former longtime owners Patty and David Bowes.

In North of Town, Peak contributor, author and CBC journalist Grant Lawrence profiles the lives and livelihoods of those who have chosen life at or beyond the end of Highway 101.

It’s qathet’s undisputed “special event” restaurant at the end of the road, a culinary landmark with gorgeous, sprawling views of Okeover Inlet and the mountains of Desolation Sound.

The Laughing Oyster has been a fine dining mainstay for decades, and this spring, for the first time in 15 years, the famous Okeover/Tuxwnech eatery has changed hands.

Longtime owners and operators Patty and David Bowes are retiring. Taking over are Shannagh Avery and Scott Wilshaw.

When the Bowes bought the historic plot of land back in 2008, David was already very familiar with the locale, having been the chef and consultant since 1998.

Over the past 25 years, the Bowes have built up the international reputation of the Laughing Oyster into a must-visit experience. Locally, it became the place to celebrate special occasions, from birthdays and anniversaries, to graduations, marriages, retirements and wakes.

“When you’re 50-kilometres into the woods, you targeted every possible market to fill the seats,” said Dave, who served as both the executive chef and ebullient host, often making the rounds to visit each table. “We did the BC Bike Race every year with people from all around the world. Those folks can eat! We also

did the annual Dickens Banquets, where all the businesses and families could get a table to have their Christmas party, and the food bank drive, resulting in van-loads of food just in time for Christmas. There are even people who plan their vacations around the Laughing Oyster.”

Being situated on a hill above a government wharf so close to Desolation Sound, one of the premiere yachting destinations in the world, hasn’t hurt.

The Laughing Oyster’s reputation as a place to visit by boat for hungry summer yachters has spread the restaurant’s reputation even further. All sorts of notable customers have enjoyed the meal with the view: celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse not only dined at the Oyster, but mentioned the restaurant on his cooking show, causing the phone to ring off the hook every time the episode aired.

Rock star Brian Smith from Trooper has a place nearby and loves to stop by the Oyster to “Raise a Little Hell.”

Juno winner Bill Bourne was one of the many musicians (including David Bowes himself), who performed at the Oyster over the course of the Bowes’ ownership years.

With its large open garden and orchard, the 157-seat restaurant is also a natural for weddings.

“We’ve had some fabulous weddings, for sure” confirmed Dave. “We’d start with the ceremony in the orchard, moving to a garden party with hors d’oeuvres, then up to the decks for dinner and dancing. The urbanites attending didn’t know what hit them.”

And while staffing shortages became rampant for Sunshine Coast businesses during the pandemic, somehow, the Oyster kept on keeping on with its very stable, longtime staff.

“I honestly think the entire crew loved the work vibe we set-up,” explained Dave. “And they liked the seasonal nature when we would shut down for three months in the dead of winter. We still have employees from the days we contracted with Les and Janet Falk for the first 10 years.”

Pair have plans

It’s the end of one era and the beginning of another. Enter Shannagh and Scott, who have big plans for the end of the road eatery.

Both most recently worked at the Lund Resort complex. Shannagh managed the Stock Pile Market and Scott oversaw the award-winning upgrades, prior to the COVID-19 shutdown.

The pair have major plans for the Oyster site, including cooking classes, a gift store and gallery, a coffee shop, catering, a full winter, fall and spring programme for local residents, and possibly most notably, accommodation.

“The objective will be to have 12 to 16 individually designed tiny homes that guests can select from,” explained Scott. “They will be carefully placed around the property without taking away from the Oyster itself. The plan is to have the first phase in place for spring of 2024, with some outdoor amenities such as cedar hot tub and cedar sauna.”

And as for the Laughing Oyster’s famous menu? Gunpowder prawns? Calamari? BBQ’d salmon?

“We will continue to feature signature dishes from the historic menu and also offer new dishes,” said Scott. “We want the guests who expect the traditional dishes to receive them, but we also want to offer our new guests healthier dining options also.

“The food is everything to us, as it was for Dave and Patty, and all of our offerings will always continue to refine the Oyster’s legacy.”

The Laughing Oyster is located at 10052 Malaspina Road, and is currently open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday, 4 to 8 pm.

Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author, columnist and radio personality who considers the qathet region and Desolation Sound his second home.