Fife’s Poodle Dog

Serving up classics since 1933

Open 83 years with no sign of slowing down, Poodle Dog serves more than 150 plates an hour to hungry diners with hearty appetites. On the weekends, it’s no surprise to find a string of patrons wrapped around the side of the building with the smell of pancakes and maple syrup spilling out the front doors. From long-time devotees to casual visitors, Poodle Dog has made itself a landmark off the interstate in Fife.

It’s no small feat to stay in business over eight decades. Those who regularly dine at Poodle Dog have discovered a gem that keeps them coming back time and time again. The rich combination of history, hot plates, and customer service makes Poodle Dog the place to be.

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Photos by Dane Gregory Meyer

The History

Named after Ritz’s Old Poodle Dog in San Francisco, Fife’s own Poodle Dog opened in the spring of 1933. Proud owners Mac Manza and Jimmy Zarelli saw the potential to sell burgers and shakes along the busy intersection of Highway 99, long before the freeway claimed all the commuter traffic. Situated behind a barbershop, the diner opened with just two tables and a counter with 15 stools. The co-owners each took 12-hour shifts, keeping the restaurant open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

With a modest menu — and not one item priced over a dollar — the diner offered classic American dishes, and folks kept coming for the 75-cent T-bone steak dinner, 55-cent spring chicken dinner, 10-cent housemade slice of pie, 5-cent fresh brewed coffee, and the popular 10-cent burger with special sauce.

With the success of the diner, Manza and Zarelli wasted no time, and a year later opened the Century Ballroom directly behind Poodle Dog, with the intention of hosting car shows, dances, walkathons, and most notably, big bands. The Century Ballroom attracted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, and Lawrence Welk. After the celebrity musicians would play to sold-out crowds, they would dine at Poodle Dog.

“People keep coming back because they know what they are going to get; a friendly smile, great food, and kind service.”

An update to the diner came in 1949 boasting slanted windows, bright colors, a brighter sign, and the tagline “good food.” The neon sign that can be seen from the freeway has been beckoning diners to stop for years. In 1967, with a growing fan base traveling from Seattle and Portland, Poodle Dog underwent a renovation to expand its offerings to include a bar, boardroom, and several banquet rooms. Over the years it’s hosted local government meetings, baby and bridal showers, quinceaneras, annual wrestling team celebrations, and a slew of other events.

PoodleDog_33The Food

Poodle Dog’s commitment to Americana cuisine is obvious when you browse the five-page menu. Steak dinners, chicken dinners, and burgers are staples alongside popular breakfast items named after landmarks. With breakfast served all day, you’ll melt over the Landmark Breakfast, proudly claiming its territory as a Western Washington icon. Steaming biscuits and gravy, golden hash browns, three eggs, two sausage links, two strips of juicy bacon, and melt-in-your-mouth ham all share room on a platter. The Highway 99 Skillet, another popular choice, boasts chicken-fried steak slathered in country gravy atop crispy hash browns, sautéed peppers and onions, two scrambled eggs, and melted cheddar cheese served with a hot buttermilk biscuit.

Since the beginning, the diner has prided itself on in-house baked goods. Bakers arrive early each morning to bake butterhorns, rolls, biscuits, and pies fresh from scratch in the back kitchen. Never outsourced, the pies are on display as soon as you walk into the dining room and the last thing you see when you leave. To pair with the house-baked pies is the steaming hot coffee, brewing in the back corner of the dining room. Diners don’t hesitate to refill their cups as waitresses swing by offering a top off.

PoodleDog_28The Service

“People keep coming back because they know what they are going to get: a friendly smile, great food, and kind service,” said General Manager Charles Amner. The wait staff, some who have served as long as 40 years and others only four months, create a culture that’s inviting, making for a warm dining experience.

Roy and Gwen Hansen, a retired couple from Puyallup, make their way to Poodle Dog three to four times a week to enjoy the tasty food and wonderful service. Roy said that, “Even on the busiest days, with a line out the door the waitresses are so friendly, calm, and keep your coffee cup full. You’ll be greeted by the hostess, waitresses, manager, and even the bus boy.”

Gwen said, “They are so glad you came. It’s like we are in their family room.”

It’s not uncommon for younger servers to be treated to stories by senior patrons, explaining how far people would drive in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s to share a milkshake and chow down on a cheeseburger from the famous diner.

“It’s not uncommon for a customer to become a friend.”

For seasoned servers, treating customers like family has been their motto since the beginning. Claudia Thompson, one of the longest-serving waitresses, has worked at the diner for 40 years. She attests to the kindness of the servers and the customers: “It’s not uncommon for a customer to become a friend.” She remembers coming in and asking for a job without an application or interview. She left her phone number and hoped for a call to come to work. The next day she got a call and has been there the majority of her life. She worked for the original owners and every owner since.

What started as a part-time job has been a career she’s enjoyed for four decades. When she was hired, she was married with little ones at home. As her children grew, her daughter joined the staff as a bus girl and then a waitress. Over the years, she’s met many a waitress at Poodle Dog, and some have become lifelong friends.

When You Go

Poodle Dog
1522 54th Ave. E., Fife
5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Poodle Dog’s Most Popular Plates
Landmark Breakfast, Highway 99 Skillet, Powerhouse Club, Longshore Burger, and Turkey Dinner

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