With her energy and generosity, Mo Niemi turned her little chowder house into a beloved six-part tradition on the Oregon coast.
Newport, Ore., has a world-class aquarium and miles of gorgeous beaches. But on a chilly afternoon the town’s main attraction appears to be a tiny, funky, 60-year-old chowder house called Mo’s, which is as packed as the beaches are deserted. It is so crowded that the waitresses have begun seating parties at communal tables. Kitschy driftwood-framed seascapes hang on the walls beside wiseacre signs (if you are grouchy, irritable or just plain mean, there will be a $10 charge for putting up with you), Olivia Newton-John plays on the stereo, and customers are lining up out the door for homemade bread and clam chowder. A similar story plays out at all six Mo’s strung along the Oregon coast. Turn up early for brunch at Mo’s in Lincoln City and 18 people are already shivering outside. The Mo’s in Florence is hopping at lunchtime; the restaurant next door—identical Siuslaw River view, virtually identical menu—is empty. What is it about this oddball chain that inspires such devotion?
Mo’s chowder is good, but even that famously hearty mélange of onions, whole milk, bacon, and clams (topped with a butter pat) can’t fully explain why the restaurants have become such a beloved tradition for generations of Oregon beachgoers. No, to understand the charm of Mo’s you have to understand Mo, the exuberant founder, whose spirit lives on in these eccentric eateries.
Mohava "Mo" Niemi was named after the Mojave Desert, where she was born in 1912. By all accounts—and everyone who met her has an account—she was a salty-tongued, bighearted woman, fond of a cocktail and never without a cigarette. In 1946 she opened a diner on Newport’s colorful harbor, a 24-hour hangout serving blue plate specials to fishermen and longshoremen. "She was a pioneer of our bay front, and that restaurant is its heart," says Phil Hutchinson, former executive director of the Newport Chamber of Commerce. "People come into our office all the time and say, ‘There’s this place our friends told us about, we don’t remember the name, it serves chowder. . . .’ "
The rib-sticking food has always been popular, but from the start, the draw was largely Mo. "Every morning she sat at a table with her cronies, visiting about the waterfront news," recalls Newport native Susan Pattison, a waitress at Mo’s since 1978. "Customers came in and she’d say, ‘Sit anywhere, you might make a new friend.’ "
Mo’s generosity was legendary and not reserved for customers. She rewarded employees with lavish vacations. "Mo took us to Hawaii once," Pattison says. "Forty waitresses in Waikiki? Mo didn’t like to have fun alone. Restaurant people are in the business of creat-ing a convivial atmosphere, and Mo sure knew how to do that."
When a woman backed her car through the restaurant’s front wall in the early 1950s, Mo poured the rattled driver a cup of coffee. "A notoriously poor driver herself, Mo was sympathetic," recalls her granddaughter Cindy McEntee. "She put her arm around the woman and said, ‘Well, we’ll just put in a garage door so we can open it and you can drive in anytime.’ "
The garage door has become a Mo’s trademark. On the inside, it features a mural of the collision; in summer, it is thrown open. Goofy touches like this make the place irresistible. In 1970, when Paul Newman and Henry Fonda came to the Oregon coast to film Sometimes a Great Notion, they spent their evenings at Mo’s. When hippies discovered Newport’s beaches, they too congregated at Mo’s. "Coffee was a quarter and she was totally nonjudgmental," Pattison says. Prior to Mo’s death in 1992, McEntee—who had been working alongside Mo since she was tall enough to roll pie dough—took over. She’s carried on "Granny’s" traditions, from the hearty welcomes to the employee trips.
In the 1970s, Mo’s started expanding along the coast. Each branch has a slightly different character. The minuscule Mo’s in Otter Rock is the quaintest; Florence Mo’s has the loveliest view; Cannon Beach Mo’s serves ribs and has an enormous souvenir shop. They are all folksy and family friendly; they are all a bargain.
But to taste the true flavor of Mo’s, you really need to visit the cramped, viewless Newport flagship. There’s not much to eat besides chowder and fresh seafood, nothing to look at but a wacky mural, and no choice but to join the crowd and maybe make a new friend.
Photography by Robbie McClaran
This article was first published in March 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.