NORTH BEND — It’s just past 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, a few wispy clouds clearing over Mount Si, which towers over the main drag in downtown North Bend. For the most part it’s quiet; kids are back in school, regular schedules have resumed and the summer hustle and bustle of hundreds of adventure seekers seemed to have cooled. 

The population of North Bend has ballooned since 1951, when Alan and Dorothy Scott opened their diner, Scott’s Dairy Freeze, right on the main drag. Back then, the Scotts served up burgers, fries and milkshakes to their community of about 700. These days, just over 7,000 live in North Bend, according to the 2020 census, and a lot has changed in the town in the intervening years. New people have moved in, drawn to the outdoorsy lifestyle and how it’s close, but not too close, to the Seattle metro area. The local restaurant industry now boasts some new additions to the scene — such as South Fork, a new venture that will open on Oct. 6, about 2 miles off the town’s main drag. Scott’s Dairy Freeze now has new ownership — Alvaro Lira and his father, Arturo, are the fourth owners of the business. They bought it from former North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing, who had purchased it from the Scotts’ daughter in 1969, and the Liras’ version of Scott’s Dairy Freeze still features largely the same menu of burgers, fries and milkshakes as when the classic burger joint opened just over 70 years ago.

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Despite the new ownership, Scott’s Dairy Freeze is the oldest continuously run restaurant in town, and has earned a special place in the fabric of the North Bend food scene over nearly three quarters of a century. It’ll take decades before South Fork, the town’s newest restaurant, could build the kind of relationship Scott’s Dairy Freeze has established, but chef Alex Paguaga has one thing in common with the Liras: In their own very different ways, they endeavor to carry out the same purpose — to serve their small community.

The Liras first moved to Carnation from Mexico City in 1999, when Alvaro was 15 years old. A year later, he got a job at the North Bend Bar & Grill and worked there for nearly 20 years. 

The Liras feel the Snoqualmie Valley is their home — Arturo jokes that his four kids are “American on the inside.” They’ve put down such deep roots in North Bend that seven years ago, they bought Rio Bravo — the taco joint just across the street from Scott’s Dairy Freeze — and in a spot like North Bend that attracts thousands of outdoors-enthusiast tourists who tend to hit the main drag at the same time during peak hours, the Liras are fully aware of how genius it is to have two restaurants in such close proximity. If the line at Scott’s is too long, many end up traipsing across the street for tacos. The businesses enjoy such a symbiotic relationship that Alvaro even has a tattoo on his right forearm of a smiling taco leaning an arm on a smiling cheeseburger. 

“Yeah, my mom loved that,” he laughs.

But while it would be easy to cater solely to tourist traffic, the Lira family feels strongly about their community and making sure people in North Bend are a priority. When Alvaro started running Scott’s four years ago (though, he only bought the restaurant from Hearing earlier this year) he realized quickly that people have expectations of the Dairy Freeze. They’re in the business of living up to people’s fond memories.   

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“Open since 1951, I have customers in their 70s saying ‘I came here when I was a kid,’ and that’s awesome, but it’s a big responsibility. We want to keep them happy,” Alvaro says.

Because of that, while he’s added beer, wine and even more milkshake flavors, Alvaro didn’t want to change up the backbone of the menu — things are simple, burgers on toasted buns with well-seasoned patties and melty American cheese, crunchy onion rings and fat, beer battered fries. He’s chosen to focus a lot on refinement and customer service as he tries to live up to the expectations people had of Scott’s from their original memories of the place.

“It was easy to buy the brand, but it was difficult to make people believe in the brand again,” Alvaro says.

The family has also been making changes to the exterior since the Liras began running the restaurant; fencing off a patio out front, adding picnic tables and umbrellas, and painting the pavement a cheery red-and-white checkerboard.

“When we took over, we painted, remodeled. The community was great, they wanted us to be here,” Alvaro says.

The past six months have been a “fun adventure,” Alvaro says. Working at Scott’s has been and still is many area high schoolers’ first job — a place where kids can learn about themselves and grow.

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“It’s fun to run this place because you see kids growing up … then they go to college and come back a different person,” Alvaro says.

Two miles away, the town’s newest restaurant is getting ready to open its doors. South Fork was originally styled as an events center/casual coffee shop for Compass Outdoor Adventures. In time, it too hopes to become a community institution. For now, they’re just eager to soon be open because it’s been a long road to get here.

The building needed a full remodel, and once all inspections were cleared, the space was booked with corporate events. It would’ve been easy to just cater to corporate retreats, or even just to serve coffee to adventure seekers passing through looking for a quick cup of joe before hitting the trail, but as chef Alex Paguaga stresses, “We are here for the community.” 

Paguaga comes to South Fork from North Bend Bar & Grill, where he was the executive chef for the past six years, initially working with Compass Outdoor Adventures CEO Luke Talbott for catering events; box lunches and private dinners. Once Compass acquired the building, Talbott approached Paguaga about leaving the Bar & Grill and helming the kitchen at what would become South Fork. 

While working at North Bend Bar & Grill, Paguaga became more in tune with the needs of North Bend residents. He’d often get out of the kitchen and into the parking lot, hosting luaus and barbecue nights, mingling with his friends and neighbors. 

“I would get my smoker out and do whole pigs, do Sunset Supper every year, Taste of the Valley, just put myself out there,” Paguaga says. Interacting with the community through those sorts of events is one of the most rewarding parts of his job, and it’s something he can’t wait to do when South Fork opens.

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“Maybe Wednesday night’s paella night, come out we’ll have a live fire, have some beers. We can totally pull off some cool family-style dinners. Let’s get creative,” Paguaga says.

For now, they’ll start with breakfast and lunch, eventually adding dinner as staffing allows. The menu will be small but seasonal, and because menu items will be displayed on TV screens instead of printed, Paguaga has room for experimentation.

He knows he’ll have to cater to the adventure seekers — “With our proximity to Rattlesnake [Lake] I know we need a fryer. We’re going to need to have a burger,” he says. But it will be those special evenings — filled with paella or barbecue in front of the fire pits — that will be designed for the community. 

He says people are “champing at the bit” to get in the doors, and he gets the excitement. As a resident of North Bend for the past eight years, he’s looking forward to cooking for his community, much like Alvaro at Scott’s Dairy Freeze.  

Standing in the back of the restaurant, which borders a former golf course turned park, he gestures to the expansive back patio. “The sky is the limit,” he says. There are picnic tables, a fire pit, plenty of space for people to kick back and enjoy themselves as he roasts a full pig for a luau; he hopes this will help eventually establish South Fork as a “third place” where people come to gather and make memories — much like the sort Alvaro hears about from the old-timers who come to Scott’s, where generations of North Bend residents have gathered over the years for milkshakes and fries.  

Correction: September 26, 2022, An earlier version of this article stated former North Bend mayor Ken Hearing as Andy Hearing.