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Chef at Newport’s Sylvia Beach Hotel finds literary inspiration

William Webster sits at a table with a bowl of tomatoes.
William Webster
William Webster is the new chef at The Tables of Content Restaurant at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport.

For book lovers, the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport is a beloved place where you can cuddle up with a good book on cushy chairs in the library and sleep to the sound of crashing waves out the window in one of their book-themed rooms. Each room is named after a well known author and decorated in their style. The hotel is also known for sumptuous and very sociable family style meals in its Tables of Content restaurant.

KLCC's Rachael McDonald recently spoke with the restaurant's new chef, William Webster, who has connected the literary themes to the dinner menu at Tables of Content.

A sign for the Sylvia Beach Hotel and Tables of Content restaurant.
Sylvia Beach Hotel
The Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport's Nye Beach neighborhood features author-themed rooms.

How did you come up with the idea of connecting menus with authors?

You know, it was, it was just right there. As a chef, it can be kind of challenging sometimes to keep things fresh or to kind of create themes for a menu unless you're at a restaurant that has a specific theme or ethnicity or style of food. So when I started here, I was surprised to find that they didn't have any kind of a cookbook in the 25 years that they've been open here.

And I thought this was a great opportunity. So, before me, some of the amazing chefs that have worked here, did themed dinners based on, you know, different chefs or certain, certain authors. But for me, I wanted to try to create some staple menu items that we could eventually put in our cookbook that would share the history of the hotel. And, you know, so it really gave me rails to stay on and kind of a compass.

A page from the Emily Dickinson cookbook.
William Webster
Emily Dickinson was known for her baking. Her Black Cake was featured during August at the Tables of Content restaurant.

Tell us about some of the author themed menus that you've done so far, and what kinds of foods you featured with different authors.

So, we've only been about four months. One of the first things I wanted to do was we didn't have a Japanese author themed room and that's kind of what we're doing is basing it off the authors that are here in the hotel. But I love Japanese food. So, I started with a Japanese menu.

Then, the following month, which was just last month I did Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson, I thought was really nice. There were some of her writings refer to peaches and, and early autumn, and I thought I'd jump on that. I think it reflected well. She was a really avid baker. That's one of the things she was known for. And so used some of her recipes. She did a Jamaican black cake and a coconut cake that we did together. And then she had a rye bread that we used as well.

This month we did John Steinbeck. We're wrapping that up. Steinbeck wasn't actually a huge foodie but he did love pozole. So, I put a vegetarian pozole on the menu. But we, mainly with him, focused on working class staples that were prominent during the Great Depression, things that people ate, you know, during harder times. One of the things we did was a peanut butter bread. It's not as sweet as it sounds, it only has four ingredients because the government issued or rationed out a lot of peanut butter and they were looking for ways to use it.

And next month, in October, you will be featuring JK Rowling, and of course, that's, that means Harry Potter. So, it seems like there's lots of room for inspiration there.

Almost too much. Plus it's a whole different kind of class of fans that are. So I'm treading carefully with this one, but I'm also looking forward to it and we're gonna have a lot of fun. The majority of the menu is English cuisine. But then there's some fanciful elements to it being from the Harry Potter world. But we're very excited. We're fortunate enough, there's a local train museum in Toledo that's going to be donating some trains and they've done some Harry Potter themed stuff as well. So they're gonna collaborate with us in decorating the room. We're really looking forward to creating an experience.

I'm hopeful that there's going to be butter beer on the menu.

Absolutely. I just nailed down a solid recipe for it. It will be nonalcoholic, and it'll be an option when you come to eat with us.

And what's been the response from guests as they've gotten to dine on these literary themed menus?

You know, it's been a really, really beautiful experience for me. This is kind of a dream job. It can be challenging in the restaurant industry. You don't necessarily see where your food's going. You don't get to necessarily interact with your guests as a chef. But here I get to go out and introduce the meals, talk about some of the ingredients, and I get so much feedback.

And then you get to see people who are really passionate about some of these authors. They're staying here at the hotel in the room based on the author that we're doing and sometimes they even dress up and we encourage that. If you're staying in a room with us, feel free to dress up like the room that you're staying in and come down. That makes it a little more of an interactive experience. I've gotten nothing but great feedback. It's been quite surprising. I mean, I pride myself on my quality of cooking but to hear people just right there as they're eating it, tell me that they're enjoying it means the world to me.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.