Diners capture Tacoma’s soul at the city’s most romantic restaurant — one letter at a time | KNKX

Diners capture Tacoma’s soul at the city’s most romantic restaurant — one letter at a time

Dec 25, 2019

Author's note: I’ve worked at KNKX Public Radio just over a year now. And it’s stories like this that brought me here. The words scribbled on love notes hidden in boxes at Tacoma’s Over The Moon Cafe belong on the radio. As I said in this story, reading them over a tasty meal feels like being engrossed in a good book you never want to put down. But hearing them spoken — by the woman who dreamed up the restaurant where they live in anonymity — is that much better. The audio injects life into these stories of everyday people, which is precisely what KNKX does best. I hope everyone enjoys this story as much as I do. And if you have time this holiday season, stop by for a meal and leave a note of your own. (This story originally aired Sept. 12.)  

Imagine writing a letter about the love of your life addressed to a complete stranger. 

The object of your affection may only read it once, or not at all. But it’s almost certain that dozens of people you’ve never met — maybe hundreds — will know exactly how you’re feeling at that moment.

At the very least, Deanna Bender will know.

“I try to read all of them,” she said of the library of handwritten letters, tucked inside a collection of boxes scattered throughout Tacoma’s most romantic restaurant.

The notes at Over The Moon Cafe — unwitting nonfiction-turned-poetry — describe feelings of love, loss, hope, uncertainty. They capture celebrations, milestones, stages of life that have come to pass.

I’ve read many of them. And even though I don’t know their names, the people who bare their souls on those scraps of paper don’t feel like strangers to me. Bender feels like she knows them, too. 

“There’s so much in people’s stories that we can recognize in our own,” she said. “It makes you just pause.”

Many of the letters are anonymous, punctuated with initials or left unsigned. But despite the shroud of mystery, each of them tells a story that leaves an impression. 

“I am so lucky — I’m here with my beautiful daughter and grandson,” one reads. “I’m dying. I have metastatic cancer. Lucky? Yes. I have been given the time, and feel well enough today to get out and play with my family. How amazing is that?!?!”

It’s not uncommon for diners — the strangers — to stay awhile, piling up stacks of letters in between empty plates, ordering extra rounds of drinks. There’s no foot tapping, wondering where the waitress is with the check. Time seems to slow down, like getting lost in a good book.

And it’s a book I never want to put down, no matter how many times I’ve walked through the door and ordered the same delicious meal. 

People eating at Over The Moon Cafe stay a while to read handwritten notes from past diners — and often write notes of their own to leave behind.
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

That’s exactly what Bender hoped for when she opened Over The Moon more than 18 years ago. She wanted her restaurant to feel like home — and it does. 

“There are so many restaurants that don’t have heart or soul,” she said. “They feed people. That’s all they do. I didn’t want to do that.”

Instead, she wanted to create a space where diners could “check their stuff at the door,” break bread with the people they love and celebrate life — even during the difficult times.

“We all have things to celebrate every day,” Bender said. “If we focus on that, life is so much richer.”

The richness started with the dim lighting and cushy armchairs that still fill the intimate restaurant. It continued with classic board games and poetry books on the tables. Then, an empty ceramic box that once held tic-tac-toe pieces began filling up with mystery notes from enamored guests. 

“It was nothing that I anticipated would happen,” Bender said. “It was such an organic thing.”

So, she leaned into it. She brought more boxes to the restaurant. Those filled up, too. Soon, letters were spilling out of their repositories.

“It was amazing to me that people would share their hopes, their dreams, their favorite quotes,” she said. “It was just such a positive thing. Why wouldn’t you encourage that?”

Bender keeps them all. The emotional snapshots in time are too beautiful to discard. 

“It’s an affirmation of what we’re doing here at the restaurant,” Bender said. “Get people to open up their hearts a little bit.”

It’s why Over The Moon feels like more than a restaurant; it’s a part of Tacoma’s soul. 

Over The Moon Cafe, located in Tacoma's Opera Alley, is an intimate setting with dimmed lights and cushy armchairs. Boxes filled with handwritten letters from past diners sit on all the tables for customers to read.
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

And it’s a chapter in so many love stories, scribbled on napkins and the backs of receipts — or whatever medium people can find at the bottom of their pockets or purses. 

People reading the notes feel a bond with the authors, who share intimate details of their lives without the promise of validation or reaction in return. 

In a society rife with feeding the social-media slot machine to artificially boost our dopamine levels, words penned in permanence feel refreshingly authentic. And they exist singularly, without external distractions or preconceptions about the person who wrote them. All I know about these people is what’s on the paper in front of me. The rest is left up to imagination. 

“Skipped this flight this morning to spend a wonderful evening here with someone special,” one note reads, written on an airline boarding pass. “This will be our last night together, but the memories, laughs and good times will last a lifetime. P.S. He’s pretty amazing.” 

Some of the notes are long. Some are short and sweet.  

“Date night with my handsome man. Parked the car and ran to the restaurant in the rain. Stopped to kiss on the way. Amazing meal. We will be back.”

Many evoke romance: young and old, established and budding. 

“After asking our neighbors, we finally got ahold of a pen. Now, all these notes are about love that hasn’t died... This is about love that is just beginning,” one person wrote on the back of a Grand Cinema courtesy pass. “And, my god am I falling for this quirky jazz guitarist sitting next to me. I cannot wait to see where this adventure takes us! Here’s to life and everyone who reads this note.” 

Bender says the letters only leave the restaurant when she makes room for new ones.

“They would get so full,” she said of the boxes. “I have years-worth of notes in a storage area.”

Someday, she hopes to display the letters in a scrapbook of sorts. Until then, she tends to the stockpiles. 

“We have people who actually come back every year for their anniversary," she said, "and look for the notes that they left the year before." 

The boxes move around a lot. But the letters inside don’t. 

Except for the one about me. 

“She doesn’t know it yet, but in 15 days, I will ask her to marry me,” my husband wrote, two weeks before he popped the question on a whale watching boat in the Salish Sea. “I bought the ring two days ago. I could have just as easily bought it one year and three months and 25 days ago. That was our first date and I knew then I could never live without her.”

We were sharing a romantic dinner in Opera Alley, just because. Almost nobody knew what he was about to do, especially me. But he shared his secret in a letter to a stranger, left behind in a wooden box.

I’ve read his heartfelt words many times, thanks to a photo captured on a cellphone. But I’ve never held the scrap of envelope in my hands.

We returned to the restaurant months later, in search of the original. We scoured box after box, with help from a waitress eager to help us write the next chapter of our love story. 

But, after thumbing through hundreds, we never found it.

At first, it felt like a chapter of my love story had been torn out and lost forever. But the waitress saw it differently: “Maybe someone needed it more than you did.”

And just like that, the nameless stranger filled that missing chapter. My husband’s note wasn’t for me. It was about me, but it was written for someone else. For everybody else, really. 

“It’s so generous of people to share their stories with each other,” Bender said. 

Her favorite letter was written by a man who had recently lost his wife. Thinking about it still brings tears to her eyes. The note isn’t filled with pain, she says; it reminisces about how much he loved her and the fulfillment she brought to his life.

“It was such a pivotal moment for me to think, ‘how cool is this, how real is this, how raw is this,’” Bender said. “And that’s such a big part of what people are sharing here, without being asked.” 

She doesn’t take credit for this tradition that creates space for people to be so vulnerable. She stresses that it’s an opportunity her customers seized themselves.

And it’s so Tacoma, a city where strangers often choose to collide with each other — whether that’s in Opera Alley over a romantic dinner, or on the streets hunting for glass art during Monkeyshines. It’s like we’re all a part of one big, beautiful inside joke (one Seattleites don’t understand).

It’s one of the state’s biggest cities, yet Tacoma acts like a small town. You won’t experience the so-called “freeze” here; we make time for pleasantries. 

“The people in Tacoma are very real. I think they’re very open, too,” Bender said. “They’re generous with their lives.”

The people in Tacoma are very real. I think they're very open, too. They're generous with their lives.

It’s probably why Tacomans at Over The Moon take time to write notes to strangers about the people they love.

Bender has her own notes, too: letters from past boyfriends, her father, and doodles from her children.

“My son and my daughter grew up here,” she said, holding back tears. “They would sit in the corner and do homework while I was working. This (restaurant) is like their third sibling.”

Back then, she had a lot more time to read what people wrote: “Tacoma’s changed quite a bit since 2001. There were many, many years when we were quiet, waiting for people to come in.”

But one recent summer evening, Bender made time to read some of her favorites, including a lengthy one that struck a chord.

“I sat here tonight and found a letter written by a soldier who ate here with his love the night before he shipped out for deployment,” it reads. “As a soldier myself, who is spending time here with his wife for their sixth anniversary and three deployments later, it struck me deeply.” 

The author, talking to nobody in particular, opens up about the fun times, the scary times, overcoming talks of separation, and “times we held onto each other as if the world was going to end that very hour.”

But, like that good book filled with twists and turns, the story arc bends toward hope at the end — remembering why he married her in the first place.  

“Through all those times, we are here. Having a great meal, and reading some words from a soldier to his wife. Some words that made our night, day, life just a little bit better.” 

Bender says she’s deeply grateful to be the keeper of these stories. 

“I’m very humbled,” she said. “It’s such a cool byproduct of something that I wanted to create for people.”

There aren’t enough hours in the day to read letters like this. Still, watching the boxes continue to fill up is a gift. 

“I’m glad I’m still here.”