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By ALAINA BARTEL
Daily News Staff Writer
This year, The Bus in Alaska’s southernmost city of Hyder is celebrating its 20th year. The seafood restaurant operating out of an old school bus seems to be well-liked: It has nearly 100 reviews on four websites, garnering almost a five-star rating on each site.
The Bus is popular with locals and tourists alike, but restaurant owner Diana Simpson said most of the business comes from tourists in the summer. She’s met people from Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, China and many other place who visit the “friendlisest ghost town in Alaska” to watch bears fish at Fish Creek from mid-July through the first week of September.
After a day of watching bears catch a fresh fish, it’s quite fitting that they head to The Bus for fresh seafood caught by Simpson’s husband, Jim, and their sons.
“The fish is to die for!” wrote Maziar Rezvani on a Google review. “We both got the fish and chips and it is the freshest fish we've had in a very long time and it was prepared just right. Also love the location and the general vibe. If you're in Hyder or passing through, pay a visit to them for lunch. You won't regret it! Be prepared to wait to get your food — what's the hurry, anyways? The wait is well worth it!”
The online reviews continue to rave. Donald Roese wrote that he and his wife have dined at The Bus three times and love it. He called Simpson’s dungeness crab and halibut dinner “one of the top meals” of his life.
“We stayed in Hyder for few days back in 2010,” wrote Alex Allahverdiev on a Google review. “This eatery was one of the highlights of our trip. We knew about the place long before we traveled there. We did both takeouts and eat-ins at The Bus. Smoked salmon, freshly cooked crabs make me want to go back every time I think about this place.”
While it’s known as The Bus, that’s not the actual name of the restaurant — it’s called Alaskan Premier Seafood Express. It got its nickname because the kitchen that Simpson cooks in is located inside of an old school bus.
Years ago, Simpson’s nephew bought the bus and tried living in it for a winter. That didn’t go very well. One thing led to another, and her husband traded a snowmobile for the old bus. The restaurant has now been open for business since 1998, but first came their small shore base seafood processor, Alaskan Premier Seafood.
They opened processor in 1994, and Simpson said people would come into the retail area thinking it was a restaurant. It wasn’t at the time, but that didn’t seem like an impossible idea.
“I said to my husband, ‘You know, we could do a little fish and chip, I’ve got a pretty good batter recipe,’ and kind of left it at that,” she added.
When they opened The Bus, all it had was a deck off the front of the vehicle and two tables. It seated eight people. Then one summer it rained, so they built an awning and needed another picnic table.
“Then they wanted a beer with their fish and chips, so we applied for a beer and wine license for an eating place,” Simpson said. “We got that, which we were quite pleased (about) because it’s the last one available in Hyder until the population hits 3,000. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Hyder has a population of around 80 people in the summer and 45 people in the winter.
After the beer and wine license, the restaurant owners built a room so people were contained. Then diners had to use the potty after all those drinks, so they had to build a restroom. Today, the restaurant seats 24 people.
During the height of the season, Simpson said they stay pretty busy — but everyone remains friendly. Simpson warns people of the possibility of a long wait on the restaurant's blackboard, because she is the only one cooking with one deep fryer and one grill inside the bus.
She has quite a range of menu options for being a one-woman kitchen. Patrons can order halibut, salmon and shrimp, depending on what her husband and sons catch. Simpson doesn’t have a favorite item to cook, she enjoys it all.
“Of course fish and chips is my main thing, and it’s halibut. I do an oyster burger … I do grilled halibut,” Simpson said. “Besides fish and chips, I do shrimp and chips, I do sauteed shrimp, I do a halibut burger. That’s what Robin Williams had, was a halibut burger.”
In 2001, Williams was in Hyder with a crew filming “Insomnia.” The movie is about two Los Angeles homicide detectives investigating a murder in Alaska town. A float plane approach in the movie was filmed over the Portland Canal near Hyder, and close-by Stewart, British Columbia.
When the actor was done filming, Simpson said he stopped by for some lunch and he was a very nice man.
Williams, known for his acting in “Good Will Hunting,” “Good Morning Vietnam” and other movies, took his own life in August 2014.
Aside from the famous comedian and actor, there have also been some other special visitors at The Bus.
“We’ve had a professional Santa Claus, I’ve had a professional clown,” Simpson said, laughing.
The restaurant also has received a bit of attention in the media. Along with having photographs of the business published in the Anchorage Daily News and the New York Times, The Bus was featured in the seafood issue of “Travel + Leisure” magazine in 2013 after a CNN reporter nominated the restaurant for the best fish and chips.
The Bus received a plaque, and was featured alongside seafood dishes from Hawaii and all around the world. When Simpson looks at the other winners online, they have a different approach to serving food.
“It’s beautiful, on china and everything and then you come to number 26, I think I was, and there’s mine on paper plates, plastic forks,” Simpson said.
It might not look as fancy, but people seem to enjoy it all the same. Debra Segers wrote on a Google review that when her family visited, she went to The Bus twice. Segers got a taste of Simpson’s mermaid chowder, and wrote, “Don’t know what she puts in it, but WOW was it good. Most days she sells out of the chowder during her operating hours … but yesterday she sold out in only one hour.”
“I don’t give out my recipe for my batter or for my mermaid chowder,” Simpson said. “I do mermaid chowders on Mondays, which nationwide, Monday is the slowest day for a restaurant, but for me, it’s my busiest day because the other local restaurant takes the day off and it’s Monday.”
Simpson’s favorite ingredient is beaver horseradish in her cocktail sauce. She makes most of her sauces and batters from scratch, but she does buy french fries.
The Bus is normally open seven days a week, unless Simpson is too wiped out or if her husband catches too much fish and she has to help process it. While they take the winters off from The Bus, the restaurant owners still commercial fish. They also do a bit of canning from their garden and greenhouse, and watch over their chickens and turkeys. Simpson said her family tries to be pretty self-sufficient.
She has lived in Hyder for 37 years now. Simpson was raised in Oregon, as was her husband. He moved to Hyder with his family when he was a teenager and has now been there 47 years.
“It’s not for everybody,” Simpson said. “I’ve seen people come and people go.”
And she’s even see bears come and go — but in a more destructive manner. Last year, a bear broke into The Bus.
“He was a bad, bad black bear,” Simpson recalled. “He had been just causing problems all through town — breaking into places, just a bad bear.”
Simpson said she had finished cleaning the kitchen inside the bus and closed the restaurant up by placing a bear mat, a piece of wood with nails sticking up, in front of the door.
When she woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning, she could sense something was wrong — so she went to investigate.
“He had stepped on the bear mat, you know ‘cause there was a little bit of blood and the nails were bent, and my door was open,” she explained. “He shattered the bottom two glass panels of the door, ate all of the rubber up and around it, and busted it up at the top and down at the bottom where the lock was.”
The bad black bear wreaked havoc on the inside of the bus, too. When Simpson closes the restaurant at night, she turns everything off by the breaker and not by a switch. If this wasn’t the case, the bear might have caused the bus to catch fire that night.
“Here my deep fryer is hanging and all the oil is all over the bus,” Simpson recalled. “Of course he had walked through it and everything. He got into both of the fridges, he ate 12 hot dogs, a brand new block of cheese, about 10 pounds of halibut and two cake mixes. He never peed or pooped, thank goodness, and he went out the same way he came in.”
Simpson had to clean the oil up with cornstarch and empty the entire bus of its cash registers and equipment. She then wrote on the blackboard that The Bus was closed because of a bad bear.
That didn’t stop people from asking if it was still open.