Under Chuck and Carol Dawson, Rock Island Pub and Pizza became a dependable name in island dining, known to a generation of families for specialty pies and salad dressing.
But last week at the longtime island restaurant, there was another change of the guard, when Maisie Starr and her partner Greg Davila bought the building and business.
“I’ve been coming here since it was open,” said Starr, who is serving as the chef. “I remember the Pizza Factory, and so I’ve been coming here forever.”
Starr has lived on Vashon her entire life, save for a month off-island after a fire broke out in her childhood home when she was growing up. She assured that hungry islanders can trust she knows what they like. Starr attended culinary school before working at the former Monkey Tree Restaurant — the latest incarnation of that space today is Snapdragon Bakery & Cafe. As businesses on the island have come and gone through the years, The Rock has remained a fixture of island life, and according to Starr, that’s reason enough to stay the course.
“It’s already an establishment on the island, so for the first little while I’d like to keep it the same,” she said, adding that while some new additions may be on the way, patrons can expect to find that their reliable favorites will stay on the menu.
“It’s the same pizza that Chuck and Carol originally created that we all know and love,” she said. “And I’m not planning on changing that.”
At The Rock, the “Thai It On” pizza has always been Starr’s favorite: With a spicy Thai peanut sauce made in-house, it has a medley of toppings including chicken, cashews, green onions, carrots and Parmesan cheese.
“It has a little bit of heat, but not enough to make your mouth hurt. It’s just enough to warm up your belly,” she said.
The Rock-On pizza, she said, is a local favorite, and is considered the restaurant’s flagship pie complete with red sauce, mozzarella and andouille sausage. Islanders also know The Rock for its homemade salad dressings. Starr said that for most, the orange chipotle stands out. With a number of other staples ranging from simple starters to homemade recipes made on-site, said Starr, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
“The only thing that I have plans for is putting the old antique arcade games back into the arcade room,” she said. “Keep the claw machine and all that, but get a multi-player joystick game as well.”
Everyone who plays the claw machine goes home a winner with a prize.
“We’ve been a family restaurant since we started,” said Chuck Dawson. He added that it is no secret the island does not provide enough recreation opportunities for younger children. Since the beginning, he had hoped that The Rock could be a place for them as much as anyone else.
The culture of The Rock is time tested, said Dawson, and the product of hard work.
“We’ve kept it that way for the whole 18 years since we’ve been here,” he said.
The Dawsons have owned The Rock since 1999, a purchase they made soon after moving to the island. In 2016 the couple decided to sell, but that time around, he said, the situation did not work out.
“He wasn’t a good fit, wasn’t up to the task,” he said of the restaurant’s previous buyer, noting that after the sale ultimately fell through, he and Carol returned full time to take the business back. Since they returned, he said, the search has been on for the right replacement.
With Starr and Davila now stepping in at The Rock, the Dawsons say they are finally ready to chase paradise again in their retirement on the island of Molokai, Hawaii.
“It’s an island just like Vashon, except it’s three and half times larger, but there are fewer people and lots more deer,” said Chuck Dawson. “There are 7,000 people and probably 15,000 deer.”
Since closing the sale on Jan. 16 with Starr and Davila, they have helped to make sure everything is under control. With final touches to make on their newly built dream house in Molokai, the Dawsons were expected to depart on Wednesday.
Chuck Dawson said that he and Carol are confident in the new owners.
“They’re good people, and they’ve got a strong work ethic,” he said.
Carol Dawson, who first devised many of The Rock’s signature dishes, added that Starr and Davila’s recognizability in the community made them an ideal match for the job.
“They’re very well known on the island. Which is kind of personal,” she said. “We were looking for the right fit, in line with our business ethics.”
Carol Dawson said that she owed her own creative flair in the kitchen to a willingness to try new things and the spontaneity of how she was feeling on a given day.
“I just have a crazy mind. I have craziness in my hair,” she said of her instantly recognizable blonde locks. She told Starr to get a wig “just to throw people off.”
Carol Dawson said she is confident that the restaurant is headed in the right direction, and that she and Chuck are leaving something of value to the community. To her, the quality of the food is worth the drive and makes believers out of those who are new to town.
Starr, for her part, said that islanders should keep their eyes on the restaurant in the coming months. On social media, she posted that last Friday — her first at the helm — was a roaring success. As parents, Starr said both she and Davila understand that the restaurant has an important appeal to families, noting that it has always meant a great deal to her own and that The Rock caters to memories as much as it does to the people who eat there.
“I don’t really know how to put it. I love The Rock,” she said. “This just kind of seemed right.”
The Rock Island Pub and Pizza is open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
This version of the story corrects the hours of business at Rock Island Pub and Pizza. The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays.