Bulldog Diner in Rufus leads the pack with hard work and big burgers
By Drew Myron
Off a lonely stretch of highway, a small diner in a small town has earned a big following. On a Sunday in Rufus it’s not unusual to see Bulldog Diner packed with patrons and a line of folks waiting for a table.
Serving up country-style breakfasts and monster burgers, this tidy café with a checkered past could be the harbinger of opportunity for a town long ignored. Rufus, a wayside nook of 250 residents, is 26 miles east of The Dalles and immediately off I-84. Exiting the highway, Bulldog Diner is the first—and biggest—thing to see.
With the work of Austin Evans and Sylvia DePaepe—two Sherman County School graduates who took ownership of the Bulldog Diner just more than a year ago—the restaurant offers a first welcome to a town they hope to help thrive and grow. The couple bought the business, including recipes and equipment, in December 2016. They took over from Greg and Christy Lesh, who ran the diner for two years.
High school sweethearts Austin and Sylvia have been together 10 years. Working to make the diner their own, they have added fresh paint, new tables and renovated bathrooms. They plan to create outdoor seating, have applied for a license to serve beer and wine, and are working to renovate the back storage area into a sports bar.
With the diner open six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., the couple works around the clock, often up to 70 hours a week. If the diner seems like a second home, it’s because it is. Austin and Sylvia live upstairs.
“It’s exhaustion with a smile,” says Sylvia.
Both Austin, 25, and Sylvia, 24, come from Sherman County families cheering on their entrepreneurial endeavor. Sylvia, who mostly works “front of the house” taking orders and serving customers, was born and raised near Wasco. She and her 10 siblings—plus dozens of short-term foster children— grew up on the wheat farm of parents Ed and Margaret DePaepe.
“My dad comes in nearly every day,” Sylvia says.
Austin primarily works behind the scenes cooking in the kitchen—a skill he admits is newly acquired.
“I had to learn fast,” he says.
“Fortunately, we both have very optimistic personalities,” Sylvia adds.
Drawn to small-town life and opportunity, Austin’s family moved from Portland to Rufus in 2008. His mother, Jeanie Pehlke, and grandmother, Judy Satoris, own and operate the Hillview Inn, a 12-room motel down the street from the diner.
Like his enterprising mother and grandmother, Austin is fueled by self-starter ambition. At 19, he opened Death Row Coffee (“killer coffee”) within Gorge Outfitters Supply. He studied business for one year at Portland State University, but realized he preferred the hands-on learning the family business provided.
“I like the service aspect,” he says, “solving problems and making sure everyone is happy.”
The diner now hums with Sylvia, Austin and two full-time employees, Jayde Miranda and Miguel Ambriz.
“It’s a team effort,” says Sylvia. “Everybody washes dishes. Everybody is able to do everything, and everyone is welcomed with a smile.”
Mother’s Day is the busiest day of the year, summer weekends are steady and business is good, they say. On busy days, it’s a family effort, with Jeanie and Grandma Judy pitching in.
“Grandma is here all the time, helping out,” says Sylvia. “She’s great.”
The hard work is paying off. The diner fills with cross-country travelers, along with folks from the nearby towns of Goldendale, The Dalles, Arlington, Wasco, Moro and more.
“We like the burgers,” says John Ihrig of Goldendale, who recently brought his family for a Sunday lunch. “And it’s so clean and nice.”
Reviewers on Yelp, Google and TripAdvisor agree, and reviews are full of five-star ratings praising Bulldog’s portions, quality and service.
More than 50 years ago, the Bulldog Diner was Larry’s Restaurant & Lounge, a popular spot with a less-than-family focus.
When Larry’s closed, the building sat vacant for nearly 20 years until five years ago when Austin’s family bought the building. They cleaned up the place, and at Jeanie’s suggestion named it the Bulldog Diner, in a nod to the area’s dog theme found in the husky mascot of Sherman County School and the town’s canine-sounding name.
Along with business savvy, Austin and Sylvia have vision.
“I would love if more people saw the potential here like I do,” says Austin. “We’re near Yakima, Goldendale, The Dalles. We’re right in the middle of everything: fishing, boating, windsurfing. It’s a great climate and it’s beautiful here.
We see such a big opportunity for this small town.”
Right now, opportunity begins with a cup of coffee, a thick shake and the Bulldog Burger, a massive meal of beef, bacon, pastrami and cheese.
Bulldog Diner is at 602 First Street in Rufus.