When Silver Lake Café & Bar owner Maria Leckenby returned to North Lake to re-open the restaurant she had known and loved as a kid, some people doubted whether she would manage to keep it open for even six months. Nearly four years later — a quarter of which has been during the COVID pandemic — Leckenby is not only still running the business, but pleasing locals and tourists alike with food that’s fresh, flavorful and from scratch.
“I think it’s really important for this community to have a place to go. It’s really cool to go in the bar and see all the locals talk and laugh, or people in here eating,” Leckenby said on the last day of January as she sat in the café’s dining room.
She regularly sees customers who have been coming in since she opened and some who have been coming to the Silver Lake Café for decades, long before she took over. Many travelers and hunters return to the café two and three times a year, she said, adding, “People have traveled miles just to try our burgers and homemade pies and cheesecake.”
Many people don’t realize Leckenby is a local, especially because she left Lake County for a long stretch. Her family moved to Summer Lake when she was six months old and then moved away for a couple years so her father, Donavin Leckenby — who worked for years as a game biologist for ODFW in Lake County — could finish his thesis. They returned to Lake County when she was four.
Her mother, Ronalee Leckenby, worked 40 years seasonally for the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout. Ronalee staffed six mountaintops on three national forests in eastern Oregon, including Hager Mountain near Silver Lake.
After graduating from Paisley school in 1979, Leckenby moved away and spent time in Oregon, California and Alaska. She obtained an associate’s degree in law in 1991 and worked as a paralegal in several law firms thereafter. In spring of 2017, she returned to North Lake to run the Silver Lake Café.
She cleaned up building, the home and property. The restaurant had been vacant for years. Leckenby painted it inside and out and has since installed new windows as well. Especially as the café was important to her growing up, she understands how important it is for people living in and near Silver Lake to have a local restaurant.
She has kept the business running for nearly four years, though she had to close the doors intermittently over the past year due to COVID restrictions handed down by the governor.
In December of 2020, Bend-based KTVZ interviewed Leckenby about the struggle of operating a business under COVID restrictions. The piece noted that Silver Lake Café is the “only place in town for a convenient breakfast, lunch or dinner.” At the time, Leckenby was scared and concerned for the future of the café and she had yet to receive any government aid available for businesses affected by the governor’s orders.
While the challenges are ongoing, she did apply for and receive some funding from the recent Lake County COVID-19 Business Assistance Grant Program. Anything helps as she has not taken a paycheck since she opened the café in May of 2017.
Asked if things have gotten any easier as of late — the café just reopened in January after having to close for much of November and December — Leckenby said, “It’s not better. I mean, it’s not bad, but it’s not better.”
“I’ve put everything into this place. Luckily I’m one of those people who kind of just sticks money away. And I would do that all the time because it’s, ‘OK, we’ve got to get through winter.’” It’s down to the dollars and trying to pay employees and make sure they’re not suffering. I want them to be okay,” she said.
Linda Walsh and Kahadje Damewood waitress and cook at the café and Leckenby mentioned several times how thankful she is to have them on board, noting their commitment to the business, their excellent customer service and their welcoming personalities that keep people coming back.
And, of course, the food. From parmesan-crusted sole, to individual turkey pot pies with crust from scratch, to an “adult grilled cheese” that a non-local on Trip Advisor called “the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve had in all my 66 years,” Leckenby is proud of the food her café serves. Leckenby credits her mom with teaching her to cook. “I’d say, ‘Mom, I learned to cook from you,’ and she’d say, ‘Yeah, but you took it to a different level.’”
She travels to Bend at least once a week to purchase ingredients. Everything is fresh and from scratch. “We don’t mess around here … It’s a lot of work and I’m really, really picky,” she said.
Some people have encouraged her to “take a stand” against the governor’s orders and not be “a sheep” when it comes to following COVID restrictions.
What Leckenby believes they fail to consider is what it’s like to have a business or liquor license on the line. “If someone were to come threaten you with major amounts of money and pulling your business and liquor license, how would you like that if that was on you? So sheep or not, you know, it’s my business,” she expressed.
“I can’t really have an opinion either way, and it doesn’t matter what my opinion is. I’m just trying to do this. This is important to me.”
Leckenby focuses on the positives and the outpouring of support the restaurant has received. “It warms my heart when people come in and eat and write a good review on Facebook,” she said, but added that simply seeing them enjoy a meal means a lot to her.
When she speaks about the future of the Silver Lake Café, she does so with quiet resolve. “I don’t want any handouts or anything. I can do this. I’ve got it … This is my priority and I’m going to make this work no matter what.
“When I first came people said, ‘She won’t last six months. She won’t be open in a year.’ I’d always say, ‘You’re not God so you don’t get to dictate what goes on in my life.’”
The Silver Lake Café is located at 65316 Hwy 31 and is open Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Starting in May, the restaurant will be open seven days per week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and the bar opening at 1 p.m. and closing as business dictates. Adult beverages can be purchased in the café at any time. Updates and specials are posted regularly to the Silver Lake Café & Bar Facebook page. The restaurant can be reached at 541-576-2185.