It wasn’t until they’d decided to leave town that Rob and Raphael Hoffman became true Pendletonians.
The owners of Sundown Grill & BBQ had been in the restaurant and catering business for more than 25 years and wanted to break for a trip to Alaska and beyond. They left in August 2010, but not before coming back to check an item off their bucket list.
“We actually went to the rodeo for the first time,” Rob said. The centennial Round-Up was the couple’s first time sitting in the arena’s stands, breathing in bronc dust. The Hoffmans had spent their whole lives feeding hungry crowds rather than joining them.
But it’s been a labor of love, Rob said. Since 1985, they’ve happily filled the community’s behind-the-scenes role, putting their customers before themselves.
It was personality that allowed Rob and Raphael to open the door of their first restaurant, the Skyroom at Pendleton Airport.
They didn’t have any money, Raphael explained. There was another couple vying for the for-sale space who did. But Raphael had experience in restaurant management. Brimming with hospitality know-how and graced with a winsome smile, she makes the perfect front-of-house hostess. And Rob had a natural chef’s talent, with training under two top chefs to boot. His mellow, soft-spoken demeanor make him a coveted calming force through the hellfire of kitchen work.
They made the Skyroom their own, but it wasn’t until they moved downtown that they hit their stride.
“Back then there was nothing,” Raphael said. “Pendleton only had three other restaurants.” Location was key.
They opened Raphael’s Restaurant and Catering out of the Raley home in 1991. The historic Victorian mansion was built in 1876 by a single pioneer woman raising three children. A 1904 remodeling project left it filled with mahogany and oak, the perfect place for entertaining. The space attracted Roy Raley, the driving force behind the inaugural Round-Up and Happy Canyon pageant, to the house in 1936.
And the house has attracted diners since the Hoffmans converted the space. Folks flocked to Raphael’s, enamored with the history and features like a spindled staircase, Italian marble fireplace and art deco glass windows. The Hoffmans took up residence on the restaurant’s second story.
“Some people would hate that, but it feels very natural for us,” Raphael said. “Once the door shuts, we’re able to feel like we’re home.”
On Aug. 30, 1999, they were in the second-story residence when a nearby structure, the dusty and dilapidated Roesch Brewery building, caught fire.
They rushed outside to a wall of smoke, but didn’t immediately return to rescue their personal belongings. Instead, they ran straight to a neighboring business, frantically helping an old saddle-maker attempting to salvage his livelihood.
As they watched the fire grow for the next few hours, the Hoffmans would worry about the firefighters, the ability to pay employees and the 300 guests they promised to cater for that night — everyone but themselves.
With their kitchen among the damages, which totaled $1.25 million, they still catered the dinner. They even arrived early.
The fire forced the structure to be gutted down to the studs. But it allowed the couple to rebuild with its modern amenities: air conditioning, a smokehouse capable of serving 2,200 guests and an outdoor deck and patio.
The community was ready to step in and help, Raphael said. One of the restaurant’s most loyal patrons, an attorney, said he’d rally his coworkers to help rebuild if the Hoffmans couldn’t afford the fixes. Raphael laughed at the idea of a bunch of suits holding hammers. “But it was just the nicest gesture,” she said. “That’s what this community is.”
They reopened in 2000 only to close a decade later, the year they saw their first-ever Round-Up.
They headed out of town soon after, traveling by trailer to Alaska, then near the reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, and to Anacortes, Wash. They reconnected with family and old friends, and upon returning to Pendleton, found a chance to start something new.
The Hoffmans opened Sundown Grill & BBQ in 2013, with the community in mind. Where Raphael’s offered fine dining, Sundown offers cowboy-worthy fare.
It’s practical food that more Pendleton residents can afford, Rob said, “and Pendleton needed a barbecue place.”
Rob’s favorite dish to make is the same his guests most love to eat: beef brisket, slow-cooked for 16 hours.
When he cooks chicken for catering events, the smoke rolls off the restaurant in such quantities that a man recently knocked on the door, warning Rob that something caught on fire.
The restaurant’s name is a nod to local legend Jackson Sundown, who was the first non-white competitor to win the Round-Up’s saddle bronc championship. Sundown is Raphael’s native relative. His image can be found throughout the restaurant, as well as in bronze on Main Street.
And during this year’s Round-Up, stories of his legend will ring out on the restaurant’s lawn. Rick Steber, who researched and recorded Sundown’s history in “Red White Black,” will speak at a kick-off dinner on Wednesday, Sept. 13 at 6:30 p.m. Interested parties should call to make reservations, Rob said.
What to expect during Round-Up:
No changes in seating or hours and only a slightly altered menu. Sundown takes reservations, but the wait time is never so bad as to discourage walk-ins.
Dog lovers rejoice. Well-trained pets are welcome on the Sundown’s outdoor patio.
233 S.E. Fourth St.
Wed. - Sat. 4:30 to 8 p.m.
Sun. 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.