Mediterranean restaurant Sol Luna rises in the Heights

Sometimes, an airplane ride can change your life.

Cyriel and Amy Van de Walle found that out a year-and-a-half ago. Before they boarded a flight from New York to Portland one July day, they didn’t know each other. Now, they’re married and are about to open Hood River’s newest restaurant, Sol Luna.

The couple’s chance meeting happened when Cyriel was on his way from his native Holland for a two-week vacation hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Amy was on her way back from a spur-of-the-moment trip to New York with her niece and infant son. An off-duty flight attendant, Amy had been waiting for seats in first class, but had to settle for coach when the first-class passengers showed up at the last minute.

When Amy and her entourage were crowded in next to Cyriel, she politely suggested he move to another single seat behind them.

“I figured, who wants to sit next to an 18-month-old?” Amy said. Cyriel politely declined.

“I was so mad,” Amy recalled. “The minute I could get up (after take-off), I did.” She walked the aisles with her son and vented her frustration on the sympathetic flight attendants. When she finally returned to her seat, she discovered that her niece had been chatting with Cyriel and “knew his whole story,” said Amy, a single mom.

“She said, ‘Isn’t he cute? He’s everything you ever wanted in a guy,’” she recalled. Amy was still irritated but eventually wound up chatting with Cyriel herself. By the time they landed in Portland, Amy had offered to give Cyriel a ride to Salem where she was living — and near where he was headed to begin his hike — to save him the hassle of taking the bus. Cyriel spent that night on her couch, and the two were inseparable for the next two weeks. He never saw the Pacific Crest Trail, but by the time he left to return home, Cyriel and Amy had made arrangements for her to visit Holland.

By fall, Amy and her son had moved to The Netherlands to be with Cyriel, and the couple got married last spring.

Cyriel was tied down at home as owner of a popular restaurant in The Hague called Sol Luna.

“But ever since I was 5 years old, I wanted to move to America,” he said. “It was my dream.” Amy had taken Cyriel to Hood River — her “favorite spot in the world” — during his visit, and he fell in love with it. The couple returned to Oregon for a visit last December and scouted for possible restaurant locations in Hood River. Soon after, they began negotiations to buy the former Cajun restaurant The Big Easy in the Heights, and the deal was finalized last summer with former owners Michael and Shawna Caldwell.

Amy moved to Hood River soon after, but Cyriel remained behind in Holland to sell his restaurant and to wait for his citizenship paperwork to be finalized. He finally arrived in October and the couple have been scrambling ever since to prepare Sol Luna for its grand opening next week.

Sol Luna will feature Mediterranean cuisine from the regions of Spain, France and Northern Africa. Entrees range from North African ratatouille to sirloin steak to Moroccan mahi-mahi. A variety of soups and salads include everything from pancetta to fresh fish. But the largest section of the menu is the tapas, a specialty of Spain and similar to appetizers. Tapas can be ordered individually as appetizers or several of them can be shared as a meal.

Along with introducing a new style of food to Hood River, Cyriel hopes to introduce Americans to the more leisurely style of dining common in Europe.

“He wants to educate people about having a little more relaxed meal,” Amy said.

“It’s like slow food,” Cyriel adds. In Europe, he explains, it’s common to spend three or four hours over a meal. People might order a tapa, eat it, relax, drink some wine, then order another tapa. They may not even order dinner until several tapas later.

“We want to encourage people to slow down and enjoy it,” Amy said.

Aside from the food, Sol Luna will provide another incentive for leisurely meals: a separate kids “cafe” and play area. A large room in the upstairs of the house-turned-restaurant has been converted into a kids room. For $7.50, kids up to age 10 can order from a separate kid-friendly menu and hang out in the play room, which is equipped for fun with games, books, toys and art supplies. Two nannies will be there to supervise, and a walkie-talkie system run by Amy will allow parents to be notified if their child needs them.

Amy came up with the idea for the kids cafe when she decided she wanted to have her son, Spencer, nearby when she and Cyriel were running the restaurant.

“We figured, why not provide that service to other parents?” Amy said. Although dinner reservations will not be taken at Sol Luna, people can reserve places in the kids cafe since there’s a limit of 12. And the $7.50 is a flat fee, “whether you’re here for one hour or three,” she said. “It’s cheaper than a baby-sitter.”

Sol Luna is officially billed as “Mediterranean Cuisine and Traiteur.” The “traiteur” is a retail and take-away service that will be open from 3 to 6 p.m. Several of the menu items will be prepared and ready for heating at home, and an assortment of the specialty items used in the restaurant — including imported olive oils, cheeses, sauces and Italian coffees — can be bought by the container or pound.

Despite the hectic nature of the past few months, Cyriel and Amy think it will all be worth it when the restaurant opens.

“We want to be different, but familiar to you,” said Cyriel, who is “still amazed” he’s here.

“I call it the American dream,” he said, laughing. “I’ve got a house, a car, a restaurant and a lot of debts.” And, as soon as things calm down a bit, he’s also got some unfinished business to take care of: that hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Sol Luna opens on Tuesday and is located at 1302 13th Street in the Heights. The restaurant will be open Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. The traiteur is open from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call Sol Luna at 386-2022.

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