A drive through the jagged North Cascades and across a dam to the edge of a sparkling lake is required to reach one Washington dining destination. For another, diners must take a spectacular ferry cruise that laces back and forth between emerald San Juan Islands. And one of the most memorable meals in the state can be experienced only via a jingling sleigh ride high atop a mountain.
These unique dining settings offer more than just stunning locales and visual splendor. They also feature the kind of local-food crafted meals that sear themselves into memory. Here is a handful of singular Washington dining experiences.
Dine on High
While the dining room here is spectacular, on icicle-crisp winter nights December through mid-March, guests are bundled into wool blankets in a wooden sleigh at the lodge, which is then pulled by muscular draft horses. The sleigh cuts a path through the snow up a nearby hill. Rounding a bend, a vista of snow-encrusted mountains emerges, and on a clear night the Milky Way is splashed across the cobalt vault of sky.
A mile distant, the team pulls to a stop at a billowing, white-canvas prospector’s tent lit like a lantern itself, with flickering propane lanterns.
Guests enter the woodstove-heated encampment where pine boughs, red bows and flickering candles offer a festive welcome, and where long tables with red-and-white-checked tablecloths encourage a sense of conviviality. It’s impossible not to make new friends when sipping hot chocolate or spiced cider at a table full of similarly adventure-minded guests.
Hearty Western fare—perhaps a salad of fresh microgreens with pear and blue cheese, a savory, braised pot roast and grilled vegetables—is served buffet-style and topped off with a rich chocolate or fruit pie dessert.
During the holidays and on special weekends, folk musicians join the gathering, and everyone joins in singing folk or Christmas songs that ring out beyond the tent and into the crystalline night air.
On the glistening Salish Sea, only a 10-minute ferry ride from the mainland, is Lummi Island, home to an exceptional restaurant—The Willows Inn—garnering buzz for its remarkable chef, Blaine Wetzel, and the innovative dishes he crafts using hyperlocal ingredients.
Using the freshest local produce from the neighboring acreage, Nettles Farm, mushrooms sourced from nearby woods and local ingredients such as spot prawns plucked from the deep, cold, fast-moving waters of the Rosario Strait, Wetzel crafts innovative dishes that burst with unique flavor combinations.
The dining room has a single seating each night for a prix fixe chef’s tasting menu, which might include wild mushrooms with fresh cheese and woodruff, slow-roasted pork shoulder with red cabbage and lemon verbena, and green apples with buttermilk and licorice.
The Willows Inn dining room faces Rosario Strait to the west, and it’s not uncommon to see a pod of whales swim past while you watch the tangerine ribbons of sunset over the Olympic Mountains.
The experience goes beyond the meal. Guests can also walk from the inn to the farm to wander through greenhouses and admire the vegetable gardens and flock of chickens. For those interested in more of a hands-on experience, the farm offers workshops to learn various skills—like how to fillet a salmon.
An overnight stay in the Willows’ farmhouse suite, at the inn or in a room down by the marina allows even more time to decompress and savor this ultimate foodie getaway.
Gazing out at the landscape from the patio of Tendrils Restaurant, near Quincy, it’s easy to imagine you’re at a lesser-known arm of the Grand Canyon. A fantastical landscape of striated sandstone in buff and pale coral rises behind a 900-foot-deep crevice in the Earth’s skin where the Columbia River courses, a vivid slash of blue in the desert landscape. The scene is so startling, so unlike anyplace else in the state, the natural response is to scan the horizon of plateaus rising like flat-topped waves into the distance for any sign of civilization. None can be seen.
Signs of civilization abound, though, at Tendrils, one of the state’s best restaurants, which owes its existence to the microclimates in the tiered Columbia Basin landscape that capture just the right slant of the sun to produce award-winning artisanal wines. The inn and restaurant are housed at Cave B Estate Winery & Resort.
The setting is rivaled by the food prepared in collaboration with winemaker Freddy Arredondo for superlative food and wine pairings using Cave B wines. House-made pasta, organic meats, artisanal cheeses and produce from area orchards and the spacious chef’s garden all find their way to guests’ plates.
The restaurant’s continually changing menu may include pan-seared scallops, duck breast and a bistro salad, or perhaps braised lamb, cannellini beans, mustard greens, goat-cheese butter and lemon gremolata. Whatever you choose, the experience will be heightened by the view outside the immense windows or from the cliff-top patio.
Good for All
Many Seattle restaurants feature spectacular views of Elliott Bay, where slim white ferries stream like elegant water bugs and sailboats, sails unfurled, glide past, yet one of the most amazing dining experiences in the Emerald City—indeed, in the nation—happens daily in a homey, Craftsman-style abode in the Wallingford neighborhood, north of downtown.
Tilth, featuring New American cuisine, has earned the much-coveted Oregon Tilth organic certification, a highly demanding award that requires strict adherence to sustainability standards. Executive chef and owner Maria Hines produces meals that are 95 percent organic—yet she goes far beyond this standard, with purchases of paper products, hand soaps and even cleaning products that are sustainably produced.
On a visit you might find Skagit River Ranch pork belly with poached pear, faro and black garlic, or smoked heirloom bean cassoulet with chanterelles, truffle butter and oven-dried tomatoes.
An avid rock climber, Hines has reached the pinnacle of culinary accomplishment, yet she keeps on bagging more peaks. In 2011 she opened another restaurant, Golden Beetle, devoted to Mediterranean spices and flavors, in Seattle’s trendy Ballard neighborhood. It’s the third restaurant in the nation to receive that coveted Oregon Tilth designation.
The Seattle City Light Diablo Lake Boat Tour offers a true “peak” dining experience. After ascending into the rugged North Cascade Mountains on State Route 20, your car will rumble slowly across the top of Diablo Dam with the roar of water cascading down spillways on the left and brilliant turquoise Diablo Lake on the right. At 389 feet in height, this was once the world’s tallest dam.
A half-mile nature hike precedes an hour-long lake cruise past dense, subalpine forest and dashing waterfalls embraced by Pyramid and Colonial peaks, which tower high above the teal water. Aboard the Cascadian—surrounded by snow-cloaked peaks, emerald forests and plummeting waterfalls—a North Cascades National Park Ranger and North Cascades Institute instructor give an interpretive talk about the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and the cultural and natural history of the area.
But the real learning takes place on a much more visceral level, as you gain a deeper appreciation of the splendor of Washington’s mountains and how their glaciers nurture watershed farms that yield a bounty of delicious foods. The dining experience includes a local-foods lunch buffet at the North Cascades Institute’s lakeside Environmental Learning Center. With grand lake views edged by towering Douglas fir trees, visitors dine on food procured from the Skagit Valley watershed.
Each meal begins with bread baked on-site using Fairhaven Mills flour (from nearby Bellingham). An organic salad bar and soup are followed by the entrée of the day, perhaps house-made pasta or Swedish meatballs made with free-range, grass-fed organic beef from Nooksack Delta Ranch. Fresh-baked goodies such as an organic berry tart add a sweet finish.
-by Leslie Forsbe