You might’ve noticed: Our islands have been getting quite a bit of national attention. In January, The New York Times called the San Juan Islands one of the top travel destinations of the year, and it’s not just because of the slower pace and the sparkling waters: There’s destination-worthy dining on nearly every one of our nearby islands.
I recently tasted my way from Lummi to Orcas to Bainbridge to suss out the best new island eateries—and discovered there is much deliciousness to be found: local brews, one of the best roasted chickens to be tasted anywhere, waterside pub grub and a sneak peek at the The Willows Inn tasting menu, which is getting buzz far beyond Seattle.
And since you’ve paid for the ferry ride, why not make it dinner and a show? We searched and found the best arts and music events at theaters, galleries and public parks on the islands, so you can make your island getaway as artful as it is delectable. Allison Austin Scheff
[ Lummi ]
Chef Blaine Wetzel, photographed at the Willows Inn greenhouse by Hayley Young on May 14, 2011
Wind at the Willows
One of Denmark’s hottest chefs breezes into Willows Inn in the San Juans
In the November issue of Seattle magazine, I broke the thrilling news that chef Blaine Wetzel, former sous-chef at Noma (the Copenhagen restaurant named the best in the world this year by the San Pellegrino Café Society), was moving to Lummi Island to head the kitchen at the Willows Inn. Noma chef René Redzepi is exceptional in his studied and historical approach to cooking the foods that grow just around Copenhagen, and in his respect for time and place. And so it follows that Wetzel, Redzepi’s protégé (and maybe the most focused 25-year-old I’ve ever met), makes daily foraging trips to pluck edible flower buds from salmonberry bushes and cherry trees around the quaint inn’s property, which he later plants in brown butter spread atop homemade crackers (a truly sensational dish that is like taking a bite of blooming springtime); he visits nearby farms to select the lambs he’ll have slaughtered for his spring menus; and he chooses each variety of beet, lettuce and potato that is planted in the Willows’ nearby farm. Willows’ owner, Riley Starks, is like-minded, though he exudes a looser, milder confidence earned from the 12 years he’s owned the inn. But make no mistake: Starks is as focused on food as Wetzel. He’s raising a Kurobuta pig (for future prosciutto and bacon), he can tell you about the personalities of each variety of turkey he raises, and he spends the summer months catching every salmon served at the restaurant.
But who cares about all of that business? What you really want to know is if it’s worth your time and money to schlep all the way up to tiny Lummi Island (a seven-minute ferry ride from Bellingham) for dinner. And to that I say, oh yes, indeed. The 12-dish menu (including five entrées; $85) is prefaced by five “tastes”; essentially tiny, one-bite appetizers. And they are lovely. Sight, smell, taste, touch, sound: Every sense is drawn to the meal as each table in the sparely decorated, perfectly comfortable, hushed dining room (with its awesome westerly view of the sunset and the silver waters below) makes the same discovery: A small bentwood box (custom-made for Wetzel by an island woodworker, naturally) is presented like a gift, wafting tiny trails of alder smoke. Open it, and, ah! Smoldering wood chips sit beneath two hunks of exquisite smoked salmon. Magic. And then two oysters, still briny with seawater, set upon frozen beach rocks. A beet encrusted with seeds planted upon a smooth, earthy tarragon pesto. A hunk of pork shoulder, transcendent and tender, plated with onions so recently plucked off a hot grill that they trace their irresistible scent across the room. Wetzel, at such a young age, does what so many great chefs take decades to learn: He reaps what the earth is giving at each moment and nudges it to greatness with as few bells and whistles as possible.
Of course you should stay at the quaint, comfortable inn afterwards, choosing a cozy bedroom just behind the restaurant to fall into after dinner ($155) or, if a splurge is in order, one of the beach units located about a 10-minute walk away and mere feet from the breaking waves (from $285). Why rush back to reality before it’s necessary?
ALSO ON THE ISLAND: Michael Oppenheimer’s Windy Hill Art sculpture park is as inviting as it is quaint. Open daily from dawn until dusk, the park offers eight acres of fields and forests strewn with kinetic sculptures designed to interact with the environment—whether that be rain, wind or humans. Perfect for an afternoon or an entire day; Bring a picnic and linger. 1825 S Nugent Road; windyhillart.com
[ Orcas ]
Chef Lisa Nakamura, photographed in the Lily kitchen by Hayley Young
Sweet and Savory
A former French Laundry chef opens two piquant eateries in Eastsound
On a sweltering summer day, a scoop of fresh blackberry ice cream from tiny takeout shop Lily is just the thing. Chef Lisa Nakamura opened her sweets shop in downtown Eastsound this spring, and she keeps it supremely local: The scoops are Lopez Island Creamery’s ice cream, the heavenly brew is Orcas Island-roasted Local Goods coffee. But the cinnamon rolls that’ll draw you into Lily from a block away? Those she makes herself every Saturday and Sunday, when they come fresh from the oven at 10 and 11 a.m. (so, sleep in, but not too late; when they’re gone, they’re gone). Plus, there are chewy cookies and a pot of some of the best soups and clam chowder imaginable.
UPDATE: ALLIUM NOW CLOSED Hooked? Make a reservation to eat at the warmly inviting Allium right upstairs, which Nakamura opened in May in the space left vacant by the legendary Christina’s. Nakamura has quite the heady résumé—highlighted by stints at The Herbfarm and The French Laundry—and so even the smallest details are given extra care. The butter, which arrives with warm homemade rolls, is made with local cream, then sprinkled with sea salt: marvelous. Taking delicious advantage of the island’s terrific bounty, the menu bursts with fresh local produce and seafood. You’d be foolish not to order her sensational saffron clam chowder (made with saffron from Sequim! Who knew?), so aromatic it’s almost dizzying and with clams plucked from local beaches ($8). Caramelized scallops ($36) in lush foie gras–Madeira butter: perfection. There are stumbles along the way: tough potatoes surrounding those scallops, a duck breast ($28) left with a flubby layer of fat and a bit underdressed. But so much is exactly, remarkably right.
ALSO ON THE ISLAND: Get a true islander’s experience by attending the beloved Actors Theater of Orcas Island. This summer, locals are performing Trying, by acclaimed playwright Joanna Glass, who wrote the story based on her own experience as former Attorney General Francis Biddle’s assistant during the last year of his life (1967–‘68). The touching one-act drama features island favorites Fred Whitridge and Cara Russell. 7/28–8/7, 7:30 p.m. $10. Orcas Island Grange, 3252 Orcas Road, Eastsound; orcasactors.com
Doe Bay Days
Have you been to Doe Bay Resort lately? The alternative (OK, hippie) enclave at the farthest reaches of Orcas island has hired chef Abigael Birrell, who trained in New York City and spent time at Carmelita in Seattle before taking over the Doe Bay kitchen in 2010. She’s revamped the menu and is cooking local farm-fresh foods with an emphasis on seafood and vegetables (the restaurant is pescatarian: sustainably harvested seafood, but no meat). Also on board: Seattle magazine wine writer Shannon Borg, who’s managing the wine pairings. The café is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in summer months (Thursday–Monday the rest of the year).
[ Whidbey ]
Homey Americana on display at The Braeburn, photograph by Hayley Young
Brews, Biscuits and Bangers
Three new eateries add dimension to the town of Langley
It’s hard not to just head directly—do not pass go—to the Inn at Langley, home to the island’s surest sure-thing restaurant. Chef Matt Costello’s locally sourced six-course menus ($95), starring Penn Cove mussels from a few miles down the road and farm-fresh produce, are inventive and exciting. But then you’d miss out on the casual, convivial new Olde World Ales & Lagers (or “the brewery,” to locals), which opened last summer in the old Langley Firehouse. Owner and brewer Michael McMahon brews dozens of seasonal beers, and there’s usually live music on weekends. • New owners have remodeled The Braeburn, and we’re hearing good things. Homey Americana is embraced on the menu and in the décor—it’s so cozy you’ll want to take a nap after a plate of strawberry brioche French toast ($10.95), biscuits and gravy ($9.25) or a root-beer-barbecue pulled pork sandwich ($10.95). • And finally, you’ll want to check out longtime Langley businesswoman Maureen Cooke’s latest: She reopened her former burger joint, the Fish Bowl, as an English pub called Mo’s Pub and Eatery this spring. A new fireplace and wood paneling add ambience, and the menu features bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie ($9.99 each) and a wide selection of beer.
ALSO ON THE ISLAND: Art lovers gather annually in Langley for the Choochokam Arts Festival, showcasing more than 100 local painters, photographers and sculptors, plus three stages worth of music, including bluegrass, ska, surf punk and jazz. 7/9–7/10. Times vary. Free. Downtown Langley; 360.221.6765; choochokamarts.org
[ Vashon ]
Day Trip Dining
Two openings bring fresh flavors to this accessible island
Tiny Vashon Island doesn’t have a very big “downtown,” but no matter: Two new eateries have opened recently. Giuseppe’s, an Italian sandwich spot by day and a family-friendly pasta joint at dinnertime (think spaghetti and meatballs or penne with pesto, with fried calamari to start) replaced the Monkey Tree, which closed in late December. And Pure, an organic, gluten-free and vegan juice bar and café, opened last year, serving salads, wraps, soups and raw pizzas for lunch (open 11 a.m.–5 p.m.). Also worth seeking out: our tried-and-true favorites, the itty-bitty La Boucherie (heavenly pâtés!) and The Hardware Store, where the seafood and pastas (and a nice selection of local wines) never disappoint.
ALSO ON THE ISLAND: Join in on a Vashon tradition this summer by attending an outdoor event at Ober Park. On July 21 (7 p.m.), acoustic R&B musicians LeRoy Bell & His Only Friends (who have performed with legends such as B.B. King, Etta James and India Arie) will play tunes from their 2010 release, Traces. Next, director Phil Dunn brings together local stage talent for a production of the classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 7/28–7/30. 7 p.m. free. Ober Park, 17130 Vashon Highway SW; vashonparkdistrict.org • Alternately, go goth with a midnight show of Vashon Drama Dock’s live Rocky Horror Picture Show. 7/7–7/17. Times vary. $10–$15.Vashon High School, 20120 Vashon Highway SW; dramadock.org
[ Friday Harbor ]
Fish and Ships
A new seafood-focused pub brings beer cheer to the popular, walkable San Juan Island town
The Duck Soup Inn is everything we could ask for in an island restaurant: quaint and slightly rustic, with personal, professional service and a thoughtful menu of locally gathered ingredients. Open since 1975, it’s by far San Juan Island’s best food establishment, and it’s worthy of any occasion. But for a more casual (and less pricey) meal, we’re excited to try Friday Harbor’s latest newcomer, The Cask & Schooner. Opened in June in the old Front Street Ale House space, the C&S features custom brickwork, copper accents and old ship lanterns, and the menu makes our mouths water: mussels with smoked tomatoes, Dungeness crab, apple and radish salad, and warm grilled octopus salad with tomatoes, arugula and a citrus saffron dressing (prices were unavailable at press time). With Guinness on tap and Stumptown coffee brewing, it appears as though owner Gary Gero—who fell in love with pubs while living in England for 14 years—thought about every detail.
ALSO ON THE ISLAND: San Juan Islanders will “come together” for the return of their favorite Beatles tribute band, Abbey Road Live! This time, the Fab (faux) Four from Georgia will incorporate string and brass accompaniment by local musicians. 7/23. 8 p.m. $14–$29. San Juan Community Theatre, 100 Second St., Friday Harbor; 360.378.3210; sjctheatre.org • Ditch the Netflix rom-coms and watch a live drama with real substance—under the stars, no less. Island Stage Left, a nonprofit professional theater company, brings Shakespeare to life on the island every summer. This year’s pick: the psychological drama/comedy (as in, love with a side of jealousy) The Winter’s Tale. Bring a blanket and enjoy the show at one of two spectacular outdoor stages. 7/15–8/20. 8:15 p.m. Free. Various locations; islandstageleft.org
[ Bainbridge ]
A Walkable Feast
Simple, local, wood-fired food at Hitchcock, just steps from the ferry dock
Every town’s main street should be so lucky as to have a restaurant as good as Hitchcock. We can start with the half chicken. I know, I know: Chicken’s boring. Not here it isn’t! It’s simple and sensational, a local bird roasted until plump and gorgeously blistered in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven and served on top of creamy truffle-scented whipped potatoes ($22) or a fresh summer slaw. So, too, the Neah Bay halibut, a picturesque plate of fish enlivened with fennel and orange salad ($27). If only every restaurant would roast fingerling potatoes in a shallow pool of brown butter in a wood oven; just potatoes, true, but remarkable potatoes. The takeaway: Chef Brendan McGill (who has spent time in the kitchens at Via Tribunali, Cremant and Il Bistro, to name a few) goes out of his way to shop well, and then he lets those stellar ingredients do the heavy lifting. The dining room is small, most tables are booths (and who doesn’t love a good booth?), the lighting is warm, and the music is just right. And get this: It’s possible to walk onto the ferry, have dinner and take the ferry back to Seattle in less than four hours (we did it!). So, no excuses.
ALSO ON THE ISLAND: Nothing says summer like a concert in the park, and if that park is on an island, even better. Bainbridge parks feature live music each Wednesday in July, from acoustic reggae (Clinton Fearon and Mark Oi, 7/6) and rock (Sub Motive, 7/13), to bluegrass (Abby Mae & the Homeschool Boys, 7/20) and Middle Eastern (Brothers of the Baladi, 7/27). 7 p.m. Free. Locations vary. biparks.org • Gardeners, cyclists and sun lovers will enjoy the outdoor time afforded by the Bainbridge in Bloom garden tour. Visitors get the rare chance to experience six beautiful, privately tended gardens scattered about the island. The 25-mile route is perfect for a bike ride over the course of one or two days. Yes, bus trips between locations are also available, but why not take advantage of all those rays while you can? 7/8–7/10. $30–$35. 206.842.7901; gardentour.info
Island Dining Directory
133 Winslow Way E
San Juan Islands—Lummi Willows Inn
2579 West Shore Drive
San Juan Islands—Orcas Allium
310 Main St.
Eastsound, Orcas Island
Doe Bay Café
107 Doe Bay Road
310 Main St.
Eastsound, Orcas Island
San Juan Islands—San Juan
Cask & Schooner
1 Front St. N
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
Duck Soup Inn
50 Duck Soup Lane
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
197-D Second St.
Inn at Langley
400 First St.
Mo’s Pub and Eatery
317 Second St.
Olde World Ales
179-B Second St.
17817 Vashon Hwy. SW
17601 Vashon Hwy. SW
17635 100th Ave. SW
9925 Bank Road