Why Isn't There a More Robust Dining Scene in Walla Walla?

Dining in the heart of Washington wine country hasn't taken off. We explore why

It’s nearly 11 a.m., and Bacon & Eggs hums. The air is scented with maple syrup from Vermont, sausage from Walla Walla’s Blue Valley Meats and Stumptown coffee. And though it’s still morning, a Tequila sunrise crafted with freshly squeezed juice makes its way to a table.

Artisanal ingredients, carefully sourced and thoughtfully prepared—it’s what you’d expect from a restaurant in Walla Walla, nestled in the midst of Washington’s premier wine region, right? Which is why, when you start the hunt for a dinner spot to pair with the magnificent bottle of wine you tasted earlier, you’re confident you’ll find just the right spot.

It turns out to be harder than you think. Despite its wine pedigree, despite the local population that includes college professors, ex-Hollywood producers and actors, artists, second homeowners, winemakers and well-to-do farmers, and despite the tourists who increasingly visit here, the Walla Walla dining scene hasn’t really taken off yet. A handful of standouts helmed by former Seattle chefs—Saffron, Whitehouse-Crawford and Jimgermanbar in nearby Waitsburg—have earned accolades and buzz, but not much competition. What gives?

“You have to hit the ground running here, because you have a small pool to impress and work hard for,” says Michelle Adams, referring to her customers. She is one of the two owners of Bacon & Eggs. She and Michelle Giannunzio, both former Seattleites, opened their breakfast and lunch restaurant in 2011 after moving to Walla Walla to escape the rat race of Seattle.

And those customers, especially the local ones, are important. Because while Walla Walla and Napa are often mentioned in the same breath (as in, will Walla Walla be the next Napa?), the reality is that the greater Walla Walla area has fewer than 60,000 people and about four hours of highway between it and a major urban center. Napa, on the other hand, has a population of about 140,000 and more than 7 million people living a little more than an hour away—all of which adds up to nearly 3 million visitors annually.

Wooing the locals and keeping them coming back means more than waltzing into town with a big idea. It’s critical to understand what the local population wants, and not to come in with attitude, says Walla Walla native Tom Maccarone. He owns T. Maccarone’s, a standout for Italian-influenced Washington wine country cuisine. He credits his success to several things: his staff—many of whom have been with him for years—and his own ongoing presence at the restaurant. “I try to be a major part of the restaurant. In other words, the face, greeting people, hugging, sitting, talking and making them feel like they are in my home having dinner.” Locals and tourists alike seem to think he’s doing something right. After nine years in the business, he still loves it, and the customers keep coming.  “You’ve got to come here with a genuine passion for this business and a genuine passion for the community,” Maccarone says, adding, “When that slow time comes around…that local customer is your core customer.”

It’s no surprise that those who don’t understand the community don’t wind up sticking around. “Whoever you are, come to this town, walk around town and meet people,” Adams advises any would-be restaurateur. “Don’t create an idea that you think is awesome and then not ask other people who live here for their opinion.” In other words, a little humbleness is helpful.

And while restaurateurs and chefs clam up when asked about those who have come and failed, it’s not too hard to read between the lines. The common theme is underestimating the town’s residents. “The caliber of people who live here, the level of sophistication is mind-blowing,” Maccarone says. They appreciate owners who are present and who are willing to tweak their restaurant vision to one that fits the town.

While it may be possible to figure out a formula for restaurant success by watching, listening and learning from the locals and those who came and went, what may be more difficult is attracting seasoned talent to the region. Sure, entrepreneurs like Jim German—who spent a decade as bar manager at Seattle’s Campagne Restaurant—seem to be living out a dream in Waitsburg, about a 20-minute drive from Walla Walla. German and his wife, Claire Johnston, opened their destination bar in 2007, and he jokes about advertising in Seattle papers for waiters, bartenders, cooks, prep cooks and wine stewards. But not many seem to be willing to pull up their city stakes and move to a small town, however charming.

For their part, German and Maccarone would love to see more of them try. In their vision for Walla Walla, good dining doesn’t have to mean high-end dining. There are plenty of other opportunities in the local scene. You hear mentions of places like a Shake Shack–type burger joint, a pizza restaurant like Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie, or something Asian like Little Uncle, the wildly popular Thai takeout on Capitol Hill and restaurant in Pioneer Square. All of these could find a permanent home in Walla Walla.
German favors the addition of what he calls a “breathable” restaurant. It’s not too big or small, but something that’s affordable for both diners and the owner, so that when bad weather sets in and tourists leave town, it can still be profitable.

These don’t sound like unreasonable dreams. They sound, in fact, like something the locals might really like (are you listening, Seattle chefs?). Giannunzio of Bacon & Eggs agrees. A burger joint with handmade milkshakes and such would do really well in Walla Walla, she says. “If you make things affordable here—and good—people will buy it.”

They may not be places that would get a lot of notice in someplace like, say, Napa, but in Walla Walla, they might be just right.

Eat Walla Walla

Bacon & Eggs
This popular breakfast and lunch stop is co-owned by the former chef of Seattle’s Hi-Spot Café, so expect lots of egg dishes, tofu stir fry and killer pancakes, along with a handful of Mexican dishes, such as migas, pastores and carne asada. 503 E Main St.; 509.876.4553; baconandeggswallawalla.com

Brasserie Four

This French bistro uses local ingredients to create some classic dishes with familiar flavors. Chef and owner Hannah MacDonald is a true artist, plating gorgeous dishes almost too pretty to eat. 4 E Main St.; 509.529.2011; brasseriefour.com

Colville Street Patisserie
Get your drool on with the most glorious artisan pastries in town. The ’60s-era ambiance makes the place feel like an old doughnut shop, but the sweet-laced cases of fresh croissants, cakes, cookies, breads and tarts will renew your faith in the morning sugar rush. 40 S Colville St.; 509.301.7289; colvillestreetpatisserie.com

Imbibers at this ultimate cocktail bar often find Jim German himself handling the shaker. Here, just a 20-minute drive north in Waitsburg, you’ll also find a daily selection of fresh salads, cheeses, meats and seafood scrolled on butcher paper. Tip: Order the pork schnitzel with salsa verde. Waitsburg, 119 Main St.; 509.337.6001; jimgermanbar.com

Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen

Co-owner and chef Chris Ainsworth has been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Northwest multiple times, due in part to his extraordinary talent for putting a Mediterranean twist on his town’s high-quality produce. The casual setting doesn’t detract from the refined service. 125 W Alder St.; 509.525.2122; saffronmediterraneankitchen.com.

T. Maccarone’s

A charming restaurant named after the equally charming owner, Tom Maccarone, who can almost always be found shaking hands and kissing babies in between courses of beautiful fresh grilled fish, salads, mac and cheese, and other Italian-influenced bistro favorites. 4 N Colville St.; 509.522.4776; tmaccarones.com

Arguably the most sophisticated dining room in eastern Washington (exposed brick, high ceilings in a former saw mill), the restaurant's chef and co-owner Jamie Guerin uses local ingredients to curate a wine-friendly menu with some surprising Asian and Italian influences. It’s not unusual to see farmers in overalls dining next to winemakers. 55 W Cherry St.; 509.525.2222; whitehousecrawford.com