Mayberry meets modern in Waitsburg, Wash. The historic, wheat-country town has become a popular food and wine destination.
WAITSBURG, Walla Walla County — Here they come, the rock-star winemaker in his Rolls-Royce, the artists and Seattle city dwellers, all wanting a piece of Waitsburg.
The status-quo here is like Americana circa 1950, where the young and old gulp root-beer floats on summer nights. The farmers and old-timers gather daily inside the hardware store, talking wheat prices and rain, sipping strong coffee and eating apple pie.
Then there’s the new Waitsburg: home to the acclaimed Whoopemup Hollow Café and to Jimgermanbar, arguably the best cocktail lounge in Eastern Washington. It’s where you can find chefs, winemakers, artists and actor Kyle MacLachlan on any given night, plopped on a bar stool, sipping a martini or a Fernet cocktail.
Located 20 miles north of Walla Walla, Waitsburg is a town of fourth- and fifth-generation wheat farmers shoulder to shoulder with the hipsters, artists and big-city folks lured by the cheap rent, Mayberry setting and best-kept-secret buzz.
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The usual trappings that come with change — loss of identity, gentrification — aren’t big issues, at least not yet. We’ll see how the Waitsburg faithful feel a couple of years from now.
Coming in the next three years: a boutique hotel, a dance studio with a dancer-in-residence program, a coffeehouse with a small printing-press museum, a distillery, a tavern featuring craft beer, and a wine-tasting room.
The last two projects are headed by one of the town’s more famous newcomers, Charles Smith, who was named Food & Wine Magazine’s 2009 Winemaker of the Year. Smith, a California native who once managed rock bands in Denmark, arrived in Southeast Washington in 2001 with $5,000 and a 1987 Astro van. Since then he has launched several wine companies and significantly upgraded his transportation.
Sprouted from wheat fields
Waitsburg, population 1,200, is a town created from wheat, the storing, milling and shipping of it. Its founding father, Sylvester Wait, built a gristmill in 1865.
This area, which explorers Lewis and Clark passed through in 1806, is surrounded by rolling hills of wheat and barley. It’s also a bountiful area for outdoor sports enthusiasts, with fishing for steelhead and sturgeon on the Snake River, 30 minutes away, or for trout in the Touchet (say “TOO-shee”) River, which cuts through town. Locals hunt in the nearby Blue Mountains.
Cyclists make Waitsburg a pit stop. Campers from the nearby Lewis and Clark Trail State Park make grocery or beer runs.
Wine tourists, though, make up the majority of visitors, hitting Walla Walla for its acclaimed merlots and syrahs and taking a side trip here for Cajun food and cocktails.
Or they stop here on their way for cheese made from goat’s milk and sheep’s milk at the nearby Monteillet Fromagerie, established in 2002 and now the area’s leading artisan cheesemaker.
This wheat town started reinventing itself five years ago with the opening of Whoopemup Hollow Café, named for a local geographical feature (in an area where “hollows” are common on the map) and started by three Seattleites, two of whom had worked at the acclaimed Campagne Restaurant in Seattle.
The funky restaurant, specializing in Cajun food, has put Waitsburg on the map in much the same way that Patit Creek Restaurant, with its fine French cuisine, did nearby Dayton 20 years ago, locals say.
Valerie Mudry, one of the Whoopemup owners, recalled with a laugh taking a three-day vacation in Waitsburg that “has turned out to be a very long vacation.”
She fell in love with the tranquillity, the small-town charms and cheap real estate.
A pastry chef, Mudry has worked with such luminaries as Seattle chefs Tamara Murphy, late of Brasa, and Jim Drohman, of Café Presse and Le Pichet.
She and the other two owners focused on Cajun cuisine for its accessibility and its uniqueness to this region. They chose right. Foodies and wine geeks blogged about the stellar gumbo and jambalaya. Regional and national travel and food magazines began writing about them, too.
Two years later, another Campagne expat, bartender Jim German, opened a cocktail bar across the street. German stocked his shelves with premium and obscure spirits and crafted sophisticated cocktails.
It still sounds as strange now as it did then: a restaurant making crawfish pies and a bar practicing mixology, located near a saddle-repair shop in a wheat-farming town.
Winemakers, faculty from Walla Walla’s Whitman College, and Tri-Cities folks flocked here. Wine tourists followed. Seattle Times wine critic Paul Gregutt and his wife bought a second home here.
The restaurant and bar have become destination places on many foodies’ to-do lists.
You need reservations on Fridays and Saturdays to eat at Whoopemup during the peak summer months. You need to come early if you want a seat at the bar.
Funny how things worked out, because a decade ago Waitsburg’s two-block Main Street was a few vacancies away from resembling a ghost town, town officials said.
Now the town has spent $550,000 in grants to spruce up Main Street, adding lampposts and trees and replacing the sidewalks.
Waitsburg straddles the old and new worlds. There is a craft brewery, Laht Neppur Brewing, that also makes root beer to cater to locals, an apparel shop that sews Victorian- and Renaissance-style dresses, and a hardware store where regulars gather daily.
Waitsburg Hardware & Mercantile remains the hub of this community, with wheat farmers taking breaks. Retirees just killing time. All talking town gossip and politics. And the farm life.
Wives bake pies and cakes to leave out on a table. The owner serves free coffee, going through eight to 10 pots daily.
It’s still old Waitsburg in here. Bill Thompson has spent half of his 80 years in Waitsburg, because this town has “got no hills. You get people who live on top of the hill, then they look down on other people. Here, it’s all flat, so we are all equal,” he said, laughing.
“We solve a lot of the world’s problems in here, but it’s just that the word hasn’t got back to D.C. yet,” said Tom Baker, 80, former mayor and former publisher of the Waitsburg Times.
Baker recently sold his weekly newspaper to a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter and a magazine editor, one of several Seattle area couples who have moved to Waitsburg in recent years.
Not finished yet
More changes are coming. The most anticipated development is headed by Smith, 48, of K Vintners (and other Eastern Washington-based labels), one of the hottest winemakers in the country. Smith owns a house here and will open a tavern and tasting room next spring.
He already created a stir when townsfolk woke up one morning about a year ago and saw a giant black and white American flag — painted in the dark of the night — on one of his two buildings, the old American Legion Hall. It was a startling change in the downtown historic district, and a desecration of the flag, some local vets thought.
“The intention is to provoke thought about the future while honoring the past. Where better and more appropriate than on a Main Street in rural America,” said Smith, in a comment he posted on YouTube.
With his long, frizzy hair and shades, Smith looks every bit the rock star. Locals know he’s in town when they see his black Rolls-Royce Phantom parked on Main Street.
In a phone interview from New York City, Smith said his goal is to extend Walla Walla wine tourism to Waitsburg and that he plans to host a rosé wine festival here next spring.
“Waitsburg is this little oasis, a little jewel in the Walla Walla area,” Smith said. “It’s an eclectic small town, Americana feel. You can feel that. You can see it.”
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tanvinhseattle