Whidbey Island nightclub Skein & Tipple is small. Capacity of 23, to be specific. It’s also in the back of a yarn store (that’s the skein) in Clinton with distinctive “speak-easy” vibes. So, when Marsha and Matt Owen opened the space on May 3, 2022, they figured if people came and saw it was full, they would either wait for an open table or (worst-case scenario) leave. That is not what happened.
“It turned into a completely out-of-control house party,” Marsha Owen says with a laugh.
By the next weekend, they installed April Ellis — who refers to herself as the “knitting bouncer” — to maintain order and entertain people as they waited in what became a near-nightly line to get in.
Now, a year after opening the bar (the yarn store opened in December 2021), Skein & Tipple has a lot of devoted customers who come from all over the country, courtesy of a KIRO radio spot by Rachel Belle that was put on The Associated Press wire from opening day, but it also is constantly being discovered by locals.
“We also have people who live a mile away who had no idea we’re here. We have a neon sign that says ‘Bar Open,’ but this building has been nothing for so long, locals just drive by it on the way to the ferry,” Owen says.
I would add another reason locals might not know about Skein & Tipple’s bar is that South Whidbey Island locales like Clinton (where the bar is located) and Langley shut down early every evening. I was visiting a friend who lives on Whidbey earlier this month and she warned me that traditional happy-hour timing should be thought of as dinner time and hustled us into her car at 4:30 p.m. to get to Saltwater before there was a wait, as it doesn’t take reservations.
While I love a good early bird dinner timing, I’ll admit I did not take her seriously until we walked into Saltwater Fish House & Oyster Bar at 4:45 p.m., just in time to claim the last two seats in the place — and it wasn’t even at a real table! Still, we were happy to be perched at the street-facing window bar where we could people watch while we caught up on each other’s lives.
The menu at Saltwater is focused on seafood. If you are a salmon fan, don’t miss the house smoked salmon nuggets ($24). These chilled, smoky, tender little hunks of salmon are served with a dollop of creamy fromage blanc and a pile of tangy Mama Lil’s peppers. The perfect bite consists of stabbing your fork through a pepper first, then picking up a salmon nugget and swirling the bite through the fresh cheese. It’s salty, smoky, creamy, slightly spicy and completely terrific.
I got the wonderfully crunchy Rainier-battered cod fish and chips and my friend got the Dungeness crab special of the day ($28) which featured grilled crab legs tossed in a burnt lemon butter white wine sauce served with wilted kale. It was a hands-on dinner, but well worth the mess and the pile of napkins.
A line of eager diners awaited our perch by the time we finished at Saltwater (around 6:30 p.m.) and headed to Skein & Tipple in Clinton, where it was our turn to wait in line.
Ellis, the knitting bouncer, is the perfect person to work the line at the speak-easy. I am convinced she can talk to anyone about anything, and has a calming presence, even when she needs to bounce someone — which has apparently happened on occasion. Owen says one hour is the longest the wait has ever been.
“I’m a people pleaser, so it’s very stressful for us to know there are people waiting out there. But I just have to let it go and put it in April’s hands,” Owen says.
The tiny bar is run quite efficiently in that while you’re aware the seat is not yours for the evening, you aren’t rushed or made to feel unwelcome. There’s a small stage with live music every night (a stipulation of the nightclub license) and the vibe is 1920s moody, complete with a pressed copper ceiling, black accents and mermaid artwork.
There’s a large cocktail list with classic iterations alongside low-ABV and nonalcoholic drinks. There’s also a handful of food options to soak up the alcohol. Skein & Tipple is open late (until midnight on weekends) and just about everything else in South Whidbey closes by 9 p.m., so it’s helpful to have a charcuterie or cheese plate available. In fact, when we left Skein & Tipple around 8:30 p.m., I joked to my friend that we could have second dinner and pick up a pizza, which was met with a sobering stare and the knowledge that the pizza place closes at 7:30 p.m.
But, if South Whidbey goes to bed early, be comforted in the knowledge that it also gets up early. After a rejuvenating beach romp the next morning, we headed to Seabiscuit Bakery (it shares ownership with Saltwater) to stock up on croissants, cookies, breakfast sandwiches, hand pies and cinnamon rolls.
There are no misses at Seabiscuit. The pastries are ethereally flaky and buttery, the cinnamon roll strikes that difficult balance where the middle is fully baked but the edges aren’t overdone, and is slathered with heavenly cream cheese frosting. There is a full case of lunch items if pastries aren’t your thing. There is often a line, but it moves quickly.
We spent a few hours wandering around Langley with an excellent smoothie in hand from Tonic Juice & Remedy, a pocket-size shop that’s stuffed to the gills with all sorts of sundries, from incense and essential oils to manuka honey, mushroom chocolate, herbs, altars, salts and more. If you want to get in touch with your inner witch, this is the place to do it.
My last stop before heading to the ferry was brunch at The Braeburn. It’s one of the only restaurants open on Sundays in Langley, which seemed odd but is a good reminder that in small towns — regardless of tourism potential — the effects of the pandemic are still reverberating. Useless Bay Coffee Co., one of my friend’s favorite spots for breakfast burritos, has still not reopened, and mommafish, one of the newest restaurants in town (and quite good from what I hear), has incredibly limited hours.
Still, we were happy to end up at The Braeburn, which is currently only open for breakfast and lunch. The menu is full of comforting classics: scrambles, biscuits and gravy, huevos rancheros for breakfast, alongside burgers, fried chicken and tuna melts for lunch. I went with the polenta ($19), which arrived in a shallow bowl that cradled thick slabs of crispy fried polenta topped with pesto, roasted tomatoes, bacon, sauteed kale and a poached egg. It was the perfect brunch dish for me; filling but not excessive, and bursting with garlic and herbs, with richness coming from bacon and the poached egg.
My one-night sojourn in Whidbey wasn’t nearly enough to see it all, but it just makes me even more eager to return. Next time, I’ll be even more prepared for an early dinner.
If you go:
Skein & Tipple 8912 WA-525, Clinton; 445-942-2248; skeinandtipple.com
Saltwater Fish House & Oyster Bar 113 First St., Langley; 360-221-5474; saltwaterlangley.com
Seabiscuit Bakery 3228 Lake Leo Way, Langley; 360-321-2290; seabiscuitbakery.com
Tonic Juice & Remedy 221 Second St., #10, Langley; 360-221-8242;
The Braeburn 197 Second St., Langley; 360-221-3211; braeburnlangley.com
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.