BELLINGHAM — In 2019, a stranger approached chef James Zamory at his food stall in New York City’s massive weekly outdoor food event called Smorgasburg. The stranger said there was a guy in Bellingham, Washington, who wanted to know if Zamory and his business partners wanted to move across the country and open a restaurant there.

“I was like, what’s Bellingham?” Zamory said during a recent phone call.

Zamory and his partners Aaron Saurer and Sean McDermott had been running a concept they called Carnal. Their most popular item was a slow-cooked beef short rib brushed with rendered marrow fat. It was incredibly photogenic and this investor — who turned out to be film and music producer Skip Williamson — found Carnal’s Instagram account and sent an emissary to Smorgasburg to gauge interest.

A lifelong New Yorker, Zamory had never heard of the city. He’d never even been to the West Coast. So he Googled Bellingham and, intrigued, flew out to meet Williamson.

“I just remember seeing white-capped mountains behind beautiful green mountains. I came out here and scoped out the building and yeah, I was pretty impressed,” he says.

Everything — from the agriculture to the aquaculture, natural beauty and connections to farmers — was unlike anything Zamory had experienced. And frankly, there was less competition.

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“In New York, it’s like oh great, another dimly lit Edison bulb dive bar. If you don’t perform well in one night you lose a customer forever, or something else pops up the next day and you can’t get traction,” he says.

Zamory and his partners wanted to throw an anchor and hold on somewhere. They moved to Bellingham three weeks before the pandemic. After gutting the building, located on State Street in downtown Bellingham, Carnal opened on Aug. 28, 2020. Zamory says it’s impossible to compare anything to New York, but life in Bellingham is good.

“The pace of life is just opposite. Things are calm, they’re peaceful. It’s so much easier to recharge here,” he says.  

The dinner I had at Carnal (1234 N. State St.; eatcarnal.com) was as calm and peaceful as it could be with two kids in tow. We opted to eat on the heated outdoor patio — the restaurant itself a moody, brick-lined industrial-chic space that felt a wee bit too romantic for my kids.

Now that’s not to say Carnal wasn’t wonderfully welcoming. There is no kids menu per se, but our server went through the menu, going through flavor combinations and answering questions about spice levels with ease and congeniality.

The menu changes often — outside of the black cod ($29) and the twice-cooked potatoes, served with tomatillo, serrano chile and lamb sausage ($12) — nothing is exactly the same as it was in late February.

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There’s always a slow-cooked bone-in beef short rib on the menu, brushed with marrow and topped with something fresh. Right now it’s mango sauce and turmeric ($34). Another regular dish is the marinated avocado. When I was there it was slathered with lime and pistachio, but it is now tossed with smoked daikon and sea lettuce ($11).

Everything we did have — from the black cod, served with delicata squash and lemon grass brown butter, to hamachi crudo ($15), with charred onion, and hangar steak ($27), with unbelievably creamy sweet potato — was exceptional. I loved every bite. My kids loved every bite. We had one of those conversations on the way back to the hotel where me, my husband and our older daughter talked about what our favorite parts of dinner were — something we haven’t done for years simply because we just don’t get out to restaurants anymore — and it felt glorious.

Zamory says they initially got some flak as outsiders, but he stresses his commitment to the city.

“We’re not these New Yorkers trying to change Bellingham. We just saw it as an amazing opportunity to be a part of the growth of this community and cook the way we love,” he says.

It was a dinner to be remembered, but so was just being in beautiful Bellingham. We hadn’t been to the city since our older daughter’s first birthday and she’ll be turning 4 this summer. Outside of that dinner at Carnal, there was so much good food to eat and so much fun to be had — from scoping out the booths at Penny Lane Antique Mall (427 W. Holly St.; 360-671-3301; pennylaneantiquemall.com) to rolling through the banked turns at the Waterfront Pump Track (1200 Bay St.) — we can’t wait to go back to Bellingham. If you’re looking to head up there for a weekend, here are a few spots to put on your radar.

Camber

8 a.m.-2 p.m. daily; 221 W. Holly St., Bellingham; 360-656-5343; cambercoffee.com/flagship

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You can find this Bellingham coffee roaster’s beans at a few spots in Seattle — including Greenwood’s Coyle’s Bakeshop — but here at the flagship cafe there are even more small-batch single origin roasts available, plus a full menu of pastries and a few larger dishes. The lemon olive oil cake ($4) is wonderfully moist with a nice amount of bright citrus bite. The Standard biscuit breakfast sandwich ($12), with housemade maple chicken breakfast sausage, egg, cheese and a sunflower seed gremolata, was all the things you want a breakfast sandwich to be — slightly greasy and super filling. Add avocado for $1.50 if you’re looking for a little added oomph.

Saltadena

10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; 111 Holly St., Bellingham; 360-393-3111; saltadena.com

It’s impossible not to fall in love with something at this cute little cake shop. From Lil’ Scrappies — which started as a way for owner Nancy Stuart to use up cake scraps by combining cake with frosting, pudding or curd with some cookie pieces in tubs — to cream puffs, macarons or these gluten-free brownie cookies that I can’t get enough of, it is a dessert lover’s dream. If you can’t make it to Bellingham, Stuart regularly comes to Seattle for pop-ups and she’ll be in Bothell at the Making Local Market on Saturday, March 26 (makinglocal.com).

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Storia Cucina

Noon-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, noon-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday; 109 Grand Ave., Suite 102, Bellingham; 360-734-1929; storiacucina.com

This breezy space is the place to go for Italian-leaning dishes. The wood-fired sourdough pizza has got great chew and nice, bright tomato sauce. The margherita ($14) features housemade mozzarella. The cacio e pepe ($16) with bucatini was a little sloppy. I’d suggest ordering a salad and eating it first to give the sauce of butter and pecorino a chance to cool and come together a bit, which when it does is lovely. Go for the kale Caesar ($6/$12) or the seasonal. When I was there it was topped with blood oranges, pistachios, radishes and pecorino.

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Bantam

4-9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, 4-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1327 Railroad Ave., Bellingham; 360-788-4507; bantamkitchen.com

This two-story space is dedicated to all things chicken — rotisserie and fried — plus a handful of Southern-inspired sides. It’s 21+ upstairs, but family-friendly on the main floor as well as the outdoor streatery. If you’re looking to order to go, as I was, get it in early as the kitchen stops taking takeout orders once the dinner rush hits. I ordered the rotisserie chicken half meal ($24), which comes with half a salt and pepper roast chicken, slaw, biscuits, honey and a side. Fried chicken options are hot, golden with a turmeric-jerk spice blend and pineapple habanero hot sauce or garlic herb. I also ordered the fried chicken meal ($25), which came with a boneless breast, thigh, biscuit, herb honey, pickles and a choice of side. The mac and cheese features curly cavatappi noodles in a gooey three-cheese sauce. The baked beans skew sweet with molasses and brown sugar. The herb honey takes the regular fried chicken to the next level. The biscuits are appropriately flaky and the rotisserie chicken is tender and juicy.

Rufous

rufousbakery.square.site

Baker Evan Turner started selling at farmers markets last June and over the winter was offering weekly pickups at his commercial kitchen. He’ll be back at the Bellingham Saturday Market beginning in April, focused on selling his naturally leavened loaves. I was able to pick up three — the apple kamut porridge ($11), the country loaf ($9) and the sprouted rye ($10). Each loaf was hearty. They’re wonderful toasted (especially the kamut porridge), but also tender enough for sandwich bread. If you love artisan bread, don’t miss checking out Rufous.