Famed Eastern Washington wine town has the state’s most talked-about restaurant opening.

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WALLA WALLA — Every year or so, a new bistro or newfangled epicurean something becomes that thing every local gastronome covets, prompting the chasing of reservations on Lummi Island or crossing the border to Vancouver to check out the next Hong Kong-expat hot spot.

This fall’s “it” place is the Italian restaurant Passatempo Taverna, in Walla Walla. Even in this Eastern Washington wine town already blessed with a burgeoning food scene, Passatempo came with a buzz this valley hasn’t seen in decades. Visitors are booking trips just to dine there. Its late-September debut was the most anticipated restaurant opening in Washington this year, and for good reason.

Jim German, who ran the best craft-cocktail bar in Eastern Washington, Jimgermanbar, closed that Waitsburg watering hole last summer to run the day-to-day operations at Passatempo, bringing over his acclaimed bar program.

If you go

Walla Walla is about a four-hour drive from Seattle. Alaska Airlines has direct flights. Check wallawallaairport.com

More dining

Not every meal has to be a big bill with a bottle of wine. Eat like the locals. Some Walla Walla favorites:

Colville Street Patisserie, 40 S. Colville St., 509-301-7289 or colvillestreetpatisserie.com

Dora’s Deli, 1186 Wallula Ave., 509-529-3629 or on Facebook

Bacon and Eggs, 57 E. Main St., 509-876-4553 or baconandeggswallawalla.com

Maple Counter Cafe, 209 E. Alder St., 509-876-2527 or maplecountercafe.com

Green Lantern, 1606 E. Isaacs Ave., 509-525-6303 or thegreenlanterntavern.com

Walla Walla Bread Company, 201 E. Main St., 509-522-8422 or w2breadco.com

T. Maccarone’s, 4 N. Colville St., 509-522-4776 or tmaccarones.com

More information

Walla Walla visitors bureau: 877-998-4748 or wallawalla.org

Mixologist Jay Kuehner, a legend in the Seattle bar scene, is scheduled to do several guest bartending stints there.

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And James Beard finalist Mike Easton, of Il Corvo, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, has been hired as a food consultant.

No quiet opening

All the hoopla seems a bit unnerving for CEO German, who thought he could quietly open a restaurant in a small town and go through the growing pains without the glare from big cities and the food media.

Try as he may, German can’t seem to temper the expectations. He’s horrified that tourists may expect something like, say, the tony French Laundry in Napa Valley.

He puts his knuckles to the bar as if trying to chip it. “I don’t want this to be considered too precious,” he said two weeks before Passatempo opened. “I want it worn in. Beat up.”

During a dry run, friends and families sampled studiously plated Tuscan sausage over a white-bean-and-sage puree and Paccheri pasta. After hearing their fawning, German seemed defensive. “This isn’t fine dining,” he said. “This is a taverna, a place for everyone, families. This is still a small town, Walla Walla.”

True, it’s a small town (pop. 31,731) but it has big ambitions when it comes to dining. In Walla Walla, the food isn’t just to fortify you between visits to tasting rooms anymore. Lots of talents who’ve trained with celebrity chefs are opting for Walla Walla instead of Seattle. As if you needed any more excuse, the summer wine-tourism season is over, so hotel rooms can be had for as little as $60 or so. It’s time for a trip.

Here are six restaurants, including a few new names, worth a mealtime stop in Walla Walla:

 

Passatempo Taverna

The much-hyped restaurant is part of the new Walls winery, both located in an old space on the west side of downtown and owned by Bellevue attorney Mike Martin.

The Pastime Cafe used to be housed here. Owner Martin kept the bones of this rustic spot, honoring this historic building by keeping the name of the previous tenant — “Pastime” in Italian. Martin tasked German to come up with the restaurant concept.

The restaurant opening was delayed when I visited in early September, but to practice, the kitchen staff was frantically cooking as if it were a full house on a Friday night. There were plump sausages with a snappy bite and textbook-perfect al dente pasta that resembled fare served at the acclaimed Il Corvo in Seattle. Il Corvo chef Easton is just advising, but his fingerprints are all over this menu. He even designed the kitchen.

The seasonal menu is an homage to the Old World, with Rome and Tuscan-inspired cuisine such as squid-ink pasta, grilled octopus and apple-brined pork chop in the summer and fall. Come winter, Bologna and Piedmont will be its muses as the menu shifts to more game meat, with dishes such as venison ragu.

215 W. Main St.; 509-876-8822 or passatempowallawalla.com

 

The Ox & Cart

Chef Jacob Crenshaw, who worked for the late Michel Richard at the famed Citronelle restaurant, doesn’t like the worn phrase “farm-to-table dining” but that’s what his chic, high-end concept is. The daily menu represents a roll call of a dozen local farms. Featured were a duck confit with the fat-dripping strands falling off the bone, and a leg of lamb with Technicolor root veggies as bright as a Dr. Seuss book cover.

Crenshaw also runs the food program at the casual Olive Marketplace & Cafe, down the street. The aesthetics at The Ox & Cart — exposed brick wall, hardwood floor, dangling filament bulbs, and bar studded with craft whiskeys — would fit right in with the new wave of bistros in Seattle.

7½ S. First Ave.; 509-525-9952 or theoxandcart.com

 

Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen

The most ambitious cooking takes place off the main drag at this 65-seat bistro, where six-times James Beard-nominated chef Chris Ainsworth composes Eastern Mediterranean fare with nods to Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Spain and Portugal. There’s even an eclectic beer list with ales from Lebanon, Greece and Turkey.

Menu features include tender braised beef cheeks, plated with figs and raisins in a balsamic-like grape reduction sauce and a shared plate of spicy cumin-scented lamb-and-beef tartare punctuated with mint, cilantro, cucumber and yogurt.

Ainsworth has done stints for celebrity chef Todd English and for Tom Douglas at Seattle’s Dahlia Lounge. In 2007, he and his wife, Island Ainsworth, headed to Walla Walla to make their own name. Like many young chefs, the couple found that the cheaper real estate here allowed them to take more culinary risks and try more ambitious fare.

125 W. Alder St.; 509-525-2112 or saffronmediterraneankitchen.com

 

Whitehouse-Crawford

The groundbreaking restaurant that launched Walla Walla’s culinary movement in 2000, Whitehouse-Crawford was the ideal concept at an ideal time as Executive Chef Jamie Guerin featured tenderloin steak and braised lamb to pair with the valley’s acclaimed merlots and syrahs.

Guerin, formerly of Café Campagne at Pike Place Market, has a French cooking background, but his love for Asian food is sprinkled on the menu with nods to chefs David Chang in New York City and Charles Phan in San Francisco.

This fine-dining restaurant has loosened its collar in recent years, drawing a younger crowd by bringing in a bartender from Capitol Hill to amp up its craft-cocktail game and offering shared plates on the bar menu.

55 W. Cherry St.; 509-525-2222 or whitehousecrawford.com

 

 

Brasserie Four

The kind of spot found along Boulevard Saint-Germain, this Parisian-style restaurant serves Côtes du Rhône by the glass and its back wall is lined with rows of French wine. That audacity would have gotten you kicked out of this town 20 years ago, when mom-and-pop wineries were struggling to get their foot in the market. That this French-wine-focused spot can thrive shows this wine community is more accomplished now, and comfortable in its own skin.

Whitehouse-Crawford owner Guerin purchased this place in February but didn’t change much. Tables turn over every hour with the open kitchen cranking out steak frites, pork rillette and plenty of baguettes to mop up the garlic butter in the escargot. B4, as locals call it, is a popular hangout for Francophiles and, yes, local winemakers.

4 E. Main St.; 509-529-2011 or brasseriefour.com

 

Whoopemup Hollow Cafe

Nine years ago, three Seattle cooks opened a gumbo joint in the tiny wheat town of Waitsburg, 20 miles north of Walla Walla. (That’s a generous way of saying it was in the middle of nowhere.) Crawfish étouffée, barbecue shrimp and Jambalaya? It seemed so random and quirky the townsfolk swore this must be a practical joke. That southern-themed restaurant helped put Waitsburg on the map and built a cult following.

The Whoopemup gang is back, opening a second branch in May on Walla Walla’s bustling Main Street, across from a gourmet cheese-and-charcuterie shop, a French restaurant and a new sushi place. It seems to fit right in these days along the main drag of this hipper, more cosmopolitan town.

13 E. Main St.; 509-525-5000 orwhoopemuphollowcafe.com