26brix could have dropped out of the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. Chef Mike Davis, the former chef at Salish Lodge & Spa, near Seattle, opened in 2004 with an uptown menu more inviting to visiting sophisticates than to locals. He retooled the menu and made it friendlier, with tapas-style bar plates and burgers. A good thing for Walla Wallans and for me, I thought as I sampled steamed Manila clams pepped up with merguez sausage and cilantro and a splendid piece of Alaskan halibut with garlicky aligot potatoes. CreekTown Cafe, where an arbor-shaded patio fills up on warm days, delivered a terrific burger of local pasture-finished beef, a mushroom quiche with chèvre from the valley’s own French cheesemakers—Monteillet Fromagerie, in nearby Dayton—and a fresh peach pie from a menu highlighting hometown farmers. I’d drive the 20 miles to tiny Waitsburg any day for the easy hospitality and southern-inflected food of Whoopemup Hollow Café. If you don’t stuff yourself first with corn bread, there are also cornmeal-crusted oysters, jambalaya, and the valley’s best desserts. Don’t miss Aunt Luella’s Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake.
On our last night in Walla Walla, we discovered what the buzz was all about at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, a café owned by two other talented migrants from Seattle, Christopher and Island Ainsworth. He’s the chef; she’s the powerhouse in the dining room. We pretty much ate through the menu of savory tapas, flatbreads, and socca while leaving room for a harissa-sauced leg of lamb and a grand paella of rabbit, clams, and octopus. The food was faultless.
We couldn’t leave town without eating a country breakfast at the Long Branch Cafe & Saloon, in nearby Weston, whose annual potato show is almost 90 years old. It’s no surprise that the Long Branch cook knows her hash browns and poached eggs, and although we split the Diamond Jim plate, we were no match for it. The café, clearly the town’s center, reflects the region’s deep agricultural roots and evokes the social threads that knit together rural communities. I lingered in the entryway lined with photographs of Weston women. They are the Pioneer Queens, an honor bestowed each year on a local woman who can trace her roots back to the original settlers. With so many things up-to-date in Walla Walla Valley, it’s good to know that a few haven’t changed at all.
2014 Mill Creek Rd., Walla Walla (509-522-1234; abeja.net)
26brix Restaurant 207 W. Main St., Walla Walla (509-526-4075)
Creektown Cafe 1129 S. Second Ave., Walla Walla (509-522-4777)
Long Branch Cafe & Saloon 201 E. Main St., Weston, OR (541-566-3478)
Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen 125 W. Alder St., Walla Walla (509-525-2112)
Whitehouse-Crawford 55 W. Cherry St., Walla Walla (509-525-2222)
Whoopemup Hollow Café 120 Main St., Waitsburg, WA (509-337-9000)
The wine business has exploded in Walla Walla in recent years. Here are some outstanding producers, with the varieties we like best. Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon (abeja.net). Cayuse Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (cayusevineyards.com). K Vintners Syrah (kvintners.com). L’ecole No 41 Bordeaux blends, Merlot (lecole.com). Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (leonetticellar.com). Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (pepperbridge.com). Reininger Merlot (reiningerwinery.com). Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (woodwardcanyon.com).