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A big helping of Bellingham

Hidden dining gems in authentic Washington state destination

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BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Napoleon Bonaparte famously opined that an army marches on its stomach. The same can be said for tourists.

Sunsets, scenery and shopping excursions might be the glossy stuff of travel brochures designed to entice wannabe travellers, but what most of us remember about past trips are memorable food experiences.

It needn't be an expensive or exotic dining experience. Often, the fondest recollections of eating in foreign places are those experiences that were inexpensive, unexpected and unplanned.

It could be a fish taco from a beachside food truck enjoyed while watching big-wave surfers carve it up; takeout crab cakes eaten on a rickety picnic table on the edge of a rainforest; a fresh baguette washed down with a glass of robust red wine on a 300-year-old park bench.

The Food Channel has dined out on this premise for years, with numerous shows featuring off-the-beaten path eateries too easily ignored, even though the food on offer, and the story behind its creation, are what great meal memories are made of.

And while the fare, decor and vibe found in each of these places differs, there is one common theme -- they are unique. In other words, they are not franchises.

How easy, safe -- some would say comforting -- it is in a strange land to seize upon the bright lights of a familiar global franchise when travel-weary and in search of sustenance. Particularly with children in tow, the temptation is often too great to succumb to the ordinary and predictable.

But raise your hand if one of your favourite travel stories is about that Big Mac you had in Times Square, the Keg steak you ate in Tempe, the cheese pizza you scarfed down in Coal Harbour?

Which brings us to Bellingham, Wash., a name known on the West Coast for its bargain shopping, inexpensive dairy products, cheap gasoline and cut-rate flights. The majority of which are found in some of the most prevalent franchises on the continent.

How ironic, then, that the town and outlying area are also home to numerous so-called mom-and-pop restaurants, cafés and distilleries that are as fresh and interesting as those aforementioned franchise places are stale and boring? They are all, without exception, also very reasonably priced.

On a recent three-day getaway to the historic town -- about a 30-minute drive from the B.C.-Washington State border -- I was introduced to a half-dozen such places, met the respective "mom-and-pops," and returned home with a doggie bag-full of memories. In no specific order, here's what I discovered:

Old Town Cafe, Bellingham

This 40-year-old breakfast and lunch institution in many ways sums up what makes all of the places I dined and drank at during this tour so special -- they use fresh, locally sourced and often organic ingredients to create wholesome and tasty fare, which is served by friendly people in welcoming and always interesting environments. In other words, big helpings of authenticity, hold the pretension.

Famous for its breakfasts -- the garden egg tortilla and whole-grain buttermilk hotcakes with fresh blueberries are said to be faves -- the Old Town Cafe is where locals meet to start their days and tourists go to prepare for a day of exploration.

Located within steps of Bellingham's founding location, the café is housed in a historic building and is a pillar of the community. It supports local artists with rotating art shows, and local musicians are encouraged to serenade diners in exchange for a free meal. At Thanksgiving, the café roasts over two dozen turkeys and throws open its doors to feed over 400 needy people for free, a fully volunteer effort spearheaded by owner Diane Brainard and local businesses. The Old Town Cafe is truly the heart and soul of the old town of Bellingham.

Book Fare Café, Fairhaven

It's somewhat fitting that this café is situated in one of Washington State's greatest bookstores -- while feeding your mind in Village Books, you can feed your stomach at the Book Fare Café, located on the second floor of the store.

Café owner-chef Charles Claassen describes his fresh baked goods, soup and sandwich menu as "Northwest light fare with a European bent," though the consensus around our table was "delicious."

Healthy would also be a way to describe the offerings, and for that matter the owner-chef, too. Claassen often runs to and from his café as part of his training (24 kilometres round trip). The ambience of the bright café is open and friendly, and its free Wi-Fi provides local university students and business people a great place to grab coffee or tea and do a little work. Or just look out the big windows at the beautiful buildings of Fairhaven and out over Bellingham Bay. Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week (11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays), this café is an ideal lunch spot for tourists walking the historic Fairhaven district.

Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen

The microbrew industry in North America has grown from a handful of devoted enthusiasts on the West Coast to seemingly a brew pub in every town this past quarter-century. Many of those early adopters turned their beer-making hobby into careers, and the owners of the Chuckanut Brewery are no exception. In fact, Will and Mari Kemper are pioneers of the craft, with Will serving as brewmaster at some of the most famous microbreweries in the States, including Seattle's Thomas Kemper and Aviator Ales, Norwester Brewery (Portland), Mile High Brewing (Denver) and Dock Street Brewing (Philadelphia).

The dynamic duo also spent a few years in Turkey setting up a brew pub, but in 2008 decided to put down roots in Bellingham's Old Town district, turning a one-time car-rental agency building into one of the best, and most acclaimed, small breweries in North America.

Unlike most every other brew pub in the area, Chuckanut's focus is on creating beer in the European style. To that end, it's all about the Pilsner, Kolsch and Vienna Lagers here, not the pale ales you'll find most everywhere else.

Food doesn't take a back seat in this family-friendly establishment, with a comfort-food menu ranging from organic pizzas and fresh salads to corned beef and cabbage to Holly Street mac & cheese. The restaurant's friendly and funky atmosphere is in stark contrast to the stainless steel, state-of-the-art on-site brewing facility, which Mari or an employee will be only too happy to give you a tour of. Chuckanut ships kegs across Washington State, and for a while up to Vancouver, for use in pubs and restaurants.

Keenan's at the Pier

Just recently redesigned and with new executive chef Robert Holmes at the helm, Keenan's at the Pier is one of a handful of high-end restaurants in the Bellingham area.

Located within the Chrysalis Inn & Spa -- itself one of two high-end hotels in town -- Keenan's is Pacific Northwest dining at its best, using the best seasonal produce from local farms, and fresh seasonal catches from local waters, which the restaurant overlooks. Our menu typified the selections on the daily fresh sheet, and included blue cheese and pear toasts, the smoked salmon plate and manila steamer clams as starters; roasted beet salad and wilted spinach salad; braised short rib and mixed vegetarian grill and pan-fried sturgeon as main entrees; and for dessert, white chocolate beignets served with a trio of house-made dipping sauces. And the wine list, offering a number of very reasonable priced bottles, pays tribute to the numerous Washington State wineries.

Mount Baker Distillery

Moonshine has had a bit of a resurgence of late in the common consciousness thanks to reality TV and a loosening of state liquor laws. Capitalizing on the latter is the Mount Baker Distillery, a wonderful business that recently set up shop, and still, in a Bellingham industrial park. Owner-operator Troy Smith says "shine" runs in his family, and a faded black-and-white photo of Grandpa Abe Smith on the wall of the tasting room bears testimony to that liquor lineage.

The family-run business specializes in handcrafted spirits using Abe's traditional backwoods methods, recipes and replicated equipment. Just recently opened for business, the distillery makes and sells small batches of moonshine and vodka distilled from the finest ingredients, including organic Washington State grains. And yes, you can run it over the border, just the same as spirits bought anywhere in Washington state. The tasting room is open Fridays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and on 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Special tours can also be arranged.

North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel

Saved the best for last here. In what can only be described as something out of a Homer Simpson fantasy, we bring you this unique brewery/pizzeria/wedding chapel located in Deming, Wash., on the scenic Mt. Baker Highway. The rustic place has been owned and operated by Vicki and Sandy Savage for the past 18 years, and in that time has become a favourite destination for skiers and boarders coming home from a day on Mt. Baker's slopes to Bellingham-area residents looking to go for a nice country drive capped off with amazing 'za and on-site-brewed handcrafted beers. The brewery, built by Sandy in what can only be described as "MacGyver-like" fashion, has to be seen to be believed. Hand-built using all manner of found, salvaged and scavenged material, it produces 109 gallons of British Ale-style beers annually, the majority of which is simply piped into the bar's taps.

And then there's the wedding chapel. Vicki Savage has wed more than 200 couples in the light of a stained glass window in the restaurant. Ask for Vicki when you're there, and she'll tell you all about it.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 D3

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