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Walla Walla, Washington

Walla Walla Chefs and Farmers Serve Up New Reasons to Visit

It’s been several months since that meal at Walla Walla Steak Co., but I still can’t stop thinking about those locally grown Klicker strawberries. Served for dessert with a honey-butter biscuit and Chantilly cream, each bite released a burst of fresh, juicy sweetness. The local farm lets them mature on the vines longer than those others harvested for mass distribution, explained Dan Thiessen, the restaurant’s managing partner. All I know is I can’t wait to go back when they are in season again in June.

Wheat drives the economy in Walla Walla, and wine grapes attract the tourists. But a growing network of family farms and locavore restaurants are bringing a wider selection of the region’s bounty to the table. Read on for more about the growing deliciousness in this epicurean paradise.

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Walla Walla Steak Co. and sister establishment Crossbuck Brewing are located in downtown’s restored, century-old train depot. The steakhouse is dark and intimate and features beef from family-owned ranches in the West and Northwest, while the bright and airy brewpub serves up refined pub grub and house-made beer. Hattaway’s on Alder opened last year and put a Northwest stamp on Southern-style cuisine for dinner and weekend brunch. Head into the vineyards north of town to find the splashiest newcomer.

In collaboration with James Beard Award winner Jason Wilson, the restaurant at the secluded Eritage Resort — which welcomes non-resort guests for dinner — serves innovative Northwest cuisine that deftly stimulates all five elements of taste (pictured above is the charcuterie plate).

For more than a decade, Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen has added flavors of southern Europe, north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean to the local bounty of garbanzo beans, squashes, mint, flours, lamb, pork and beef. The rustic Passatempo Taverna has house-made pastas, braised meat entrees and décor awash in reclaimed woods. Brasserie Four offers classic French favorites such as pork rillettes, vichyssoise and steak frites.

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Walla Walla’s entertainment options include performances at Gesa Power House Theatre, a 120-year-old power plant turned into a 300-seat venue, and June marks the return of Walla Walla Sweets baseball to Borleske Stadium near Whitman College. The team is part of the West Coast League, a summer league for select college players, and home games offer a family-friendly setting for watching potential future stars (Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and Jacoby Ellsbury are among notable WCL alums).

For a great morning walk, head over to Bennington Lake (pictured above), about 4 miles east of downtown, where easy trails around the reservoir offer dramatic views of the Blue Mountains and a variety of migrating birds.

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The number of area wineries has grown from three in 1984 — when the Walla Walla Valley earned its American Viticultural Area designation — to about 120 today. One person not surprised by such astounding growth is Rick Small, who founded the area’s second winery, Woodward Canyon Winery, in 1981, a few years after his friend Gary Figgins started it all with Leonetti Cellar (which is not open for tastings or tours). “Gary and I were so enthused by the quality of wines that could be made in this area, we wondered why it hadn’t happened sooner,” Small says.

Visitors can sample Woodward Canyon’s elegant wines in its rustic tasting room in Lowden, about 12 miles west of downtown Walla Walla. (Always designate a driver or hire a ride service when tasting wines.) Next door, L’Ecole No 41, the area’s third modern winery, welcomes visitors in a restored schoolhouse that once served descendants of the area’s French-Canadian settlers. Among L’Ecole’s many accolades, its 2011 Estate Ferguson was named best Bordeaux in the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards.

The industry’s dramatic growth is readily apparent downtown, where 30 wineries have set up storefront tasting rooms, many in century-old brick buildings. On the south end of town, Pepper Bridge Winery and Va Piano Vineyards offer opportunities to taste among the vineyards, while Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery shakes it up with salsa nights and Spanish-style varietals such as albariño and tempranillo.

– Written by Rob Bhatt, last updated in October 2022.

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