Culture Dose: Walla Walla

The vineyards at L'Ecole

A 5-point guide to a hot Washington destination.

Nearly four-and-a-half hours southeast of Seattle, there’s a charming, sun-soaked town where an actual Main Street still exists. On a Saturday afternoon, a local shop posts a window sign declaring business closed due to a daughter’s track meet, and on a Sunday evening, you might be hard-pressed to find an open restaurant at which to dine. It’s a throwback, in the most pleasant way.

In this friendly place, multiple identities coexist; you’ll see cowboys and farmers, scholars and sommeliers. Hints of the past mingle with the buzz of the future. Worlds collide here, and from what we can tell, it’s working out A-okay.

Road tripping east from Seattle
Road tripping east from Seattle

So what to do in wonderful Walla Walla? Last time I went (my first visit to the town), I discovered treasures like Kerloo Cellars and Abeja. This time, the itinerary was entirely different, yet equally alluring. Below, find a must-do list that hits some of the highlights.

The Marcus Whitman Hotel
The Marcus Whitman Hotel

1. EAT If you do nothing else in this town, splurge on a chef’s table experience at the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel (opened in 1928). Chef Antonio Campolio, a James Beard-recognized chef whose impressive resume spans from West Virginia’s Greenbriar to Colorado’s Broadmoor, will certainly make it worth your time. Since arriving in Eastern Washington in 2011, Antonio has completely revolutionized the kitchen, hand-picking and importing talent from near and far. He’s admittedly “all about breaking the stigma of a ‘hotel restaurant,'” and he proudly asserts that he “would put [his] kitchen up against any other out there.” Yet the passion seems to extend well beyond the head chef; other workers contribute in their off hours too—volunteering at the kitchen’s nearby garden or even coming in late at night to turn the microgreens sprouting in the basement.

The chef’s table at The Marc has been designed for groups of four to twelve and includes either The Gourmand (four courses) or The Epicureal Delight (five courses). The Marc was recently voted one of Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants 2013, and Restaurant and Lounge Manager Dan McCaffrey gladly helps guests pair delicious local wines, perfectly complementing each sensational course.

Some examples of our favorite Chef’s Table indulgences? It’s tough to choose, yet the top contenders include: Roasted Beet Agnolotti—Red Boar Farms pork belly, Monteillet causse noir, heirloom spinach and pear, paired with Locati’s Barbera from Columbia Valley, and the Upper Dry Creek Lamb with hazelnut, midnight kale, sunflower and salt cured olive, paired with Va Piano’s Columbia Valley Cabernet. Oh, yum.

As a bonus, we couldn’t agree more with Chef’s philosophy: “It’s all about celebrating good food, good drinks and good company.”

Chef’s Table gems by the wildly talented Antonio Campolio (Cape Cod diver scallops)
The grande finale dinner course: 28 Day Dry-Aged Double Ranch Signature New York Strip with lemon pepper spatzel and Locati asaparagus
The grande finale dinner course: 28 Day Dry-Aged Double Ranch Signature New York Strip with lemon pepper spatzel and Locati asparagus
WW-Marc dessert
A beautiful creation by Pastry Chef Troy Topton

Beyond the hotel, consider brunch at Bacon & Eggs and dinner at Public House 124,  T. Maccarone’s, Brasserie Four or Saffron.

2. DRINK Why else come to Walla Walla other than to drink wine? The Valley’s reputation for producing world-class wine began with the launch of Leonetti Cellar in 1977, and today the region boasts 120-plus wineries.

As Walla Walla’s third oldest winery (and the 20th in the state), L’Ecole No. 41 (established in 1983) considers itself a “legitimate pioneer” of the now-booming industry. Jean and Baker Ferguson started the winery in their retirement; Baker used to drive by the deserted, dilapidated school every day and finally decided it would be the perfect place to house their business. Today educational decor accents dot the venue (chalkboards, desks), paying homage to the 1915 building that served as a two-room school house till the mid-70s. The winery’s name speaks to the heritage of this site, an area called Frenchtown in the 1800s (as it was home to French-Canadian immigrants).

General Manager Debbie Frol says that the strength of L’Ecole’s 30-plus-year business stems from its established “relationships with the best vineyards in the state,” which in turn provides access to some of the best fruit grown both locally and across the Columbia Valley. She says that, although it’s cliche, the quality of the wine truly starts in the vineyard; therefore, the wine’s only going to get better by working closely with the growers.

Debbie speaks of the interconnectedness of Walla Walla’s community of wine-growers and sellers. “Everyone here makes each other better,” she says. “We’re all friends; we’re all competitors. If you’re committed to making quality wine, bring it on.”

The vineyards at L'Ecole
The vineyards at L’Ecole

At Three Rivers Winery, you can sip tasty varietals on a spacious deck, play three short holes of golf and view the garden where The Marc Restaurant grows its produce. Chef Campolio is celebrating the third year of his partnership with assistant winemaker Andy Slusarenk—an alliance that allows The Marc to harvest some 86 varietals of vegetables on the winery’s fertile land. (Within this herbicide- and pesticide-free space, the impressive bounty includes leeks, peas, garlic, sunchokes, eight varieties of tomatoes and so on.) Other Marc kitchen staff volunteer in tending to the garden, too, and Antonio says the whole process has  been “incredible to watch and experience.” The hard work seems to be accompanied by a good dose of laughter and merriment, too; he and Andy simply call the winery-restaurant collaboration “friends hanging out, growing some food.”

Barrels at Three Rivers Winery
Barrels at Three Rivers Winery

3. BE MERRY Mingle amongst locals at jovial spots like Dora’s Deli (or “Worm Ranch”), where you’ll find tasty, no-frills, authentic Mexican fare (try the pork torta or sopes), and The Green Lantern (AKA The Green), a friendly watering hole (allegedly getting less dive-y with time).

Dora's Deli
Dora’s Deli

4. GO GREEN In addition to the surrounding beauty of the region, explore some of the town’s lovely green spaces, like the verdant campus of Whitman CollegePioneer Park (where, sadly, word has it the beloved aviary  won’t exist for much longer) and Fort Walla Walla Park, complete with a museum and 70-acre wildlife preserve with streams and a hiking trail.

Pioneer Park
Pioneer Park
The Planet Walk at Fort Walla Walla Park
The Planet Walk at Fort Walla Walla Park

5. STEP BACK IN TIME Mosey down the rather sleepy Main Street (walking distance from the Marcus Whitman hotel), where you’ll find a melange of cafes, locally-owned boutiques, sleek tasting rooms and old-fashioned sweet shops.Visit the weekend farmers market or, on weekends through, August 27, catch alfresco tunes during the Downtown Concert Series. Debbie Frol of L’Ecole says, “There’s this mystique about Walla Walla. People find their way here, and they stay.”

WW-Main Street

*All photos taken by Corinne Whiting.