Seattle has long been Washington State’s mainstage for the culinary scene. But a little college town called Bellingham, just a half-hour south of the border with Canada, looks to give the big city a run for its lunch money.
With a thriving microbrewery scene, a devoted collection of restaurateurs, and a short ferry ride away from one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in the country, Bellingham manages to balance the latest national trends with its long-held quirky, corner-of-the-country feel in a way that makes it an exciting and intriguing—not to mention delicious—place to take a culinary vacation.
For more than twenty years, Mallard Ice Cream has been the first stop for food lovers in Bellingham. Located in the center of old Downtown, it churns out intriguing flavors like jalapeño, twists on the classics such as mint Oreo, and non-dairy options including basil-lime ice. The smooth, small-batch scoops are near-perfect, and the only reason it’s been dethroned as the number one priority for visitors is because if kids go next door first, they get their cone for free after a meal at new sibling restaurant, Bantam 46.
Even without that added bonus, Bantam 46 deserves visitors’ dining dollars: it’s unlikely you’ll find any chicken so impeccably fried this side of the Louisiana state line. Opened in May, the restaurant’s signature buttermilk-marinated, black tea-brined, cornmeal-fried chicken comes to the table as crunchy as potato chips and as tender as a Sunday braise. But the Southern tinge of the food belies its business model, which comes straight out of Bellingham’s historically liberal, hippie-esque leanings: the 46 in the name alludes to the percent paid to employees (or their base wage, whichever is higher), eliminating tips entirely and ensuring them an equitable wage.
Meanwhile, Mallard has new competition for its dessert supremacy in the form of newly opened (as of August) cake shop, Saltadena. With clean, modern stylings and all white furniture, the focus of the shop fixes squarely on owner Nancy Stuart’s towering cakes, offered by the slice. After two years as a cottage business out of her home, the shop allows her to expand her business to folks looking for less than entire wedding or birthday cake.
Her slices come in flavors like chocolate salt and pepper, lemon raspberry, and the fascinating vanilla bean cake with sweet corn buttercream inside and salted honey buttercream outside, sprinkled with freeze-dried corn dust and salted caramel crispy pearls.
And she also makes an individual treat called Lil Scrappies. Combatting food waste and innovating at the same time, the stacked cups include—as the name implies—cake scraps stacked with leftover frosting.
It’s the same kind of out-of-the-box approach to a classic business that Nick Meza took in January, when he expanded his plant shop (opened in April 2018), Babygreens, to also be a café. While the plant shop already drew in a crowd selling just the kind of houseplants that are currently extremely on-trend, the café allowed Meza to make the space a bit more social. Serving espresso drinks graced with adorable latte art, pour over coffee, kombucha on tap, and beer and wine for the afternoon crowd, the plant shop and coffee bar manage to exist seamlessly and symbiotically, creating a livelier space for the former and offering a unique ambiance for the latter.
The décor at both Babygreens and a pair of new bars in the Fairhaven neighborhood, Gainsbarre and Swim Club, can best be described as Instagram chic. (Think millennial pink and subway tile meets mid-century modern.)
The bars, opened in 2018, could as easily have been set down in Brooklyn as Bellingham, the former featuring natural wines and the latter a collection of craft cocktails that leans vaguely tiki-esque in nature. While Bellingham’s bar culture was founded on—and stays strong in—craft beer, the rise of these two on-trends spots helps diversify the drinking scene.
The beer folks aren’t resting on their laurels either, though: star brewery Aslan will expand from their flagship taproom to another location in Seattle this fall. And new breweries, like Stemma and Twin Sisters have found plenty of room to snuggle in with more established veteran spots like Kulshan, Wander, and Structures.
But even among the world-class IPAs, the incredible ice cream, and innovative entrepreneurs, one culinary experience remains the undisputed king of the region: Willows Inn, on Lummi Island. Since The New York Times declared it one of ten restaurants worth a plane flight back in 2011, the tiny hyper-locally focused kitchen has only improved.
Helmed by Noma alum Blaine Wetzel, the multi-course tasting menu dinners feature reef-net salmon caught from directly outside the door, vegetables chosen and grown for specific dishes on the farm next door, and flora, fauna, and fungi foraged from all over the island—which is a quick five minute ferry ride from Bellingham.
For those not up for the $225 tasting menu featuring more than 20 dishes, the secret to scoring a deal is coming for your mid-day meal (what they call “snacks”), which uses the same ingredients in more casual fashion—and keeps prices in the low double digits with dishes like roasted pumpkin soup with chestnut cream and chorizo for $12. Because having an easy way to open access to fancy food for a wider audience is, perhaps, the most Bellingham thing that they could do.
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