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Culinary offerings expand in small towns throughout Central Washington

You don’t expect to find fine dining in small Eastern Washington towns. Or you didn’t a few years ago, anyway.

There was good food, sure. Taquerias, taco trucks, cafes, bar & grills, mom-and-pop restaurants that served homemade meatloaf or pizza or burgers. But tapas in Tieton (pop. 1,302)? Smoked corn risotto in Cle Elum (pop. 2,004)? Shrimp pil-pil in Goldendale (pop. 3,497)? Heck, you can even get a creme brulee in Naches (pop. 831). (And, yeah, I know creme brulee isn’t exactly cutting-edge culinary fare here in 2019, but in NACHES?)

Food culture has reached the boonies.

There are a few broad explanations for the phenomenon, the most compelling of which is that the average American knows and cares more about food than they did a decade or two ago. The proliferation of cooking shows on TV and cooking culture online have made widely available what once was the sole province of the urban sophisticate. They gave us the celebrity chef, a renewed emphasis on farm-to-table eating and a dedication to culinary craft in far-flung corners of the country. (See also the rise of craft beer and modern cocktail culture.)

This new access to information is the reason your Uncle Ernie and Aunt Betty know the term “umami,” even if (especially in Ernie’s case) they still don’t really know what it means. The result is that people, even in small towns, want to know what’s in their food and they want it prepared well. So those kinds of restaurants, even in places with relatively small populations, can now find an audience.

“It’s happening because the marketing demands it, probably from all the cooking shows that people are addicted to,” said Edward Armstrong, co-proprietor of 617 on Tieton Square, a three-days-a-week bistro that opened last year. “But also I think eating habits in the U.S. had gotten so far away from being healthy, that the rubber band just sort of snapped back. It’s a cycle in which we’re rediscovering what is good food.”

For an example of how pervasive food culture has become, note the existence of The Ellensburg Food Critic, an anonymous website and Facebook account dedicated to food criticism in a city of 20,977 people. Ellensburg is a little different than your average small town in Eastern Washington, in that it’s home to a state university, Central Washington University, meaning that in addition to the dive bars and clubs the students want, there’s an academic class that wants fine dining. Still, it’s a small place known for its rodeo and its agriculture.

The Ellensburg Food Critic, who remains anonymous online to protect the sanctity of her reviews but who spoke with me for this story, said most of her favorite places in Kittitas County — also home to burgeoning restaurant scenes in the tiny towns of Roslyn (pop. 959) and Cle Elum — have opened just within the past five years.

“It seems like people want better food now,” the critic said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean fancy. But people want different and exciting. Foodie culture — and I hate the word ‘foodie,’ but a culture around food, of appreciating and even fetishizing food — is a recent development.”

There’s another factor at play in Central Washington in particular. Populations are growing here, as more and more people are moving away from the hustle and bustle (and skyrocketing cost of living) in King County. People who might have lived in Seattle a decade or two ago are choosing places like Cle Elum or Tieton these days, in part because they like it and it’s cheaper and in part because they can still work for Seattle companies remotely.

“The internet makes it possible to move here and still feel connected to the rest of the world in a way they couldn’t have been 20 years ago,” said Ed Marquand, founder of the Mighty Tieton arts-and-commerce collective in Tieton and the other co-proprietor of 617 on Tieton Square. “They don’t need offices anymore. Their office is the cloud.”

Those people have money, and they have a taste for fine dining. That’s what Greg Apt found when he opened Orchard, a five-days-a-week multi-course restaurant in Cle Elum in November 2017. Apt, whose two sons are high-end chefs in the Seattle area, had never owned a restaurant. But he realized the demand for one when he tried to buy a vacation house in Cle Elum, only to consistently get outbid by people with richer offers.

“There is a lot more money in this area than people would think,” Apt said.

The bulk of his customers come from Suncadia, the resort-slash-community that has transformed Cle Elum and nearby Roslyn. Suncadia has its own high-end restaurants, but there’s still enough demand, Apt said.

“They’re not afraid to spend money,” he said.

Still, there are a few adjustments that restaurants in small towns generally have to make. They tend to not be open every day, which cuts down on labor and food costs. And they tend to have other income streams. Orchard does catering, for instance. And 617 is essentially a complement to the rest of the Mighty Tieton enterprises.

But for the restaurants that can figure out a way to do it, there’s definitely a market in places there previously wasn’t. It helps that Central Washington has so many food producers. Farm-to-table is easier to pull off when the farm is right down the street and the chef knows the farmer. That’s something that appealed to Apt, in particular. He grew up on an orchard in the Wenatchee Valley and wanted to pay homage to that upbringing.

As his website says, “Orchard brings the freshest foods from local farmers and ranchers, then transforms these ingredients to create the best in modern cuisine.” And it’s in Cle Elum, of all places.

Reach Pat Muir at pmuir@yakimaherald.com.

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