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Fine dining, in a low-key setting

Hay J’s Bistro is tucked away at the far end of a gas station strip mall near the Liberty Lake exit.
Hay J’s Bistro is tucked away at the far end of a gas station strip mall near the Liberty Lake exit.

Moments after stepping into Hay J’s Bistro in Liberty Lake you forget where you are, unless your personal tour guide for the restaurant business has his hand wrapped around a nice glass of wine and a subject to expound on.

Bantering about this family-owned, 6-year-old establishment starts with dad’s old saying: “Never judge a book by its cover.”

By the time the dishes from a terrific meal are cleared you’ve settled on: “A pearl in a clam shell.” That’s because this bistro is a hidden gem and by hidden we mean tucked away in a gas station strip mall by the Liberty Lake exit.

It’s a place you visit from word of mouth because the odds of stumbling into this delightful oasis are about the same as finding a pearl in a clam. Curb appeal is a step above Herman Munster’s digs.

Our server, Kim, got the evening off to a great start by easily answering our questions about the menu as well as the location and name.

Traditionally, one diner has to have halibut at Hay J’s, and this time was no exception, but instead of going for the often recommended parmesan-crusted halibut the choice was halibut risotto. Also, excellent. There was also a delicious chicken tortellini after a much-praised cup of wild mushroom and goat cheese soup.

Two less exotic meals started with the chowder. That was followed by a filling Cobb salad on one side of the table and a meal of the tapas platter on the other. The tapas platter appetizer includes cilantro hummus, kalamata tapenade, artichoke-roasted tomato spread, warm goat cheese, grilled portabella, roasted garlic with mouth-watering grilled sourdough crostinis – definitely enough to call it a meal for the smaller appetite.

Over this meal we discussed drop-in dining. Often we’ve passed up something because of the way it looked. Other times we’ve looked beyond the exterior and were rewarded with a delightful dining experience.

From the outside looking in, the bill at Hay J’s, with two bottles of wine – without what we might call entry-level vino selections for the tighter budget – seemed high. But from the inside, the dining experience was worth almost every penny.

Well, maybe it was worth every penny because if you’re going to stop into a strip-mall restaurant, even if you’re prepared to spend big, you shouldn’t be surprised to see Saturday night diners in T-shirts. Or a beanie. Or a gawd-awful hunter-orange sweatshirt. All of that was clashing with the well-dressed football coach enjoying a special occasion.

The contrast made great fodder for more insights from the food-service veteran. And by the way, folks, shouldn’t there be some type of diner’s self-imposed dress code commensurate with the menu, or the location or the staff’s attire? Maybe if you’re spending more than $20-$25 apiece on dinner you ought to have at least a collared shirt on?

Hay J’s – and we’ll leave it to you to visit and ask your server about the strange name – is out of the way for anyone not in the Valley, but it is well worth keeping in mind for an evening drive or on your way home from a weekend out of town.

Or think about that fractured cliché, “a pearl in a clam shell,” when considering your dining options. It’s worth it.

Former longtime S-R writer Dave Trimmerand his friend, former restaurateur Dan Coyle, forged a common bond over dinner and drink. They know it takes more than great food to make dining out worth the money. They share recent finds and longtime favorites in this column, which runs monthly in the Food section. Reach them at

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