She still sings and strums. But these days, fans are more likely to find Kristen Ward behind a refrigerated case full of wraps, pasta and German-style potato salad than carrying her guitar case to Seattle nightclubs.
After 10 years in the music business, regularly taking the stage at Ballard’s Tractor Tavern and recording with the likes of guitarist Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, the Spokane native recently returned home to pursue another longtime passion: food.
The rock-star-turned-restaurateur opened The Ivory Table Café and Catering Co. in early June on East Sprague Avenue. Ward believes the community along the corridor connecting downtown with Spokane Valley has the potential to “be another Ballard.”
She lived in the northwest Seattle neighborhood during its recent real estate boom and renaissance and sees similarities between the hip and eclectic metropolitan enclave and East Sprague. Her light-blue brick storefront overlooks the thoroughfare in the heart of what’s been dubbed Spokane’s International District.
“This area reminds me a lot of what Ballard was like,” Ward said. “Ballard had a lot of grunginess to it. It had a real grit – the rock ’n’ roll bars, the docks. You still have those characteristics, but it’s a lot more refined. It would be so cool to see something like that happen here.”
Here on East Sprague Avenue, Ward said, “You do have the grit. You have all these buildings with character. And you have a lot of interesting characters walking around. I think this is going to be the next big thing, right here, this little stretch. I want to get in on the ground floor. I want to be part of turning this into something really special.”
Ward made a name for herself in Seattle’s music scene, regularly sharing her rich and throaty alto at The Tractor and The Triple Door, and touring the West Coast. In 2008, with the release of her album “Drive Away,” Tom Scanlon of the Seattle Times wondered, “Is Kristen Ward next in line?”
He wrote, “Like (Neko) Case, (Brandi) Carlile and (Jesse) Sykes, Ward has a rich, full voice; and, like the others, she is hard to pin down, wandering into several musical territories. While ‘alt-country’ is perhaps the best way to describe her, like Case, she has elements of classic country; like Carlile, she easily slides into balladeering; and like Sykes, she has dark, femme fatale accents.”
Her last album, “Last Night on Division,” was released in late 2012.
While Ward was pursuing her music career, she was also working in the restaurant industry. After graduating from Spokane’s Ferris High School in 2001, she moved to Seattle to attend culinary school on Capitol Hill. She waited tables, tended bar, managed and cooked at a variety of – mostly French and Italian – eateries, including Ballard’s famed Le Gourmand and Le Pichet, Volterra, Via Tribunali and the now-closed vegetarian restaurant Carmelita.
Through it all, Ward said, “Opening a restaurant was always a dream of mine.”
The 31-year-old moved back to Spokane around Christmastime with her daughter, a toddler, in tow. She wanted to be closer to family.
The Ivory Table opened six months later.
Light, bright and airy, the look is black and white, vintage-inspired, modern and – with its metal chairs and bar stools – “kind of industrial.” The edgy feeling is balanced by chalkboard walls, handwritten menus, ceramics filled with flowers and a front counter covered with white subway tiles.
“I was trying to create something that felt clean and classy,” Ward said – something with “higher-end bistro style” and a “laid-back feel.”
Ward, a proponent of the farm-to-table and nose-to-tail movements, aims to spotlight regional and seasonal foods, shopping for ingredients at local farmers markets.
The weekend brunch menu features hash and egg plates and sweet and savory crêpes.
For weekday breakfast and lunch, there are soups, salads, muffins, scones, cookies, quiches, wraps, and hot, oven-baked, gourmet sandwiches, like the Reuben, which features house-made corned beef.
The popular meatloaf sandwich comes with caramelized onion, chipotle ketchup and provolone cheese. The Spicy Cajun sandwich features seasoned turkey, pepper jack cheese, pepperoncini and spicy aioli. Both have been almost selling out daily, Ward said.
Cold sandwiches include the Turkey Cranberry and The Daisy, a vegetarian option. Most are $9.99. All come with chips, potato salad or cabbage slaw.
There are some gluten-free items, like the buckwheat pancakes. (“I have a killer recipe,” Ward said.)
But don’t look for espresso. The Ivory Table serves Spokane’s Roast House and cold-pressed coffee, but it doesn’t do lattes and mochas.
In addition to the café, The Ivory Table does catering – everything from intimate gatherings and wedding cakes to “lobster tails, whatever you want,” Ward said.
Eventually, she wants to add specialty grocery and food-related items – salts, oils, wine, cookbooks – reminiscent of “a very mini” version of DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
In the meantime, let’s see if we can talk her into performing at home in Spokane.