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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Downtown dining diversifies

UPDATED: Mon., June 26, 2017

It’s an elegant space, done in gray, black and white, with exposed brick walls, high ceilings and an open kitchen.

There’s a new menu every month or so, and its focus is on creativity as well as whole, healthful foods. Experimentation is a value. So is working to elevate skills. Many ingredients are locally sourced, and dishes – made from scratch – carry a theme.

“It’s food around story,” said chef Jeremy Hansen, creator of Inland Pacific Kitchen, which opened six months ago in the old Washington Cracker Co. building in downtown Spokane. Early menus offered all-white fare, as well as Japanese-inspired cuisine – all with striking presentation. Reservations are highly recommended.

Would Hansen have opened Inland Pacific Kitchen 10 years ago in downtown Spokane? “Probably not,” he said.

The fact that Spokane can sustain a restaurant like IPK is testament to the transformation that’s taking place in the downtown Spokane dining scene. So much has changed during the last decade that Hansen felt, at the end of last year, the timing was right to take the risk.

“I feel like I can (succeed with IPK) because of the growth of the food culture of Spokane,” he said.

Throughout the last 10 years, dining in downtown Spokane has undergone a transformation, with the opening of more locally owned restaurants, particularly ones that focus on locally sourced, sustainable, farm-to-table ingredients. There are more options for diners who care where their food comes from and how it was grown and raised.

And at the forefront of this movement is Hansen, who’s opened four eateries in urban core in the last 10 years and has another downtown eatery on the way, slated to open in July. He has two more downtown establishments in the works that could open as early the end of the year.

Hansen said he is affecting the change he wants to see in Spokane’s food culture and restaurant scene, starting with the opening of Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie in 2008. That early venture was a risky gambit. Spokane, like the rest of the country, was in the middle of the Great Recession.

“I think we were the only restaurant that opened that year” in downtown Spokane, Hansen said. “Honestly,” he said, “at that point, the food scene was pretty grim.”

It had been long overshadowed by the food-and-drink scene in the metropolitan centers of Seattle and Portland. Aspiring chefs from the Inland Northwest would leave the area for those cities and their more desirable restaurant scenes.

These days, more and more chefs with roots in the region are returning home to pursue their culinary careers. Hansen, who cooked in Portland and New York City, is one of them. So is celebrity chef Chad White, who appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” as well as David Blaine, Adam Hegsted and Tony Brown, among others.

Seeds of change in downtown Spokane’s dining scene were planted in the 1990s with the likes of Fugazzi, a local chain of restaurants and bakeries, and Mizuna, which opened in 1996 and specialized in gourmet vegetarian fare. Wild Sage, which emphasizes comfortable elegance and local ingredients, opened 10 years later. Madeleine’s Cafe and Patisserie, a French-inspired coffee and bake shop, opened in 2007, the same year the New York Times ran a story about Portland’s “Golden Age of Dining and Drinking.”

“Why can’t we be that?” Hegsted recalled thinking. “Why can’t we get to the same place they are?”

After that story, Hegsted said, “I think we all kind of decided to put forth an effort.”

In the years that followed, a group of up-and-coming young chefs, including Hegsted, went on weekend retreats at Quillisascut Farm School in Rice, Washington to share meals and discuss how diners in the Inland Northwest think about their food. They also discussed how to find ways to encourage them to celebrate the connection between local restaurants and area farms and be more adventurous when they eat.

Those retreats were a turning point, Hegsted said. “We had to figure out why chefs felt like they had to move away from here,” Hegsted said. “I’m from here, and I wanted to go to Portland or Seattle to make a name for myself.”

“I think it was a lot of people’s mentality. People have this weird complex. We have to stop saying we’re not good enough. We have to just keep progressing a little bit at a time.

“Part of it is identifying a regional identity – what we’re about,” Hegsted said. “Portland is ‘Keep it weird.’ ”

Here, there’s “Spokane doesn’t suck.”

But implied in the words is the assumption that people think it does. It’s defensive, almost a double negative. “What is our brand?” wondered Hegsted, who felt encouraged by the discussions at the retreat to branch out on his own. Back then, he was the executive chef at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort in Worley.

“I left my cushy job. I had good pay, great benefits and could stay there forever,” said Hegsted, who went on to start the Eat Good Group of restaurants, including Wandering Table and Yards Bruncheon in the Kendall Yards development just north of the Monroe Street Bridge, as well as Gilded Unicorn in downtown Spokane. He also has a catering company and cafe in Liberty Lake, and is preparing to open a new restaurant in Ponderay. Last year, he was in the running for a prestigious James Beard Award.

“It’s worked out better than anything I could’ve imagined,” Hegsted said. “This is it. This is home. I’m where I want to be.”

But the transformation isn’t finished yet, he said. “It’s the Wild West of the food world here,” Hegsted said. “That’s how I feel about it.”

A thriving dining-and-drinking scene is critical to a prosperous urban core, said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, a nonprofit membership organization aimed, according to its website, at creating a “dynamic, safe, vital, livable and sustainable downtown.”

Ten years ago, Richard said, the downtown dining scene was in fair shape. But, “If you go back 20 or 25 years,” he said, “not so much. You’d be hard-pressed to find a dozen unique dining experiences you’d want to travel for. Now, you have dozens of them.”

Downtown, Richard said, is becoming a destination for dining and drinking. These days, “a visitor could come here for a three-day weekend and eat somewhere different every time and get a great dining experience every time. That didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

The transformation of the downtown dining scene is “impressive,” Richard said. In fact, he said, “It’s phenomenal. I don’t think we’re lacking in good quality restaurants. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have more variety.”

One of the things that’s still missing: rooftop restaurants and bars. “I think that would be a huge success,” Richard said.

Juliet Sinisterra, business development manager for the Downtown Spokane Partnership, would also like to see a rooftop scene – as well as “an old-school” piano bar and “blue-collar deli like Zingerman’s (Delicatessen) in Ann Arbor.”

Still, she said, “For our size, we have an excellent foodie culture.”

That’s what Hansen envisioned when he opened Sante.

“I want to be in a city that has diversity in the food culture,” he said. “The restaurants I was working in at the time were full of fake food” – pre-made processed foods, some of which arrived at restaurants in powdered form, full of preservatives and trucked in from other states. “I was not into that. I wanted to work with whole foods.”

After Sante, Hansen opened Common Crumb Artisan Bakery in the Saranac Commons building in downtown Spokane. That was followed six months ago by Hogwash Whiskey Den and Inland Pacific Kitchen, both in the old Washington Cracker Co. building.

Now, Hansen plans to open Biscuit Wizard, a casual counter specializing in biscuit sandwiches, in Saranac Commons in July. And he has two more establishments in the planning stages: an octopus-themed gin joint and a traditional French brasserie, both of which are slated to occupy the first floor of the former Ridpath Hotel, which closed in 2008. That was the same year Sante opened, seemingly paving the way for an influx of locally owned, thoughtfully curated dining options.

In 2012, Blaine opened Central Food in what was then an undeveloped area overlooking the Spokane River and the downtown skyline. Today, Kendall Yards is home to Hegsted’s two restaurants as well as locally owned Nectar Wine and Beer, Veraci Pizza and Brain Freeze Creamery – with more dining options on the way, including the Paper and Cup coffee shop.

On the west end of downtown, also in 2012, Boots Bakery and Lounge opened, specializing in craft cocktails and vegan fare, including cupcakes.

Ruins, on North Monroe Street, opened in 2014, about three years after chef and owner Brown started Stella’s Cafe, a popular sandwich shop that has since consolidated with Ruins.

“The Spokane scene is growing, and it’s getting cooler,” Brown said. “I think it’s getting better. It’s on the up and up.”

Brown, who moved to Spokane when he was 15, cooked in multiple states around the country before returning to the Inland Northwest to be closer to family. “Cooking in Seattle, cooking in Portland, cooking in Chicago – I’ll tell you one thing: it’s a helluva lot more competitive,” Brown said. “There’s 85 people who are just as qualified as you – or more qualified – and you’re all going for the same job.”

Although Spokane’s food scene is expanding, Brown said, “it’s pioneer country here.”

Shaun Chambers, head chef at the hip Durkin’s Liquor Bar which opened in downtown Spokane in 2014 and is owned by the same restaurateurs who own Madeleine’s, agrees. “There is momentum. It’s getting better. I think Jeremy opening so many restaurants helps. That’s setting a standard of what we could be or should be.”

And the expansion of Spokane’s dining and drinking scene isn’t done yet.

“It’s more diverse now. There’s way more options. Many chefs are doing more innovative things, or at least trying,” said Hansen, who was a 2015 semi-finalist for an illustrious James Beard Award. “I think we are in the middle of a turning point. But it hasn’t really exploded. That is still coming.”

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