By Jennifer K. Bauer
Walla Walla is like an onion — peel it and find layers of Northwest flavor. The small eastern Washington town has proudly wrapped itself in its colorful western history and embraced its agricultural background to cater to big city appetites.
Many people know Walla Walla as a wine lover’s mecca. After becoming an American Viticultural Area in 1984 it grew from four wineries to around 140 today. Walking downtown, it seems like there’s one in every other storefront.
Walla Walla offers more than wine when it comes to food and drink. On that same downtown stroll you can find cucumber whiskey distilled from local grapes, lavender cupcakes flavored with local flowers and Klicker Berry milk shakes made with strawberries grown at the foot of the nearby Blue Mountains. While adventuring through a bounty of foods the region offers, you can dive into the city’s past, which includes one of the darkest chapters in American West history.
Here’s a look at the layers of Walla Walla.
OUT AND ABOUT
Walla Walla began as a fur-trading post not long after Lewis and Clark trekked through in 1805. Methodist missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established the first settlement in 1836 to preach to the Cayuse. It was an important stop on the Oregon Trail until 1847, when the Cayuse killed the couple and 11 others and burned the mission down. Learn why at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site seven miles outside Walla Walla where a museum recounts the events.
In 1856, the U.S. cavalry established Fort Walla Walla, where the city now stands. It boomed as a trading post and for a few years was the largest town west of Minneapolis and north of San Francisco. This time lives on at the Fort Walla Walla Museum, where you can tour a pioneer settlement of 15 original buildings, along with a rotating display of 45,000 artifacts.
Today, Walla Walla’s charming downtown offers boutique shopping in a relaxed atmosphere. Golden Age buildings are lovingly preserved, while art murals and bronze sculptures add a modern touch. The Kirkman House Museum, a restored 1880s mansion, offers another window to the past, along with a downtown walking tour exploring architecture and local personalities.
The name Walla Walla comes from Cayuse for “many waters.” That’s fitting because while it’s known for its wineries, one shouldn’t overlook its distilleries.
The Second Street Distilling Company specializes in gin, vodka and whiskey made from Washington grapes, barley, rye and Cascade spring water. Its Reser Rye Whiskey is named for a former local farmer and one of Washington’s first senators, William P. Reser, and distilled by descendant Lora Reser. The Walla Walla Distilling Company also uses locally sourced ingredients. Shot in the Dark Craft Distillery specializes in small batch Blue Mountain moonshine made from recipes passed down over generations.
Local liquor flavors hand-crafted cocktails at Public House 124 and The Ox and Cart, where among the drinks you’ll find the Silver Hound made from Walla Walla Distilling Co. white whiskey with lemon, apricot, mint and sparkling wine.
While the city is surrounded by vast acres of farm fields, Walla Walla’s dining choices are worldly.
One of the most well-known is the Whitehouse-Crawford, noted for its food and wine in the New York Times and Gourmet Magazine, which called it one of rural America’s great restaurants. It features new American fare and an intensely regional menu. Reservations are recommended. The Marc Restaurant harvests herbs and veggies from its rooftop garden and was named Restaurant of the Year by the Washington State Wine Commission in 2015. The Olive Marketplace and Cafe features fresh, local and house-made ingredients. Brasserie Four is a casual French cafe, while the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe channels New Orleans. For breakfast, Bacon and Eggs is renowned for its Bloody Marys and creative egg (or tofu) dishes.
If you want to cook your own food, the downtown Walla Walla Farmers Market runs 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays through October before moving indoors to the Whitehouse-Crawford through Dec. 11.
There’s plenty of lodging to choose from in Walla Walla, but for classical style and luxury, the Marcus Whitman Hotel has stood the test of time. Built in 1927, it has housed presidents and celebrities and maintains a grand period character with up-to-date amenities. On the hotel’s second floor, find a series of early oil paintings by Northwest sculptor Dave Manuel telling the story of the Whitmans in graphic detail. Earlier this year, the hotel tower shone with the Bat-Signal in honor of actor Adam West who was born and raised here.
Nov. 3-5 – Fall Release Weekend – Walla Walla Valley winemakers share their new vintages. Besides tastings, many offer winemaker dinners, live music and more.
Dec. 1-3 – Holiday Barrel Tasting – Winemakers and cellar staff offer samples of future releases straight from the wine barrel and celebrate the holidays with food, art and music. The weekend also includes a lighted parade and other festivities.