Ah, Bellingham. I first laid eyes on the town in 1993, when I was invited for a speaking engagement at Western Washington University, and I immediately fell in love with it. Or if not love, then heavy like. I was living in Burlington (Vermont) at that time, so Bellingham had a similar feel, including mountains to the east and water to the west. But there was also a frontier feel to it, especially in Fairhaven. From the waterfront properties to the interior homes “in the trees,” Bellingham helped spark my initial desire to relocate to the west coast. The only problems were the small airport (I was flying about weekly at the time) and the smell from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill.
I returned in 1998 as I scouted the city again for an impending move, but decided it was still too small and smelly, so I settled instead in Seattle. On trips up to Vancouver, I sometimes stop for a few hours in Bellingham to contemplate the place. But only last weekend did I dedicate more time to check out the culinary scene and more. Setting aside brewpubs for a future visit, here’s how my weekend turned out—highlights and lowlights included—with hope this might help with itinerary planning should you plan a getaway to Bellingham.
You’ll want to leave Seattle before lunch if you want to check out Ciao Thyme. This mostly catering company (with a fantastic future event/hangout space) offers a lunch-only café Tuesday through Friday. You order at the counter from a very limited menu that changes frequently, and then find seating in the dining room with several long “communal” tables plus a few tables reserved for larger groups. (There’s also some outdoor seating when the weather’s nice.) The friendly folks will find you when they bring your food, allowing you to take in the art and the open kitchen while you’re waiting.
When the food arrives, you’ll notice how fresh it is. Wonderful ingredients well-prepared. I enjoyed a Korean mixed bowl with a steamed bun. With beef as my protein choice, the bowl came with nice touches like kumquats and salted mustard greens, plus an oil-poached organic egg yolk. My companion’s chicken Caesar salad similarly spotlighted fabulous greens. You pay a premium for the good ingredients (and likely for a living wage for the workers), so no dispute there, but we left still hungry.
Which left us room for an old favorite: Pel’meni. I first discovered this place in Juneau, and subsequently have eaten at all of the locations: Bellingham, Seattle and Madison (WI). All you have to do is decide which Russian dumpling filling you want: beef or potato. (Try to get a combo!) With butter, hot sauce, sour cream, curry powder and cilantro, it’s a delicious little treat. And you’ve got to love that there’s a turntable with lots of records to play!
With a little room left in the stomach, that meant space for Mallard Ice Cream, which I recommended as my number one choice for ice cream in Washington state for a USA Today article several years ago. Don’t be bashful in asking for samples (served on metal spoons); that helped me hone in on contrasting flavors of honey lavender and espresso this particular visit.
Already downtown, it’s a good time to take a stroll to get a feel for Bellingham. It’s not a big place, but there are some interesting shops, as well as the SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention and the Mindport hands-on discovery museum.
For dinner, I decided to roll the dice on an Asian restaurant. (This would be the true test of the town!) I’d gotten a lead on Wanida Thai Cuisine, with surprise that they actually serve boat noodles, which are hard to find in Seattle. My source said the broth was made with blood (an essential component) and that there’d be tripe as part of the meats. Unfortunately, both claims turned out to be false, with the broth sadly weak and uninspiring. Somewhat better was the khao soi, though this fell far short of what you’ll find in Seattle. Wanida’s a popular place with hard-working staff, but it’s indicative of the Asian food scene in Bellingham. Too bad, as the town is situated between the two high-quality Asian food cities of Seattle and Vancouver/Richmond. Maybe things will improve in the future as Bellingham grows (and the demographics hopefully change)?
You’ll need to wake up early to try to beat the crowds (as much as possible) at Homeskillet. Good luck! I got there just before 9, and ended up waiting a half-hour to get seating in the small dining room. Fortunately, the food came quickly. Forewarned that portions would be large (the burrito is indeed massive), I ordered for the two of us a full namesake homeskillet and just a half-order of the pancakes—sweet to counter the savory. The “meaty veggie” homeskillet was delicious and comforting, full of home fries and scrambled eggs with bacon, ham and sausage, plus vegetables and cheese. It’s fun to experiment with their bucket of homemade hot sauces. The pancakes were large and fluffy, quickly absorbing the allocation of real maple syrup.
From here, to counter the food coma, you should absolutely visit Onyx Coffee Bar. I’d say that this is worth the trip to Bellingham alone, though note they’re only open on Saturdays, with hours of 10-6 but a late lunch closure. (I need a job like that!) You can learn more about the concept as part of owner Edwin Martinez’s TEDx talk, but basically they’re showing off the purity of high-quality coffee unadulterated by milk or sugar. It’s primarily a pour-over place, though there was some siphon action on the day I was there. Just a few barstools at the counter and scattered seats in an adjoining room—definitely not a place to perch a laptop. Come for the coffee and a chance to engage with the knowledgeable baristas.
From Onyx, you can cross the street to stroll the farmers market. It was early in the season, but some good produce was available, plus crafts, flowers, more coffee, and prepared food. I especially appreciated the row of large tables that offers seating for those wanting to eat.
Saturday’s also the weekend day to hit Old World Deli. There might be an Asian food deficit in Bellingham, but luckily there’s a good deli. Old World has interesting domestic and imported food and wine for sale (a great source for specialty ingredients), and well-sourced meats for its sandwiches. I went with an in-house meat for my lunch: hot pastrami on rye with some wonderful house hot mustard. Delicious. You can get sandwiches and some dinner plates Thursday through Saturday evenings, with Saturdays offering a bonus of live music.
The afternoon brings a chance for a walk. Drive east of downtown to Big Rock Garden with its outdoor sculptures. If you’re feeling more ambitious, go on to nearly Whatcom Falls Park, which has a few miles of hiking trails and, yes, waterfalls. Then head back to your hotel to rest. My host (more below) was the Four Points Sheraton Bellingham, so after heavy breakfast and lunch, I wanted to stay in and relax with something light at the onsite Poppe’s 360 Neighborhood Pub—which adds in musical entertainment most nights. Normally skeptical of hotel dining, I appreciated Poppe’s use of local products, most evident in the salmon and clam chowder (nice flavor) and the miso-glazed wild salmon salad, with nicely dressed greens (wild arugula and kale with soy wasabi vinaigrette). Combined, this would make a pleasant light meal for most people. If you want more, try the Penn Cove mussels (be sure to stir deep for the chorizo, and perhaps add salt to bring out the roasted tomato flavor) but skip the ahi tuna, a bit tough and dry.
You finally have a chance to sleep in, but not too long if you want to avoid a wait for brunch at The Fork at Agate Bay. It’s a pretty place on the north side of Lake Whatcom (though without water views) that’s popular with the locals, and where you can grab seats at the bar if the tables are full. Here the two of us enjoyed the shakshuka (baked eggs in a spicy tomato stew) with feta and cilantro plus a biscuit, and even better the crispy spaetzle and eggs with roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, truffle oil and herbs (to which I added a house-made sausage patty). If you’re feeling especially ambitious, the beignets look tempting. A good vibe here, with well-prepared food.
If you didn’t already visit Big Rock Garden and Whatcom Falls Park, you’re well-positioned to do that now. Or maybe visit the outdoor sculptures at Western Washington University as part of a general tour of the campus? From Western, you can make your way to Fairhaven, a historic district that’s part of Bellingham. The little district is cute, with lots of interesting shops. The independent Village Books is well worth some time, and inside that building is the Drizzle Olive Oil and Vinegar Tasting Room. And just a block away is a strip of stores of definite interest to food lovers, including Forte Artisan Chocolates and the Perfectly Paired wine and cheese bar/store. You can also take a short walk past the ferry terminal to Marine Park with its gorgeous view of Bellingham Bay.
Thanks to Four Points by Sheraton Bellingham Hotel & Conference Center for hosting my hotel stay. My room was quite comfortable (and quiet), and I appreciated the adjustable/detachable showerhead in the bathroom—a feature not often found in properties at this price point. The location was convenient for exploring the entire Bellingham area.