What to Eat in Friday Harbor, on Washington’s San Juan Island
One might not ordinarily think of Friday Harbor for a culinary getaway, but it’s on a small island (surrounded by many other islands) full of farms and artists, which means local seafood, meat, fruits, vegetables, and more prepared with care. While dining options are limited, you can find culinary experiences from grab-n-go to fine dining—albeit in a very casual atmosphere.
Less than ninety miles north of Seattle, you board a ferry in Anacortes, and in an hour’s time you’re on San Juan Island. Far from the urban scene, you’ll quickly adapt to island time and island pace. It’s virtually impossible to get lost, but if you end up on the wrong road, you’ll find something interesting to eat or drink at a distillery, bee farm, lavender farm, winery, shellfish farm (sadly about to shut down), or alpaca farm (well, nothing there to eat but cuteness).
I recently toured San Juan Island, peeking into as many places as possible. Foregoing tourist-oriented fish and chips, here are nine lower-cost food experiences—from pickled bull kelp to Thai lettuce wraps—I recommend for you in Friday Harbor.
As your ferry arrives at San Juan Island, you’ll see Friday Harbor House close to the dock. The inn’s restaurant, The Bluff, served one of my favorite bites of the weekend: Flash-Fried Kelp & Calamari ($12, with a one-quarter portion pictured). You can do fine dining at The Bluff (I recommend turning control to chef Kyle Nicholson and going with the seven course prix fixe menu), but the pickled bull kelp and calamari are also a perfect snack to go with a beer while sitting outside and watching ferries arrive, seaplanes land, and other harbor activity. The kelp and calamari have hazelnut and citrus dust and can be dipped in a delicious smoky tomato sauce. (You’ll also find bull kelp in the tartar sauce that accompanies a Dungeness crab cake with foraged sea beans—which restored my faith in crab cakes after eating too many bready ones on so many of Seattle’s menus.)
Early arrival to Friday Harbor meant a quest for coffee and pastry, and I found my favorites at Cafe Demeter. In a croissant vs. craquelin quandary, candied orange tilted me toward the Craquelin au Chocolat (which Demeter spells Craqueline aux Chocolate). The pastry is made with brioche dough filled with candied oranges and just enough chocolate, then topped with almonds for a treat with tempting textures.
I was lucky enough to be in Friday Harbor on a Saturday, so I visited the San Juan Island Farmers Market. The longest lines were at the Bakery San Juan, which had pizza ovens on site. There were many options, but I chose the Fungi e Cipolla Pizza ($6.50 for a large slice, seen here cut in half). I normally prefer pizza with tomato sauce, but this slice was bursting with flavor from the sautéed crimini mushrooms, onions and Asiago cheese. Red chile contributed a little heat, and green garlic from Blue Moon Farm added bite. If you can’t make it to the Farmers Market, you can check out Bakery San Juan at the store location below.
Also making an appearance at the Farmers Market was Talking Horse Ranch, grilling up meat for burgers. I love lamb, but I really wanted to try the grass-fed beef and got the last patty. This was a fairly simple burger, with dense but delicious beef served on Cafe Demeter’s ciabatta bread with lettuce leaves. (Some people bought tomatoes from nearby vendors to beef up their burgers.) You can add organic mustard, mayo, and ketchup, as well as a very interesting rhubarb relish. And if you desire, you can have a Portlandia moment and visit the farm to see the animals for yourself.
An excellent weekday option for lunch is Market Chef. Sandwiches are the specialty here, and upon hearing that they roast their own beef and turkey breast, I had to try one of each sandwich. The I’ll Have the Turkey is the more visually striking of the two, with cranberry sauce, Russian dressing, marinated red onions, and organic mixed greens contributing their colors. But I preferred the Roast Beef & Rocket ($8.95). In contrast to the turkey sandwich’s wheat cranberry-walnut roll, the house-made caraway salt roll is lighter, allowing the flavor of the Oregon country beef to burst through. Along with local arugula, this sandwich also has marinated red onions, but what really make it shine are the spiciness of hot horseradish sauce and the brininess of chunky olive salad.
San Juan Island is so small that it’s easy to navigate and see most of the sights in a day. Lime Kiln Point State Park is the place to enjoy the water views with hope of watching whales from just feet away. In the past, people who’ve spent the day waiting for the whales had to haul back to Friday Harbor (or Roche Harbor) for food. That problem was recently solved. Red Checkered Picnic is a new outpost serving snacks and a small selection of hand-prepared items, like the Zelenitza Torte ($5.95). The torte has layers of spinach, cheese, herbs, and tortillas, making it a sort of Mexican-Greek fusion dish. The flavors are okay; the convenience is priceless.
A short drive from “Whale Watch Park” (Lime Kiln Point) is the Pelindaba Lavender Farm. You can stroll the lavender fields, drawing inspiration to purchase products from the on-site store. Some of those items are culinary, like the lavender cookies (try the sables), chutneys, and herbs. For immediate satisfaction, I went with Lavender Vanilla Ice Cream ($3.75 for a Dixie cup). There’s also lavender chocolate ice cream, but the vanilla allows a fuller feel of the lavender fragrance and flavor. It’s floral without being overwhelming. There are also chocolate cookie sandwiches filled with lavender ice cream.
Still have a sweet tooth? Proceed to the tiny village of Roche Harbor (okay, so this one’s not technically Friday Harbor) and check out the little outdoor market, where you find the Sweet Shoppe at Roche Harbor. This old-fashioned candy stand has a lot of favorites old and new (I like the Treacle Dabs and the English Creamy Toffees), but most amazing is the large display of jars of Licorice ($4.25 per quarter pound). Owner Barb believes that “Americans have wrecked licorice,” and here you’ll learn why. This is one of the largest licorice collections I’ve seen, with many of my preferred salty varieties. Try the Salmiak Rocks and Munten Drop Coins from the Netherlands, Licorice Marshmallows from Germany, Skolekridt Licorice Chalk from Denmark—and a rare chance to buy true licorice root.
As you start to complete the loop back to Friday Harbor, Duck Soup Inn is a popular place for dinner. Sophisticated yet casual, Duck Soup serves upscale Pacific Northwest cuisine in a country setting. Steak Diane is the signature dish, and there are many other meaty and vegetarian options, but looking for something light, I enjoyed Thai Pork Salad ($12.00). Asian-inspired, these do-it-yourself lettuce wraps (leaves sourced from Blue Moon Farm) are filled with Jones Farm ground pork, cucumber slices, and peanuts, with the flavor spiked by the addition of lemongrass, chile peppers, green onion, cilantro, other herbs, and a squeeze of lime. Fresh and refreshing!
(Originally published at Serious Eats on August 22, 2012.)