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Best Of 2007

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Best Of: Hall of Fame 

This year, for our 14th Best of the Inland Northwest issue, we've decided to step back a bit and survey what we've learned about this place we share. One thing we found is that, even after all these years, people are still want to be heard. Again, we were buried in ballots — thanks to everyone who filled one out and sent it in!

But we also noticed there are a handful of institutions that have not only performed well in a given year, but have also proven their consistency year to year. Thus, we have created the Best of Hall of Fame, with 18 charter members (who you'll meet in this issue). These are 10-year Best of winners, and as our balloting continues into the future, we'll add more members to the Hall of Fame — but no pundits vote on this admission, it's all you, the reader.

So enjoy another Best of issue, and consider how remarkable an achievement it is to stay at the top of your game for a decade.

Cheers to this year's winners, and especially to our Hall of Fame inductees!

NORDSTROM

What draws you in first are the shoes, the cavalcade of fashion for the feet: strappy sandals, Amalfi high-fashion Italian stiletto heels, rubber-and-mesh 21st-century Tsubos, and all the impossibly uncomfortable, fashion-forward footwear worn by feckless teens and devil-may-care twenty-somethings. In my 20s, I spent an irresponsible portion of my paycheck on pointy-toed, stiletto-heeled, lizard-skin numbers from NORDSTROM, the type of foot-breaker that must be the fantasy of profit-seeking podiatrists everywhere. Nowadays, I stroll my cranky, middle-aged feet right past those gaudy sirens. I have learned to have a care for my metatarsals, which, as I realized after much suffering, aren't immortal after all.

Shoes, in fact, were the genesis of Nordstrom — though in the beginning, in 1901, lizard skin and stiletto heels almost certainly did not figure in John W. Nordstrom's inventory. Nordstrom, who emigrated from Sweden at age 16, landed in New York City with only $5 in his pocket, determined to become another American success story. Pursuing opportunity the hard way in mining and logging camps, he got wind of gold in the Klondike, and unlike many, managed to pan a small fortune. But instead of blowing it on women and whiskey, he invested in a shoe store in downtown Seattle. You know the rest.

Now, of course, Nordstrom sells much more than shoes. It embraces the full spectrum of fashion: teen styles in Brass Plum, affordable clothes in Point of View, high-end boutiques for the sophisticated gal with her platinum VISA. Though my VISA is more of the pewter class, I find myself drawn to Fa & ccedil;onnable, where the racks seem suffused with the spirit of Coco Chanel. Distinctly out of place in my Costco corduroys, I wander distractedly amid the confections of silk and wool, when suddenly, I spot them: the first linens of spring. Several pairs of mocha-hued linen pants ($165) hanging suggestively near white-on-white striped long-sleeve cotton blouses ($135). Voila! One classic summer ensemble for a cool $300. A bit steep, perhaps, but then fashion comes at a price.

With a sigh and a quick thought for my VISA, basking for such a short time in its zero balance, I pass on, noting some outr & eacute; print and sequin tops with the curiosity of an explorer in terra incognita. I ask a saleswoman what's new for spring; "It's all about dresses," she says, nodding in the direction of some body-clinging, vivid prints with deep V-necks. My first thought is that Diane Von Furstenburg has resurrected her little jersey wrap dress of the 1970s. The saleswoman confirms that while this particular dress doesn't carry the Von Furstenburg label, the inspiration comes directly from the fabled designer.

Then I spy one of the great charms of Nordstrom, the thing that makes the dream of fashion possible even for the bargain shopper: the Reduced rack. As surely as winter gives way to spring, the fashions of the cold months must be marked down to make way for warm-weather inventory. A pair of gray wool pants with a pale blue pinstripe beckons to me. Originally $250, marked down to $125! Second markdown: $99! Or does it say $59? I gulp. Score!

I hurry into the dressing room (remember, this is research). Soft music wafts into the cocoa and cherry cubicles, though not enough to dispel the too truthful image in the mirror as I remove the Costco corduroys. The fit is not perfect; lengthwise, the pants have more inches of fabric than I have leg. But this is Nordstrom, and a seamstress could be summoned within minutes to make alterations. Available in a week, says a sign in the fitting area, and sometimes — if I were really in a hurry — even sooner.

But not today. Resisting the siren's call again, I make one more pass at the shoes on my way out, where no fewer than four salesmen greet me. I hear one say to a woman hesitating over a purchase, "If you don't like them, you can return them any time. There's no time limit." Yup, this is Nordstrom.

— Suzanne Schreiner

MUSTARD SEED

Munching a crisp snow pea from my plate of cashew chicken, I derive a sense of security from the images of ancient, stoic-looking Chinese warriors on the wall above my booth. No Mongol hordes are gonna get my bowl of rice. Not with those warriors up there, guarding over me. They're characters in original paintings of the Qin Dynasty Terra Cotta Warriors by Lane Timothy of Missoula, done years before he was "discovered" as an artist. Timothy did the impressive light fixtures overhead, too.

We're at the Mustard Seed at NorthTown Mall. For nine years in a row, Inlander readers have said this place (and its companion restaurant in the Valley) has the Best Asian Food in Spokane, and they once gave it the nod for Best Late-Night Dining.

"It's a business of details," says Mustard Seed co-owner and general manager Ed Schafer, when asked about the toughest aspect of food service. "You just have to be sure you're not missing any of the little details."

Details — like the nifty "cheater" accessory for chopsticks that my 3-year-old boy is having a blast with, occasionally getting some food into his mouth. And the veritable barrel of monkeys that crowd under the bamboo umbrella on his drink. And servers that act like they actually want to be here, bringing me more and more chili paste.

"I think if you treat your employees right, they'll treat your guests right, and we've done a great job of doing that," Schafer says.

And the food? Well, the category is "Best Asian Food," so we'll let our readers speak for themselves. The Chicken Osaka, according to Schafer, is a clear favorite among patrons, outselling every other dish by at least two-to-one. Runners-up are Maui Chicken and Chicken Teriyaki.

Wait a minute... Osaka? Maui? Teriyaki? Those aren't Chinese words. Actually, Mustard Seed fare is not billed as "Chinese," but rather "Asian-style ... prepared with fresh vegetables, lean meats, and light sauces ... creating a well-mixed Asian blend of dishes." Betty and Nancy Tokumoto, two of Mustard Seed's founders, grew up in Japan, Thailand and Hawaii; they were adept at blending the various cooking styles of the Far East in a way that's agreeable to the Western palate.

"We really appreciate Spokane for embracing us for as many years as they have," Schafer says, "and we plan on being here for many more."

More chili paste, please.

— Mick Lloyd-Owen

AZTECA

The graceful efficiency of the glass-cased tortilla machine is hypnotizing. Balls of dough are effortlessly smashed flat with mechanical precision, and then flipped as they bake to perfection on slow moving conveyors. It's almost as calming as watching a bowl of goldfish, and smells wonderful. Fresh, warm discs of bread are deposited at the bottom of the quiet machine. So simple, so versatile.

The Azteca chain of Mexican restaurants grew from a single family-owned and operated restaurant in Burien, Wash. The Ramos family is still involved in every facet of the business, which now includes 35 restaurants all over the Northwest. Their Web site boasts that they serve more than 400,000 patrons each month. I asked Hector Ramos, son of chef Jaime Ramos — who developed all of the recipes — about the company's success, and why Inlander readers have hoisted them to Hall of Fame status by voting it Best Mexican Food for ten years in a row.

"We have great consistency," Ramos says. "We take care of our guests, we take care of our food, and we keep our restaurants updated. We invest back into our business, not only monetarily, but with care to maintain our recipes, our presentation, our portioning. We take all those things very seriously, and we've done it from day one."

Ramos says he's been involved for about 20 years, and is now a co-owner and manager. He says he still opens and closes stores. "I wash dishes on occasion, and wait tables on occasion," he says. "The owners are very involved in their product. My father is still in the kitchen and cooking. He's tasting beans and sauces and making sure the recipes are being followed."

Asked about the challenges of his line of work, Ramos paused for a few moments, collecting his thoughts before confessing that he enjoys it all so much that it was difficult to answer. "I think it's convincing our regular, longtime guests to try something different," he says, noting that Azteca has a very loyal customer base. Some of them, he says, come in two to three times a week and order the same thing, and he'd like to see them experiment with some of the other creations on the menu. Fajitas are the number one seller, and the Molcajete — chicken, or beef, or both sautéed in a spicy sauce with mushrooms and tomatoes — and the Arroz Con Pollo are also favorites.

The downtown Spokane location faces one particular challenge, according to Ramos. Parking. Ever since they moved from across the street to facilitate the Convention Center, business has taken a hit to the tune of about 40 percent, he says. They have a nicer building, with the same food, but not enough parking for their customer base. "We moved for the good of the city, and we're taking it in the shorts for that particular unit," he says. "We're enjoying a decent business, but we've definitely declined in sales.

"We thought that the Convention Center was going to help us out, but it hasn't," Ramos says, adding that the problem is compounded by parking rates at the nearby Diamond lots that fluctuate according to what's happening at the Convention Center. Event parking? Is this going to cost three dollars, or twelve? Which is it today? Too many cautious customers, according to Ramos, are simply going somewhere else.

Visitors welcome: it's lonely at the top.

— Mick Lloyd-Owen

CLINKERDAGGER

Three women sit at the table across from mine at lunch. They're all dressed for a special occasion, with vintage earrings and necklaces; one wears a brooch on her floral scarf. Each has a crown of gray or white hair, perfectly coiffed. One tries the clam chowder; another has the grilled salmon, a Northwest classic. They maintain a spirited conversation throughout the meal.

At the next table, two businessmen look like they're about to seal a deal, as one makes a quick call on his cell phone while reviewing a stack of documents; a couple of 20-somethings sit behind them, gazing lovingly into each other's eyes. Across the way, there's a table full of women office workers. And the backdrop to all this human drama is perhaps the best view in the city: the Spokane River, in full early spring runoff, thunders through the basalt-lined gorge at thousands of cubic feet per second, with Riverfront Park and the city's changing skyline on the opposite bank.

That's the scene at Clinkerdagger during a recent weekday lunch. At dinner, the lighting is lower, the sunsets are stunning — there's more romance and less business — but the consistently good food and the excellent service are there whatever the time of day.

Clinkerdagger was the brainchild of Seattle restaurateur Richard Komen, who had gotten his start in food service by running the concessions at Husky Stadium and Seattle Center. He opened the first Clinkerdagger — actually called Clinkerdagger, Bickerstaff and Pett's Public House — in Edmonds in 1971. Next came one in Tacoma, followed by the Spokane restaurant, which settled into the newly renovated Flour Mill just in time for Expo in 1974.

The chain continued to expand through the '70s, but by the '80s dining styles had changed. One by one, Komen and his company, Restaurants Unlimited, changed the name and the concept of all the Clinkerdagger restaurants — except the one in Spokane. Somehow Spokane and Clinkerdagger have been a good fit, with the restaurant's Old World ambiance working well in its decidedly Northwest setting by the river. The place is a successful blend of traditional and trendy, hip and staid; it's retro and up-to-date; both the city and the restaurant have class without pretension.

Familiar favorites like the prime rib, the grilled salmon, the burnt cr & egrave;me dessert and the Broadway pea salad have remained on the menu, but there's plenty of room for the unexpected — like the grilled Hawaiian ono (a white fish similar to halibut) in a lightly fragrant tomato broth, or the meatloaf made with trendy Kobe beef.

Clinkerdagger is known in Spokane not just for fine food, but for great service. The servers are invariably well informed about the menu (thanks to daily tastings); they provide efficient service in a friendly, conversational style. New employees have to work their way up to server positions, and they must shadow veterans for a time before being allowed to handle tables on their own.

Across the way, the ladies discuss dessert with their server, who soon returns with a serving of burnt cr & egrave;me, complete with a birthday candle. The servers sing "Happy Birthday" to the guest of honor, who opens her presents between bites.

The birthday girl makes her way past my table on the way out, carrying her presents and a box of leftovers. "Happy birthday," I call out to her. "Looks like you've had a good celebration."

"Oh, it was wonderful," she says, beaming. "It's my 87th!"

"Congratulations!" I say. "You're an inspiration to me."

And she is: My burnt creme arrives just after she leaves.

— Ann M. Colford

DOMINI'S

This article announcing Domini's Sandwiches' induction into The Inlander Hall of Fame is brought to you by the number three - as in three inches, which was the thickness of the corned beef and Havarti cheese sandwich (and two bowls of popcorn) that my wife and I recently inhaled there.

"That's why people come to us, for quality food at a fair price," says co-owner Tom Domini. "We serve the best food and lots of it."

The deli has evolved in the 70-or-so years since Al and Fred Domini opened their establishment. For the first half of its run, it was a bar that served food. In 1974, the bar was closed and Domini's turned its full focus to its sandwiches.

"We buy the best meats we can and cook our roast beef and ham right here," says Joe Domini, Tom's brother and co-owner. "We buy good cheese and our bread is made fresh at Alpine Deli every day."

Domini's has developed a reputation that most restaurant owners would die for.

At chefmoz.org, "Tri-Cities Fans" rave about Domini's: "When we visit Spokane we make it a point to go to Domini's, not only to eat their wonderful sandwiches, but also to bring back orders for our friends, family and co-workers in the Tri-Cities who are now fans."

Doris Hoak of Stockton, Calif. says ruefully: "It's been a long time since I've been to Spokane. What I would give for a Domini's sandwich. I don't think they deliver to Stockton."

"We know people from out of town who come to Spokane and stop here first before going where they're going," says Tom Domini.

When we spoke last week, Tom and Joe were hoping for a bump in business from the NCAA Regional basketball tournament. "The ESPN guys stop in when they're in town," says Tom.

January's national figure skating competition didn't bring the extra foot traffic they were hoping for ("the people didn't make it up this far," says Joe), but they expect to do well when Bloomsday and Hoopfest fill downtown streets again.

Reputation alone, though, won't keep Domini's rolling in dough, as the brothers say growing competition from sandwich shops in other parts of the city has pulled away business. Despite that, Joe and Tom say they'll stick with what has worked for them: a simple menu, good meats and cheeses, fast service and reasonable prices.

By the way, there's an urban legend about Domini's that Joe Domini clarified for me.

"I hear that your dad went to Arizona every winter and came back in the spring with bags of grapefruits," I gossiped. "And I'm told he came home and tossed them to the customers."

"Nah, that isn't true," Joe corrected me. "He only closed the restaurant a few times and he went to Hawaii, and he came back and tossed pineapples."

Now, he says, he and his brother have their own variation. They close the restaurant for a couple of weeks in August. And when they return, they come back with apples that they toss to the customers. "Our own way of keeping the tradition alive," Joe says.

— Doug Nadvornick

DAVID'S PIZZA

David's Pizza isn't a chain. (There's an airport branch, but that doesn't count.) They aren't in the middle of downtown or at Division and Francis or Monroe and Northwest Boulevard. They aren't on anyone's commute. David's is a convenient choice for Gonzaga kids and Logan Neighborhood locals. For everyone else, it's out of the way. David's pizza, though, has now won Best Pizza in The Inlander's readers poll for its 11th consecutive year. So how does a kitschy college pizza joint with a single (fine, two) location(s) become the area's dominant dough-slinger?

Trite as it sounds, it's because they care about people. Listening to owner Mark Starr talk about his company's customer service mandate isn't that much different than listening to a manager at Safeway. Service is what keeps people coming back; repeat business is essential to success. The list of entrepreneurial truisms is long, and far from unique, but the response it elicits in David's employees is unlike almost anywhere else. You get your pizza, someone from the back — not a cashier, a cook or a busboy — tells you to enjoy. You head up to ask for a to-go box, someone else asks if you enjoyed the food. The look in their eyes and the tone of their voice on both occasions suggests something rare in the service industry: sincerity. Last Thursday, during the lunch rush, the cook asked if my sausage, goat cheese and pesto calzone was OK. He knew what I had ordered, and he genuinely wanted to know if I had liked it.

That's because Starr leaves the corporate sculpting to his customers. "Our employees do the customer callbacks," he says. "If you work at David's and I tell you to treat people well, you're not going to listen to me." If, however, the employee calls a customer (following up on the quality of David's service) and the pizza clients ask to be treated well, says Starr, "people listen to that." It's a gutsy thing for a manager to take himself out of the feedback loop like that, but Starr finds other ways to interface, like going out on most of the weekday deliveries. Between that and a catering truck that can cook 120 pizzas per hour on site and that gets around to as many as 60 gigs a month — well, word spreads.

That's why, at 11:30 am on Thursday, and even though David's sits deep in Zag Country, the place was spattered with Cougar fans for WSU's first-round NCAA tournament basketball game. Among them, Craig Ehlo's lanky frame ducked in and out of the main room several times in the first half.

This came amid a larger segment who weren't in for basketball at all. Middle-aged friends enjoying salads. There were college kids ducking in for a slice between class. There were coworkers gossiping over a small pepperoni supreme. There were Blackberry-toting businessmen on their phones, reporting celebrity sightings ("no, dude, Ehlo's here — like now"). These people had chosen David's for the same reason the Cougar fans did. They just wanted Spokane's best pizza.

— Luke Baumgarten

DICK'S HAMBURGERS

Have you ever seen Dick's Hamburger's not mobbed with people? It's a rare sight, it seems. The little, old-fashioned, walk-up burger joint beneath the sign with the dancing panda and the playful "Buy the Bagfull" slogan is a Spokane landmark. The introduction to the city for travelers approaching on the westbound Interstate, it's a sight for road-weary eyes, as we noticed recently when we saw dudes with Notre Dame sweatshirts standing in line, and college-age guys buying the bagful and absconding in big rented passenger vans.

But it's not just itinerants washing up under the pink canopy. It's everybody, strangely. People of all colors, ages, genders, classes, sizes. Guys pulling up in painter vans and shoveling down the fries before a hasty return to work. A well-dressed man in slacks and a spotless Pontiac Vibe. A college girl in sweatpants. All are drawn to the semi-circular windows of the building's glass fa & ccedil;ade. "Double Whammy, no onion." "Large chocolate malt." They place their orders and then stand back, as the (mostly) middle-aged ladies in the kitchen shout orders back and forth (All memorization! No written tickets!) and weave around the grills and heat tables like gymnasts in an iron foundry. It's a well-greased machine, is Dick's. And the spectacle is half the fun.

That is, after the food. Dick's burgers are fresh, not frozen, delivered to the store each morning. The fries are carved from real potatoes. Not bad for a (very) fast food joint. Owner Lynda Peterson says that quality is key, along with the efficiencies of being an independently owned restaurant, which allows them to sell that quality for cheap. "You don't have the franchise fees and all the overhead," she says.

Peterson can't even remember when she bought the business from Abe Miller, who opened Dick's in 1965. She reiterates that the store has nothing to do with the small chain of similarly styled Dick's Drive-Inn restaurants in the Seattle area. Before Miller bought the restaurant, it was called Kirk's, then Panda (aha!). There were three or four of them at the time, she says, but Miller sold his interest in the others and put his "heart and blood" into the Division Street restaurant, which he named Dick's in honor of his son.

Abe Miller is now 92. His heart and blood aren't what they used to be. In fact, our short interview with Peterson was difficult to come by, as she says she's been busily running back and forth between the restaurant and Miller's room at the hospital. What kind of problems is he facing? "Ninety-two-year-old problems," she says.

The prayers of a million greased-up, shake-sated, penny-saving late-night jonesers and lunchtime gourmands are with him.

— Joel Smith

STARBUCKS

Yes, children, I remember the days before Starbucks. Back then, you had three ways to order coffee: black, medium (with cream), or light (with lots of cream). The best coffee in town came from Dunkin' Donuts, and things went downhill quickly from there. Occasionally, in big cities with long-established ethnic neighborhoods, you might see a grand old espresso machine, with its 3-foot-high steam chamber and mysterious nozzles, spouts and handles. But no one I knew had ever tasted espresso.

The revolution began in the '70s, as many people rebelled against the prevalence of canned and frozen food in the 1950s and moved back toward older food traditions. It was the beginning of the artisan food movement. In 1971, the first Starbucks set up shop in Seattle's Pike Place market. It was named for the first mate in Herman Melville's Moby Dick — thus reaffirming the link between literary culture and coffee shops in a single soon-to-be-ubiquitous brand name.

The concept caught on, but slowly. By 1987, some five years after Chairman Howard Schultz signed on, that single shop had grown to 17 locations, with the first tentative expansion beyond Seattle. Within another five years, the company had its initial public stock offering, and stores numbered in the hundreds. Starbucks spread south and east from the Seattle home base, finally touching down in Washington's interior more than 20 years after its founding: the company arrived in Spokane — or perhaps it's better to say that Spokane arrived on Starbucks' radar — with the first store at Five Mile Plaza in 1992. Soon a second store opened at Wandermere, then a third came in on 29th Avenue on the South Hill.

Now the cool coffee shop has become an empire. As of last Friday, there are more than 8,800 Starbucks retail stores in North America, and another 3,600 on other continents. The grand total is 12,440 stores worldwide — including one inside the walls of Beijing's Forbidden City.

Here in Spokane, those original three stores have swelled to more than 30 retail outlets. We might not have a Starbucks on every corner, as in Seattle, but few places in Spokane are more than 10 minutes away from a Starbucks.

Even local competitors admit that the jolly green giant of coffee paved the way for the thousands of entrepreneurs who've come along with fresher, fancier or more fairly traded coffee. Our collective palate has been trained to expect a certain level of quality when it comes to coffee. It's now possible to get a decent cup of coffee in far-flung hamlets and along remote American byways — and it's largely due to Starbucks.

It's hard now to imagine life before Starbucks and its onrushing wave of premium caffeination. Starbucks shops — and the other coffee shops supported by our ever-growing demand for fancy coffee — are meeting places, social networks, teen hangouts, and sites to connect with the world through wireless Internet access (for an additional fee, of course). And the company has taught us a whole new language: grande nonfat latte; decaf tall iced Americano; double shots, triples, and even quads; macchiato, breve, Frappuccino. Everyone has a favorite drink. People of all ages cross paths at Starbucks.

Even as company chairman Howard Schultz worries about the "commoditization" of the Starbucks experience, customers continue to line up for the daily vanilla latte — perhaps the chain's most popular drink. In summer, the Frappuccinos and iced drinks fly out the door.

As a brand in Spokane, Starbucks was in its infancy when The Inlander did our first Best Of readers poll back in 1994. So far, they've bested all comers every year since for espresso. In a way, we've grown up and matured together. (So how 'bout it, Howie? Do we qualify for stock options?) And despite the proliferation of competitors, people in Spokane love their Starbucks. Let us raise a white cardboard cup to Starbucks, then, in a toast to all it has done to raise our coffee consciousness and collective caffeine addiction.

— Ann M. Colford

HASTINGS

For the young media-fetishist growing up in rural Spokane County (like me), there was really no place like HASTINGS. All the assorted accoutrements needed to lead a rich (often digital) inner life were there: books, videogames, computer crap, CDs, magazines. Walking in as a kid, the air used to get sucked out of me. I'd get queasy. I'd have symptoms of vertigo. The heights of electronics and popular intellectualism available in this place (the one on North Division, in my case) blew my mentals.

They're the only place in the world, as far as I can tell, that once rented computer games. Even today, Gamefly, the Netflix of videogames, balks at renting PC games. They balk because it's risky. Because frail CDs tend to get scratched to hell after three rental. (Pre-teen me was responsible for ruining The Dig and Alone in the Dark.)

Hastings found that out, and they stopped renting.

But it's that kind of try-anything attitude that endears them to customers. Today we have Blu-ray and HD-DVD fighting format wars a la VHS and Beta. Many stores are opting to see who wins before carrying large selections of a next-gen format. Hastings, though, has both in quantity.

Yeah, it's a chain, and no, they don't stock vinyl, but they've got the most diverse music selection in town, which has netted them 10 wins in our best CD category. Add to that more videogames than most places and a used book section that rivals the one at Auntie's.

Moreover, Hastings doesn't feel like a chain. The sheer variety is a kick in the face to corporate streamlining. It caters to local authors and publications. It has used bins on the scale of Seattle's indie record kingpins. The fact that it's a 141-store empire based in Amarillo demonstrates the economies of scale that having this much great stuff under one roof requires. A mom and pop couldn't pull this off. Conversely, though, Best Buy or Borders wouldn't even want to try. Hastings has hit upon a good balance of choice, size and daring — and choice keeps people happy. Size absorbs mistakes and creates resilience. Daring shifts expectations and surprises people. From a consumer standpoint, I can't think of a better 141-store chain.

It's a veritable blessing, then, that the decidedly Midwestern company saw fit to toss a few stores up our way. Spokane/Coeur d'Alene has responded by heaping love on the chain year after year. Which is to say, for the twenty-something A/V nerd I've become, there's still no place like Hastings.

— Luke Baumgarten

TOM SHERRY

You know the saying about the more things change. There's something that Inlander readers like about KREM-TV weathercaster TOM SHERRY, and they like it a lot despite the steady turnover in television personalities and all the improvements to the high-tech gizmos and whizbangs used on air.

Sherry embraces the wizardry. He's often the local trailblazer for using it on the air, but he uses the new tools to gleefully tell viewers what will be the best day to beat feet outside and fire up the grill.

Sherry has an endearing sense of not taking himself or the weather too seriously, which is why people seem to like him so over the years. He's been one steady customer in a job that tries to forecast the unpredictable and in a business marked by turnover.

Sherry is the youngest of four children of Canadian immigrant parents who, for reasons known best to themselves, moved from the frozen north to just north of Los Angeles and still raised their kids on hockey and ice skating and skiing.

As the youngest, there was little left in the financial cupboard for his schooling, Sherry says, so he moved to Spokane at 18 to stay with a brother and attend Spokane Falls Community College to take radio broadcast classes.

"I loved broadcasting, but when I started working, I saw a lot of burned-out 50-year-olds," Sherry says. It was a warning bell. Even while working at KDRK, he went back to community college to broaden his degree and also got a foot in the door at KREM, taking a part-time weekend gig doing the weather. "I wanted the educational opportunity and they wanted somebody inexperienced [the pay was $7 an hour] so it worked out well," Sherry says.

Once again, he saw the need for a better skill set. Instead of putting his career and family on hold to take weather science classes at the University of Washington, the only school that offered them at the time, he once more decided to do school while working full-time. Sherry took a three-year program in meteorology from Mississippi State University — one of the early leaders in distance learning programs.

In those pre-Internet days, his lectures would arrive in the mail on videocassette and his tests were proctored by the meteorologists at the National Weather Service station at Airway Heights.

He and his siblings, it turns out, were forecasters from way back. "Growing up in Glendale, in the mountains north of L.A., we used to put a bowl of water out in the back yard in winter," Sherry says. "The highs would be about 45, but at night it might get down to 30. It was a big deal to run out before school in the morning and say 'Look! Look! It froze!'"

He still has that fresh sense of fun about the weather, even as he has pushed for Doppler radar software and goes out on a limb to offer a 10-day extended forecast instead of the standard seven... just as he was the first to push the five-day forecast to seven.

The combination of high-pressure work ethic and low-pressure ego has led Sherry to a "no fear" attitude about longevity in an industry that offers little of it.

He loves Spokane. He loves trying to be accurate despite the maddening plethora of microclimates that mean someone is always writing him a nasty e-mail because he called for an inch of snow in the driveway and they got five or vice versa.

He is heavily involved in public appearances and fundraising for charity. So when it comes to people liking Tom Sherry, the forecast calls for more of the same.

— Kevin Taylor

FRANK'S DINERS

The new Empire Builder — a very nice way to travel" reads one of the vintage posters on the railroad car's wood-paneled wall. And with the green fringe curtains and faux Tiffany glass over each booth, having a meal in one of Frank's two century-old diners is a great way to make a culinary journey through a weekend breakfast or midweek lunch.

During the week, the downtown location (a 1909 Northern Pacific rail car) is more attuned to business types. But the north Spokane diner (a Great Northern Railway Pullman car dating from 1913) is hopping even on weekend nights. "On Friday nights, this place is full of people drinking our huckleberry shakes," says Janie Jurkovac, general manager of Frank's Newport Highway Diner. "Or we can make 'em a Chocolate Derailer, which has a brownie with hot sauce and chocolate chips. We'll serve those out in the gazebo on summer nights."

Frank's, you see, is known for more than just its breakfasts. The meatloaf dinner (with brown gravy and saut & eacute;ed mushrooms), the chicken pot pies (with lots of potatoes and veggies), the beef stroganoff (mushrooms, onions and a Burgundy-based sauce, on egg noodles) and "The Best Hot Turkey Sandwich Ever" (with mashed potatoes and cranberries) are all customer favorites. Jurkovac has noticed lots of families, after a day of shopping, stopping in on the way home for a home-cooked dinner at Frank's.

But breakfast, available all day, is still the big draw. Every single day, in fact, each of Frank's two locations goes through more than 40 dozen eggs. In addition, says Jurkovac, "our bacon is thick and juicy and cooked to perfection," and she has scripted the reader board on Newport Highway to let everybody know all about it. Eggs Benedict is a big seller, along with Joe's Special (ground beef, spinach and onion scrambled with three eggs and topped with Parmesan) and Frank's Combo (two eggs, eight dollar cakes and bacon or sausage, with hashbrowns and toast).

For those counting calories and cholesterol, despair not. Frank's offers a veggie omelet — "and you can add Egg Beaters as a substitute," says Jurkovac. "And you can sub in cottage cheese or a fruit bowl on any order that comes with hash browns." Every place offers oatmeal, but, as Jurkovac hastens to point out, "we have Snoqualmie Falls oatmeal ['the Rolls Royce of rolled oats,' says the menu], and you can get it with huckleberries."

Hearty breakfasts, healthy breakfasts, wholesome dinners — you can get it all at Frank's, but just who was this Frank fellow? Jurkovac obliges by placing a quick call to Ken Belisle, managing partner at Landmark Restaurants. Turns out that Frank Knight operated a diner in Seattle for 60 years until he lost his land lease; then, in the early '90s, Car No. 1787 made its way east to become Spokane's downtown railroad diner. And Landmark, as operators of both Frank's locations, both Onions and the Italian Kitchen downtown, is building a food empire that's still a great way to travel into breakfast, lunch or dinner.

— Michael Bowen

HUCKLEBERRY'S

Huckleberry's is best embraced as a voyage of discovery — a kind of organic, sustainable, gourmet food shopping adventure. Not for the bargain shopper, certainly. Huckleberry's offers freshness and service and mind-boggling variety but very little in the way of "low, low prices."

"We're a natural foods store, but we also have specialty and gourmet products, so it's an odd mix," store manager Monica Hampton told us back in November when the store celebrated its 10th anniversary. Although the natural foods are more expensive, she says, "It's organic, and organic costs more to grow."

Speaking of variety, let's start with the Bistro. I'm in line by 12:15 one weekday afternoon, but there are seven or eight people ahead of me and more than half the tables are already full. The counter folks are brisk and cheerful, and I splurge on a salmon burger and a ginger biscotti dipped in chocolate. The balsamic dressing on the salad of mixed green salad is light and tart, and my organic, fair trade coffee arrives, pleasingly, in an oversized white porcelain cup.

Even for the Huckleberry's regular, there are always new discoveries. Why have I never noticed the field roast coconut cutlet, for example? If you've gotten in a rut with the red curry lentil salad, you can always give the Sicilian chicken a try.

The bistro crowd is not limited to the tofu-and-Birkenstock vegans some might expect. A guy in a blue button-down Oxford shirt and pale yellow tie checks messages on his Palm and reads the sports section. A young woman with orange-tinted dreadlocks chats with her lunch companion. A couple of guys in billed caps seem right at home as they eat their sandwich wraps and salads. Over at the Boulangerie, a young mother gives her toddler a tiny sample from the bakery counter. There is no hurry to turn over my table, and the people-watching is excellent.

"Probably the No. 1 thing people mention about our store is the atmosphere," service manager David Whitney said in November. "When we first started, grocery stores were sterile, stark environments. Here, it's relaxing — the smells, the lighting, it's all very relaxing."

The power of suggestion moves me in the direction of the bakery, hoping for samples — life is too short to eat lousy bread. And the fleur-de-sel chocolate cookies from Bouzies are a revelation. A small crowd mills around the cheese case; poking out among the wedges of Appenzeller and Emmenthaler and Parmesan, I see a round of cheese the size of a small two-layer cake — a Moliterno from Italy, made from "latte di pecora," or sheeps' milk. It also features black truffles, which almost explains the price: $356 for a dozen pounds of cheese.

I amble past the tofu dogs and the Tofurky cold cuts and the chocolate soy pudding cups toward the Spokane Wine Co. to see what's new. And there it is: HoneyRun Cranberry Honeywine. The label is pretty and the price is modest — my criteria are met. The wine department offers many affordable bottles, as well as wine tastings to educate the newcomer.

Suddenly I realize the time and head briskly for the door, past the loofah pads and the balance balls and the yoga DVDs, stopping for just a nanosecond to try the Burt's Bees carrot nutritive day cream. Do I have time to buy...? No, I simply must go.

— Suzanne Schreiner

SCHWEITZER

In 1960, a local dentist named Jack Fowler idecided to take his family skiing. The iFowlers were a typical Inland Northwest snow family, used to driving all over the region in order to find fresh powder and steep slopes. In 1960, that meant driving to Montana.

After reaching Big Mountain, however, the Fowlers were rained out. Daunted, they turned around and began the drive home, stopping along the way in Hope, Idaho. While there, Fowler looked up and saw a big snow covered peak that he had never thought about before. Shortly after that, Fowler and his son hiked up to the Schweitzer basin to ski.

The skiing, as most people in the region now know, was idyllic. Fowler ended up liking Schweitzer so much, he dreamt up a business plan. In 1963, his plan bore fruit, as Schweitzer Mountain built Chair One — the first lift to take skiers to the top of what is now the region's favorite winter destination.

Today, Schweitzer Mountain Resort hosts between 210,000 and 250,000 winter sports visitors, with more arriving in the summer months to take advantage of the mountain's hiking trails, picnic spots and dramatic views.

"Schweitzer has 7,000 acres that the company owns, and 3,000 acres of that is dedicated to skiing," explains Tom Chasse, President and CEO of Schweitzer Mountain Resort. "There's also an operation on the backside of the mountain — another 4,000 acres — that operates cat skiing and snowmobiling, and many of our visitors enjoy that as well. When they're done with their other winter activities, they can come right back to the lodge."

Unlike other winter resorts in the area, Schweitzer sports a full village at the heart of the mountain's slopes. Seven hundred beds accommodate visitors, though all of them are owned privately and only some of them are rented out as hotel space. Restaurants range from sit-down dinner fare to slices of pizza in a teen-only lounge.

Chasse explains that, since the first chairlift opened in the early 1960s, Schweitzer has emphasized technology and a dedication to the changing winter sports marketplace. "In 1990, Schweitzer was the first resort in the region to embrace high-speed technology when we put in our first high-speed quad. And in 2000, we added a themed chairlift named Stella that was designed by a Disney imagineer. It's shaped like a barn that you ski into and out of, right on and off the lift.

"Today, the lift expansion we're doing this summer is the largest on-mountain expansion that Schweitzer has ever had. We'll be spending about $10 million, and hope to be able to accommodate even more visitors next year."

Schweitzer has been a favorite of Inlander readers, who voted the resort "Best Winter Destination" during the Best Of contest's first year. Since then it's won for skiing — naturally — as well as snowboarding, which was a winter sport that first found a regional foothold at Schweitzer.

"We have a good reputation right now for our terrain park and half-pipe," Chasse says, referring to the trick-style boarding that is becoming increasingly popular. "We like to think that we're multi-generational. So if there are new products on the market, we'll look at them and evaluate how they might contribute to our core business. When I first got here, the staff was talking about rock concerts — Ted Nugent at Silver Mountain. But I'm not sure that Ted Nugent fits our image. You can't be everything to everyone."

— Marty Demarest

REI

People turn to REI for their camping/kayaking/skiing/cycling needs, sure, but also because they feel a burning need to buy lots and lots of... socks: walking socks, running socks, hiking socks. When I asked Michael Hinderleider, a staff member and footwear specialist, about what to wear for my next ascent of Everest, he immediately pointed to the Smartwool Mountaineering Sock: all the warmth of wool plus wicking action, and comfort like — well, according to Hinderleider, "If you haven't worn 'em, don't — because you'll never want to wear anything else."

REI customers flock for the backpacks too. One corner of the Monroe Street store has rows and rows of 'em — everything from petite packs for day hikes to humongo-packs for transforming yourself into Grizzly Adams. On a recent afternoon, I had to wedge myself around two couples as they tried on different backpacks while listening to a staffer's advice.

The main themes that emerge from poking around an REI store for a while are, 1) that staff members walk the talk, and 2) that the talk involves stewardship of the environment. Joshua Hess, REI's outreach specialist here in Spokane, points out that staff members "have their niches — they become department experts out on the floor, so to speak. We have cyclists, passionate paddlers and backpackers, and upstairs, they understand footwear and technical wear really well." (I know, I ran into one of the footwear guys.)

But because the employees of Recreational Equipment Inc. explore the streams and forests themselves, they also work to make sure that those resources are preserved. "Land use is huge for us," says Hess. "My parents were avid hikers — I was an avid cyclist. I'd like the same opportunities to still be there for my kids and for my grandkids."

Just last year, REI contributed several thousand dollars each to Conservation Northwest, Camp Reed, the Fat Tire Trail Riders Club, the Bicycle Alliance of Washington and Riverside State Park. This May, the store will get dozens of volunteers to help with the Fish Lake Trail service project, aimed at maintaining and extending a rails-to-trails route stretching from Spokane to Cheney.

Hess himself visits schools all over Spokane County as part of the company's PEAK program ("Promoting Environmental Awareness in Kids"): "Even for the kids who say, 'I never camp,' I ask them, 'But do you go to a park? That's part of your environment,'" he says. Fostering an appreciation for the outdoors in the younger generation obviously extends REI's future influence, but the mission involves adult outreach, too. Just recently, the store offered workshops on how to use GPS devices and how to pack light for the backcountry.

But REI isn't a place solely for Sierra Club types. "Even if you're not overly active, we can still provide you with good gear," says Hess. "Even if you just walk in city parks, you still need good footwear. You don't have to be an avid outdoors person to shop here."

In fact, he says, his favorite customers are "the families with two or three kids who are just getting old enough, and they want to go camping or hiking, and they want to get entirely outfitted. Or a cyclist comes in saying, 'I want to do the STP [Seattle to Portland ride] or a 100-mile ride sometime this summer, and am I on the right track?' And they ask for advice about the best equipment to get. People who are enthusiastic and who want something out of their outdoor experience — those are the customers I really enjoy."

He'll probably also urge you to buy some really good socks.

— Michael Bowen

ROCKET BAKERY

You could say that a guy who loved his "double ristretto with brown sugar and whipping cream" was the inspiration for Spokane's first Rocket Bakery.

At the time (the late 1980s) Jeff and Julia Postlewait were running Geoffrey's Deli and Coffee Bar in the Spokane Valley. Their buddy would come in and order the concoction he called "that rocket fuel." Jeff says he loved the word "rocket" associated with coffee, so "we wrote it in our little book" before they took off for a three-year adventure running a restaurant (Postlewait's Pasta) and an espresso shop/bakery in Seattle.

When they vacationed, the two Spokane Valley natives often came home, but "we never could find a place where we could get coffee and a pastry," says Julia. So they moved home and opened one. They found a little hole-in-the-wall space in a building on Argonne, across the street from Inland Empire Paper in beautiful downtown Millwood, where the owner "let us in without a lease." Looking for a name for their new place, the Postlewaits grabbed their idea book, found the word "Rocket" and thus was born the Rocket Bakery in 1991.

"At first our friends told us we were nuts," says Jeff. "'Millwood's going to die,' they said."

"It was just the two of us. We were here by two in the morning," Julia chimes in. "That first month we stood there, looking out the window. But things took off."

"Our timing was good," says Jeff. "There were only a few espresso machines then and people here were just discovering [espresso]."

The new business built a loyal customer base despite battling construction work just blocks away as the county built the Argonne Road underpass.

Soon the Postlewaits opened their second Rocket Bakery, another little hole-in-the-wall, in the Garland District. "It was the old Garland Bakery," says Jeff.

The second Rocket has the same feel as the first: golden walls with dark green carpets. Customers can buy scones and other pastries delivered from the company bakery on Argonne. People sit at heavy wooden tables where they can talk, read or work on their laptop computers.

Soon after came the third Rocket, in downtown's east end on Main Street. "A friend of ours approached us about an old boarded up store front with broken glass," says Julia. "It had the feel of a Seattle neighborhood, like Wallingford or Fremont. Spokane needs to find more of those."

Now there are seven Rocket Bakeries (with another soon opening at Fairwood in north Spokane) and one Rocket Market on the South Hill (with partners Alan Shepherd and his wife). A Coeur d'Alene Rocket could be on the horizon.

"It's never boring," says Jeff, "but it's different. Now we have 70 employees; juggling staff is the biggest challenge. I miss the people thing. I like to be out front, the guy pulling the coffee and I don't get to do that much anymore."

The Postlewaits say they enjoy adding new flourishes to their shops. "We added ice cream at our Cedar store and wine at the market," says Julia. "Frozen pizzas. People's requests drive a lot of what we do."

Now Jeff and Julia Postlewait can add more thing to their Rockets: an Inlander Hall of Fame award.

—Doug Nadvornick

VALUE VILLAGE

A list of things found recently at the Value Village on Boone Avenue: Piggy bank. Angel statue. Bag of corkscrews. "Kiss My *#@! I'm 50!" coffee cup. Fuzzy pink Barbie picture frame. Two-foot decorative wood fork and spoon. Bloomsday T-shirt from 1998. Letter jacket with "Nikki 85" embroidered on the front and "BHHS Chorus" on the back (Big Horn High School? Beverly Hills?). Two copies of Paul Reiser's Couplehood, one of Babyhood. One awesome old wooden radio console with a dial that goes from "shortwave" to "police" to "broadcast." The backseat of a mini-van (pretty comfortable). A Chez Panisse poster. A pair of blue silk boxers with golden rubber chickens on them. A pewter bracelet.

And Cat Lady, a woman in her mid- to late-20s, who's been at the store the last three or four times we've been there. She's not an employee, just a shopper — a shopper who wears cat ears and a tail, both of which match whatever unitard she's wearing that day. Sometimes she wears a cat nose, too. Or a Lone Ranger-style mask. She likes to talk to other customers, or rather at them.

Whatever. It's just another day at Value Village, one of the worst places in the Inland Northwest to look for anything, but perhaps the best places to find something. Huge and blindingly well-lit, it's a bazaar of cast-offs and regretted purchases, fashions that are just now coming back around and ones that should be buried forever. Both stores — this one and the one in Spokane Valley — are must-visits for college students and young, creative types looking to furnish their first homes. Or for jewelry hogs. Or, in the relative absence of vintage clothing gleaners in this area, for hipsters and musicians looking for something a little strange to wear at the next show. (Exhibit A: The pair of powder blue ladies' moon boots I bought two weeks ago.)

Whatever it is they spray in the air here, it's working. The company, which is owned by a Seattle corporation called Savers, operates more than 200 stores in 25 states, 10 Canadian provinces (it's called Village des Valeurs in Quebec) and in Melbourne, Australia (where it's called, simply, Savers). A for-profit business, not a charity, it nevertheless hearkens to its roots, according to the company Website. The first store was opened by William Ellison in San Francisco in 1954. His father and uncle were instrumental in building the Salvation Army's thrift organization in the 1930s and '40s. The company still funnels much of material it can't sell to charity organizations, locally and abroad. The rest is recycled.

Just like these sweet moon boots.

— Joel Smith

AUNTIE'S

Here's a paradox: Auntie's Bookstore, a perennial favorite of Inlander readers, is going into our Hall of Fame even as it's shrinking its space by half.

Do an Internet news search for "independent bookstores," and the news you find is not good. From Berkeley to Boston, the headlines are sad — store after independent bookstore is closing.

One indie bookstore owner estimated that 15,000 of them have gone out of business in the last 15 years. You will find there is a documentary Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore, just released last month. You will even find a how-to guide: Rebel Bookseller: How To Improve Your Own Indie Store and Beat Back the Chains.

"I have that beside my bed. I haven't read it yet, but it's in that small pile next to the bed," laughs Chris O'Harra, owner of Auntie's, one of the biggest and most beloved independent bookstores in the Northwest.

When O'Harra gets around to opening Rebel Bookseller, she will see that author Andrew Laties recommends something she's already doing: owning her building.

Auntie's started as the Book and Game Company in the Flour Mill in 1978, was in a small space on Riverside Avenue for a while before renovating the massive Liberty Building with its four-story glass-topped atrium in 1993.

"We were so fortunate to have had this space all these years," O'Harra says. "You go to any other bookstore and nobody had what we had — not Powell's, not Elliot Bay. Nobody had that nice, open conference and reading area. And there's a reason for that — it's expensive."

This is a paradoxical world where Inlander Best Of voters and others rave about the importance of independent bookstores, how we love the tall ceilings and the cozy chairs. Yet Auntie's profit margins are pinched and paupered, losing sales to online merchants.

"I know the Internet is only a couple of clicks away, but if people want independent anything — hardware or grocery or bookstore — they have to support it. Every sale is important," O'Harra says.

In its most recent newsletter, Auntie's announced that this month it would start cramming all its merchandise onto the ground floor and put the second floor — home to its popular author readings — out to lease as office space.

"I've known this was coming for several years — it's been in the stars, so to speak," O'Harra says. "The world has changed. I kept hoping it would turn around, but it just didn't."

Even though O'Harra owns the building, Auntie's pays rent like any other tenant, and the square footage costs, along with the staffing needs, were a killer.

"People don't understand that nothing is free. They may say that we get all these people here [for readings], but we can have 250 people and sell only 10 books," O'Harra says.

It's a painful dilemma. Facilitating the face-to-face meeting of authors and readers is one of the things that makes Auntie's so beloved. Plan B is to hold most readings and musical performances in the ground-level caf & eacute; space and line up bigger venues for the crowd magnets such as Sherman Alexie in late April.

"We are eternal optimists around here," O'Harra says.

— Kevin Taylor

BOO RADLEY'S

The kid's eyes barely clear the counter, but he manages to hoist up a small box and plop it down, right in front of Boo Radley's owner Andy Dinnison.

"Is this your first Slinky?" Dinnison asks.

"It's his first metal Slinky," says the boy's dad, probably thinking back to his own first metal Slinky.

"Oh, the metal ones are way better," Dinnison tells the kid.

Dad pays, the kid grabs the box as a smile spreads across his face: another happy customer at Spokane's Hall of Fame gift shop.

But to call Boo Radley's a gift shop doesn't quite capture its essence. Sure, you will find a gift for anyone you know there. But a trip to Boo Radley's is an escape — a place to feel surprised, nostalgic and generally amused.

That's how the next woman in line seemed to feel, as she approached the counter laughing out loud as she bought a Mr. Bill doll. (You know, Mr. Bill from the old Saturday Night Live claymation shorts.) After poking around for 10 minutes, the guy after her bought four Pez dispensers to add to the 250 he and his daughter are collecting.

But people rarely go to Boo Radley's knowing what they want; it's the journey into the lighter side of life that keeps them coming back.

And that's precisely the way Dinnison has always wanted it. In a story that appeared in the first-ever edition of The Inlander, way back in 1993, Dinnison explained why Spokane needed Boo Radley's, which opened for business that August. "I thought Spokane was lacking in goofiness," he told us. "I have grown up here all my life — for 29 years going on 30 — and there was just a lack of fun, especially in the gift market."

After I share that classic old newspaper clip with Dinnison — and after he got over the notion of having once been 29 (today he's 43) — he says he still thinks fun is something we all need. "The world is a much more serious place now than it was back in '93. So we need to laugh even more, or we'll all be moping around and on Valium."

Besides, he adds, a trip to Boo Radley's is "cheaper than therapy."

That's a pretty good line, and Dinnison's role as purveyor of hipness depends on his wit and cultural awareness. His part

...

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