What would it take for Spokane to become known as a good restaurant town? C'mon, it's not that far outside the realm of possibility. We love to talk about restaurants here at The Inlander, because, well we're notorious food hounds, but also because we appreciate the atmospheric alchemy that takes place when good food and a picturesque environment come together. And it turns out that a lot of our favorite culinary haunts -- QUINN'S, CAFE 5-10, MOXIE, MIZUNA, EUROPA -- have one thing in common. They're all chef-owned. Which gets us to thinking about the possibilities...
"There aren't a lot, but the good thing about what we have is that they're all a little bit different," says Michael Waliser of Caf & eacute; 5-10. He's right. We (Inlander food writer Susan Hamilton and I) counted 11 between Coeur d'Alene and Cheney, including the ones mentioned above, along with Klink's, Jimmy D's, the Greenbriar Inn, Niko's, Aracelia's, the Wine Cellar and Pinocchio's (okay, we probably missed a few, but you get the idea). Which is more than we thought we had originally, but considering the size of the region, it isn't quite enough to qualify as the making of a trend.
Standing in the way are certain obstacles, things like Spokane's reputation for being a meat-and-potatoes town, and also, the all-important location, location, location.
"When you're a gourmet chef, you're sticking your neck out," says Waliser. "Working with fresh ingredients, experimenting with new flavors and textures, these all imply a certain amount of risk."
Waliser notes that finding the right spot is a risk as well. When his original location near Fifth and Freya didn't pan out, Waliser decided to move the business to its current location at the site of the old Caf & eacute; Roma. Having to move had nothing to do with lagging dinner rushes, however. Instead, it was the fact that restrictive zoning laws prohibited him from being able to serve wine with dinner.
"I think Spokane could be zoned better for business," he says.
"The way it's set up, you've got the North Side, the South Hill and the Valley. It's difficult. There are no neighborhood joints where people can just walk in for dinner. Here, you have to drive everywhere."
For Waliser, the solution is simple, and two-fold. "First, I think we need more support for the ones we have. You've got to search them out maybe, but it's worth it," he says. "And secondly, I think we need more chefs that can do it, who are able to be creative in their cooking and run a business."
Kile Tansy of Quinn's knows what it's like to get the word out when you're a small restaurant in a town packed with chains. But in a way, that can be a positive.
"On the inverse, if I open a place like Quinn's across the street from Pike Place Market, I'm one of 22. There's something to be said for being a big fish in a little pond," he says.
But Spokane being known as a town for chef-owned restaurants? Tansy thinks the solution to our culinary reputation lies elsewhere. "There's all this mystique around chefs, or chef-owned restaurants. But you've got to be careful not to exclude people. It's like using the world 'demi-glace' instead of 'gravy.' A lot of chefs try something and if it doesn't work, they blame Spokane. But what you need to do is look at how the menu was worded, whether there was something on there that would intimidate people, or didn't make sense. I try to remove obstacles whenever I can."