Checking the pulse of the Inland Northwest's rising culinary scene

Dining Out

Over the past decade, locals have eagerly watched and savored as the Inland Northwest's dining culture continues to expand in a big way.

From highly anticipated restaurant openings to innovative service formats, risk-taking menu creativity to a calendar packed with special food-and-drink-related events, the signs are apparent: We are, and have been for some time, in the midst of a local food renaissance.

While it's a positive trend, it does pose some serious questions. Can the local economy sustain this continued growth? How many more restaurants can we support? What is the local food scene still missing? What does the closure of Santé, a trendsetter in Spokane fine dining, and the departure of its chef/owner Jeremy Hansen, say about the state of affairs? These were just some of the areas we set out to discuss with three established and pioneering local chefs for this year's Dining Out issue.

"I think we're in a good spot," notes Tony Brown, chef-owner of Stella's Cafe and Ruins, which rotates its world cuisine-inspired menu each month. Brown plans to open his long-anticipated higher-end restaurant, Eyvind, and its sister basement eatery, Hunt, in downtown Spokane sometime this fall.

"Spokane for a long time was a meat-and-potatoes town, and I think diners are a bit more adventurous than they used to be," Brown continues. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that 10 years ago, I don't know if a restaurant like Ruins would have worked. I don't think there were enough people that would support it."

Brown still sees plenty of opportunity for the industry to continue growing. He's not worried about getting pushed out by a rise in competition, nor are his contemporaries. There are plentiful real estate opportunities, he says, for restaurants in Spokane's downtown core, where all of his eateries are located, and elsewhere in the city.

"I mean, obviously with Jeremy [Hansen] leaving, it opened up some spots, but in addition to that... it's moving right along," he notes.

Fellow regional chef Adam Hegsted, whose expanding food empire stretches from Coeur d'Alene to downtown Spokane and up into the Sandpoint area, echoes this thought.

"All boats rise. The more we are successful, the more [others] are successful," Hegsted says. "That is our idea, and more and more people are thinking like that. I see a lot more collaboration for sure, which is great to see."

Chef Travis Dickinson, who co-owns Cochinito Taqueria, an upscale twist on Mexican street food, similarly has embraced this communal mindset.

"Everyone is kind of working here together to make it grow," Dickinson says.

The Spokane-born chef returned to the region about five years ago after getting his start at kitchens in Portland's uber-competitive culinary industry.

"If we're all doing cool things, we build each other up. We don't have that competition like in other cities," Dickinson continues. "We're building a culture, and it's pretty unique as far as my experience to have a group of 15 to 20 people who have that same goal."

Another benefit of having more food options in an urban area is that it pushes everyone to strive higher, Hegsted notes.

"That is part of an emerging restaurant scene, having restaurants that keep pushing and doing innovative stuff," he says. "It forces everyone to be better, which makes a better food scene, even if it is something you're worried about, in the back of your mind" as an owner.

While it might seem, based on the buzz and constant coverage of new spots opening, like the number of restaurants in the Spokane area has exploded in recent years, data from the Washington Hospitality Association shows a steady yet gradual increase.

Spokane County was home to a total of 829 restaurants in both 2018 and 2017 (this year's numbers aren't in yet). The county's five-year increase in total restaurants, going back to 2014, is 3.1 percent, which is slightly behind the state average of 4.8 percent.

Breaking it down, Spokane County restaurants earned $911.4 million in sales in 2017, the most recent year for which such data is available. The industry employs just under 16,000 people, and the county has about 1.6 restaurants per 1,000 residents. The countywide restaurant service format breakdown is 35 percent full service, 43 percent counter or quick service and 23 percent in other categories. (Similar numbers for Kootenai County were unavailable by press deadline.)

While the feeling that more restaurants are a boon to the existing scene is shared among the three chefs we spoke with, they say one category the Inland Northwest is lagging is authentic international cuisine.

"I like that there are a couple of different ethnic style restaurants that are really pushing the boundaries, which makes for great vitality in the food scene," Hegsted says. "That is what makes a place have a more bright and vibrant culture. I would love to have more."

In order to support this diversity and creativity in the culinary community as a whole, Brown hopes to see local diners' curiosities grow deeper.

"There is a lack of restaurants willing to go out on a limb because they don't think people would come to the restaurant because it might be too weird or a cuisine they haven't heard of, but I think 99.9 percent of restaurants are going to have something you can eat and enjoy," he says. "You just have to find it."

As the Inland Northwest's restaurant industry growth and experimentation continues to push existing boundaries, local diners also shouldn't forget to continue supporting their favorites — both longstanding establishments like those profiled in this year's Dining Out issue, and more recent innovators whose culinary teams are nudging the region towards its next phase.

"It's a really neat and interesting time to be in Spokane as far as the dining scene goes. It's becoming more and more progressive, and more locally focused," Dickinson says. "I see a lot more creativity in this town, and chefs moving in from other cities. It's becoming a destination." ♦

The Old Guard: Pioneering restaurants of the region's fine dining culture

  • The Barrel
  • Beverly's
  • The Black Cypress
  • Central Food
  • Churchill's Steakhouse
  • Clinkerdagger
  • Clover
  • Downriver Grill
  • Europa
  • Fleur de Sel
  • Italia Trattoria
  • Latah Bistro
  • Luna
  • Masselow's Steakhouse
  • Mizuna
  • Palm Court Grill
  • Scratch
  • Syringa Sushi
  • Trinity at City Beach
  • Wild Sage

The New Guard: Innovative spots that opened in the last eight years 

  • 1898 Public House
  • Casper Fry
  • Cochinito Taqueria
  • Durkin's Liquor Bar
  • Honey Eatery & Social Club
  • Inland Pacific Kitchen
  • Lodgepole
  • Midtown Bluebird
  • Park Lodge
  • Ruins
  • Table 13
  • The Wandering Table
  • Wiley's Downtown Bistro