by ANN M. COLFORD & lt;BR & & lt;BR & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & have a great job (well, part of it, anyway): For the last three years, I've been editing the Inlander's food section -- watching and following along as the food scene here has burgeoned. I've met chefs and restaurateurs, servers and bakers, farmers and winemakers. I've eaten some great (and less-than-great) meals, but truly, the conversations and the opportunities to get to know the people behind the meals have been the most fun.

Writing about food has been part of the Inlander from the very beginning -- well, from the second issue, at least. The cover story of that paper back on Oct. 27, 1993, focused on the coffee craze sweeping the Inland Northwest. Seattle's Starbucks had recently made the move over the mountains and established three shops in Spokane, but as the article pointed out, we had some homegrown bean purveyors and latte jocks of our own. Jacob's Java, the drive-through kings, and local roasters Cravens Coffee had joined long-timer 4 Seasons in the caffeinated circuit (along with that siren from Seattle), and a new little coffee shop in a converted drug store in Browne's Addition -- the Elk -- had emerged as a popular neighborhood source for a jolt of joe.

That same 28-page issue also contained an early restaurant review: a write-up of Jimmy D's in Coeur d'Alene, one of those places that's sadly no longer with us. (Our reviewer liked the mussels.) The next month we visited O'Doherty's and the Viking Tavern, two mainstays that are still among our favorites. (In fact, the Viking entered our "Best of" Hall of Fame earlier this year thanks to their 10th win in our Best Beer Selection category.)

A couple of months later, we wrote about Spokane's wineries -- the first of many forays into the world of oenology. At that time, Spokane had six wineries, and five of them -- Latah Creek, Arbor Crest, Mountain Dome, Knipprath and Caterina -- are still doing wonderful things with Washington grapes.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ince that first year, the food scene has certainly changed around here, especially in the realm of fine dining. The restaurant biz is always volatile, and we've seen our share of both startups and standbys come and go. There was a time when Patsy Clark's was the pinnacle of fine dining in this town, and it seemed as solid and unchanging as, well, the daily newspaper and the Bon March & eacute;. But now it's gone, replaced by a law office.

Several favorites from those days remain and continue to do well, like Clinkerdagger and Milford's. Rock City Grill had just brought the first Thai pizza to Spokane the year before we got started (they moved to bigger digs in River Park Square five years ago), and of course Beverly's was serving up resort-worthy meals in Coeur d'Alene.

Within our first year, three dining landmarks opened up in Spokane: Luna, high on the South Hill, and Fugazzi and Hills' Someplace Else downtown. Despite a few changes along the way, all three continue to be part of the dining scene: Fugazzi, in the Hotel Lusso, has just changed owners and names (it's now 360; see page 47), and Chef Dave Hill continues his creative work in the more expansive Hills' Restaurant and Lounge.

When Luna opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1993, owners William and Marcia Bond wanted to create the kind of restaurant that they felt Spokane was missing.

"What inspired us was that Spokane didn't have neighborhood restaurants," says Marcia. "We had lived in L.A. for five years and in New York for four, and our big treat then was to go to a neighborhood restaurant. In a neighborhood restaurant, people get to know each other. They come for special occasions. And that whole idea has been so important in our lives."

Now, Spokane has several fine neighborhood restaurants -- so many, in fact, that we're one of the leaders in the state for neighborhood dining, according to Washington Restaurant Association President Anthony Anton. But 15 years ago, the idea felt pretty risky.

"Some of our friends in the restaurant business thought our location was too far south," William recalls.

"We had some high anxiety when we first opened," Marcia adds. "What if we opened the doors and nobody came?"

But people did walk through those doors. They came for the crusty breads baked in-house and for the fine selection of wines. They came for the East Coast-style pizzas baked in an applewood-fired stone oven. They came for the comfortable neighborhood ambience. And along the way, Spokane's tastes began to change. The artisan food movement found a niche here.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hat's not to say it's been all arugula and radicchio, however, even if Spokane does now have its own sea salt bar (at the Kitchen Engine in the Flour Mill). The city's meat-and-potatoes history hasn't been abandoned, especially at the more casual end of the dining spectrum. Landmarks like Domini Sandwiches, Frank's Diner and the Swinging Doors all cater to the carnivores among us.

And we still love a bargain. The king of Cheap Eats in this town is still Dick's Hamburgers, the drive-in that has dominated our annual Best Of readers' poll since the very first survey back in 1994.

As recently as November 2004, an article seeking to identify Spokane's trademark flavors focused on the many longstanding Chinese restaurants on Division, the fast-food strip along Third Avenue, and casual downtown eateries including Chicken 'n' More, the Onion and the Old Spaghetti Factory. A handful of newer places got a shout-out -- Downriver Grill, the Elk, Moxie, Northern Lights Brewery (also turning 15 this year) and Gordy's -- before the writer concluded that Mizuna and Dick's provided the yin and yang of Spokane dining at the time.

And perhaps that's the way it should remain. We need to remember our history as a rough-and-tumble Western city, a place that grew out of sagebrush and Ponderosa pines and the thundering river, a city built on mining wealth and railroads and agriculture, even as our future points more toward financial services and biotech. As our region grows and we become more sophisticated in our tastes -- artistic, cultural and culinary -- we cannot forget our past. The Inland Northwest should be a good place to find an exceptional culinary experience, and a good place for a burger and a beer. We need to save room at our table for both -- because, in the end, the food on the table is less important than the people around it.

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