Garland District Dining

by Joel Smith & r & The Garland district is an anomaly, like a small-town Main Street hat came loose from the Palouse and washed up on Spokane's North Side. Stretched along Garland Avenue from North Monroe Street to about North Wall, and pinned down by the historic Garland Theater and infamous Milk Bottle, it's what most would call "cute" or "quaint."

But it's also delicious. Lodged in among the weird clock store, the dive bars, the fancy-pants gallery and Jim Boyd's music shop are some of Spokane's best neighborhood eateries. The kinds of places where they know your name and your "usual" -- where they'll just as likely back-talk you as serve you. That's the kind of place I was looking for.

I found it at Mary Lou's Milk Bottle, on the corner of Garland and Post. Come on, I had to go there first. The place is a civic icon (everyone knows what you mean when you ask them to meet you "at the milk bottle").

The 38-foot-tall stucco-and-sheet metal bottle was built in 1935, one of a half-dozen such buildings constructed by the Benewah Dairy Company to encourage kids to drink their milk. (The only other one left in Spokane is on South Cedar Street in downtown.) Inside, the only evidence that you're sitting in a milk bottle is the small room's windowed corner wall, arcing broadly toward the sidewalk. Well, that and the ice cream -- there are more than a dozen tubs of the stuff built into the counter, and various ice cream treats take up one whole side of the menu.

The other side is taken up by classic American food: sandwiches, burgers, fries, shakes. And that fits the feel of the place. It's casual, informal, neighborly. On this quiet weekday afternoon, only a few regulars (and me, the interloper) hunker over their burgers and sundaes. The waitress greets them by name, propping her foot up on a chair as she takes orders from two old-timers who just shuffled in. ("I'll have a sludgeball," one of them croaks.)

She moseys back behind the counter, continuing her conversation with the short-order cook standing near the grill and cruising through static on the radio dial. "Why are guys like that?" she asks him, loud enough for everybody to hear. No one's listening, of course. They're buried in their own conversations. Two dudes behind me mutter about taxes and bail bonds. Eventually one leans close to the other and mutters, sotto voce, "I finally got laid when I went over to Seattle." He raises his arms triumphantly. Another customer pays the bill and gets up to leave. "We'll see you, Roger," says the waitress. "Take care."

I finish my banana split and promise to return.

Next door, Ferguson's Caf & eacute; is still slinging what it brags is the "best breakfast in Spokane." I can't really argue with them. I tried it. And it might be. When I showed up, the big room, with its checkered tables and high ceilings, was empty. But it was warm, and it smelled like coffee; morning light poured in from the big picture window looking out on Garland, and the day's newspaper lay disheveled on the counter. I pull up a chair and a young waitress emerges from the back of the weird central kitchen, which juts out into the center of the dining area, in layers -- grill in the back, hidden from view; coffee prep in the middle; and old-timey soda fountain in front, right behind the counter. I order orange juice; she comes back with a giant glass of it. On a shelf above the fountain are three copies of a slim book called Wit, Wisdom and Other Nonsense.

Ten minutes later, tucking into a massive smoked sausage omelet with loose hash browns and a side of tender biscuits and gravy, I'm no longer alone. A middle-aged dude in professional clothes walks in; the waitress, recognizing him, starts a cup of hot chocolate for him, before he even asks for it. He says he's been with a client for the last three hours. The caf & eacute;'s owner, Jim Adolfson, observes, "That sounds... fun." The guy sitting in one of the red naugahyde booths along the east wall laughs. So does the guy by the window. It's like we all know each other, but we don't.

High up on one wall, away from the framed and aging photographs of old Spokane, and of Ferguson's in its former incarnation as Sander's Caf & eacute;, are a couple of movie posters, for Vision Quest and Why Would I Lie? Also, one for Benny and Joon and a couple of stills from the movie. Though the film's producers used the Milk Bottle for an exterior shot, the interior (in the scene where Johnny Depp rips off Charlie Chaplin's dancing forks routine) is all Ferguson's. Adolfson says the film, made in 1993, still draws fans to the cafe. High school girls, he says, still come in and want to sit in the same seat Depp sat in.

Everybody else just comes for the breakfast, not surprisingly. That's easily the best smoked sausage omelet I've ever tasted.

And there's no better way to top it off than with a scone and a cup of tea at the Rocket Bakery across the street. I get the scone at the Rocket on First Avenue every time I'm there. Today's no different. Neither is this Rocket too different than the others -- same chalkboard menus, same selection, more or less the same ambience (though this location's got Sorry and Battleship! Yes!). But it's worth mentioning that a lot of locals consider the narrow front room and cozy rear lounge area the Garland District's de facto community center. The churchies, the neighborhood do-gooders, the gutter punks -- they all meet up at the Rocket to caffeinate and brainstorm. The wrap-around counter in the front room is covered in local papers and newsletters. The tables are taken up by students and business people. Ennui-riddled hipsters, too, would probably feel right at home here, scribbling out angsty poetry and sipping down a double-tall cup of sadness.

Two blocks over, Madison Street Coffee (also billed, on the fa & ccedil;ade as the Brown Bag Bistro) is making a quiet bid for "neighborhood joint" status. Owner Margaret Coughlin has only been at the helm for seven or eight weeks, but she sounds optimistic. And she should be. The bistro's tiny room, with its small window counter and five little tables, is positively classy. The walls are painted a dark plum. The hardwoods shine. And the food's not bad, either. I had the Tuesday special, a sloppy meatball sandwich, with a grape Fanta. It stuffed me good.

Of course, Coughlin's got a few problems to deal with, too -- the location, for one. A block west of Monroe, it's separated from the heart of the Garland district by a seedy-looking convenience store, a liquor store and a mostly empty parking lot. Also, as she notes, all the drive-thru espresso stands in the area take away a good portion of the morning coffee rush.

I couldn't help but think, however, that with a little time and maybe a change of background music (cheesy sad songs are no good for digestion), it could be the next big neighborhood lunch spot. Part of me doesn't even want to tell you that; right now, it still feels undiscovered.

As opposed to the Wall Street Diner, which is thoroughly discovered. Located two blocks shy of Wellesley Avenue, there's some debate over whether the diner is a part of the Garland District or not, but it's worth a mention, if only because it's close enough to give Ferguson's and the Milk Bottle a run for its money. Wall Street (owned by the Maas family, who also own Europa Pizzaria) does the same family-owned neighborhood-joint kind of thing, but it swaps down-home character for a little Mediterranean class. Overhauled in 2001 by the same guy who gave Frank's, Knight's and Europa their good looks, Wall Street manages to be cozy and sophisticated at the same time. With lots of dark brown wood and a front-room counter that feels remarkably like a train car, it's definitely a neighborhood fave -- whatever neighborhood it's in.

The only thing missing in the Garland District is a couple of second-story apartments on the main drag. Because after a week of roaming the neighborhood and stuffing myself with omelets, sausage, sandwiches, burgers, sundaes and scones, I was ready to move in and stay awhile. Maybe then all the waitresses would know my name, too.

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