One of the newest arrivals to the region's burgeoning culinary scene was bustling and busy on a recent Wednesday evening, even with dine-in seating at half capacity as employees wearing face masks ferried food out from the open kitchen.
Since opening its doors in mid-August, Wooden City Spokane has been a welcome bright spot for many diners seeking a new and exciting experience, not to mention a reason to leave the house. The restaurant was founded by a trio of owners who opened the first Wooden City in Tacoma two years ago. Its menu features mostly casual American eats like burgers, wood-fired pizza and housemade pasta, with a high attention to detail and technique, and some French and Italian influences, says co-owner and chef Jon Green.
"So far, I think people want to come in and experience us for the first time in person, which totally makes sense," Green says of the fact that Wooden City has seen significantly more customers opting to eat in than order carryout since its debut.
Opening at half capacity while statewide COVID-19 restrictions remain in place has also come with unexpected benefits. It's allowed Wooden City's staff to slowly ease into the ebbs and flows of service, and to adapt its business model appropriately, Green says.
"Had we opened at full capacity in the space it might have actually been too crazy right out of the gate," he says. "It almost has this built-in soft opening effect for us. The last thing you want to do is open and be slammed and have bad first impressions."
Green says starting out with a smaller staff and reduced sales projections, versus having to scale everything back from peak service levels, has also helped.
Wooden City is located in the historic Genesee building on Riverside Avenue, taking up the full first floor of the 1892-built brick storefront that's listed on Spokane County's historic register. The restaurant boasts an expansive dining room with mezzanine seating around one half, and an open-layout kitchen beyond the bar on the other half.
Green says the Spokane restaurant's menu is very similar to what's served at Wooden City in Tacoma, which he opened in 2018 with business partners Abe Fox and Eddie Gulberg. Since deciding to expand to Spokane last year, Green and Gulberg have both permanently relocated to the area to focus on the new eatery.
For the menu, Green brings experience from cooking at restaurant kitchens in larger metropolitan areas across the U.S. and internationally. His resume includes stints at Michelin-starred spots like the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Gramercy Tavern in New York City.
"The menu has a lot of things you're familiar with, like housemade pasta and pizza and burgers and steak frites, but it's done with a high attention to detail," Green says. "So we make a Caesar salad, but we fry the croutons to order."
An early standout dish — and a Wooden City specialty — is Green's blistered Hungarian wax peppers ($14). A pair of the medium-heat peppers are stuffed with sweet sausage, aged cheddar and served with chive oil and toasted ciabatta. The recipe from Green's family is often part of their holiday celebrations.
"As soon as we had a wood-fired oven and started trying it in the oven, it took it over the top and we knew we had to serve it at the restaurant," he says. "It's become a classic and favorite for us, for sure."
Another uncommon yet popular menu item is a colorful beet ravioli ($22) with goat cheese, basil and pistachio butter.
"I couldn't even tell you how many times I heard someone say 'I don't even like beets, and this is one of the best things I've ever had,'" Green says. "I think it's one of our best dishes for sure."
Wooden City's menu is rounded out with several shareable appetizers and small plates, including house-smoked salmon toast ($15), chicken wings ($13), a couple salads and more.
For larger portions, Wooden City offers two burgers ($15) — the standard Tavern burger and the Fancy burger with mushrooms and Swiss — and a fried chicken sandwich ($15). There are six wood-fired pizzas ($14-$18), including a vegan option. Traditional entrees include steak frites ($30), a wood-fired half chicken ($21), seared scallops and lamb bolognese ($23).
"I worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in my 20s, and have worked with some of the most expensive ingredients in the world, but here we're applying all those attention-to-detail standards to a concept that is a little more casual and approachable and fun," Green says. "I'm trying to create a restaurant that I would want to go to."
The full bar offers cocktails, bottled and canned beer, wine by the glass and several housemade mocktails ($7 each), a lavender lemonade and strawberry shrub soda included. Happy hour specials for food and drink are offered from 4-5:30 pm each day. For now, the restaurant only offers dinner service.
Wooden City's name is an homage to its founding city, Tacoma. Green says he and co-owner Fox came across a historical account of the western Washington port city referring to it as the "wooden city" for serving as a central shipping hub for the Northwest's plentiful timber industry.
"We just really liked it. The name itself tied to Tacoma, but it also felt like a callout to where we all started from when we came up with the concept," Green explains.
By coincidence, the name Wooden City could arguably tie into Spokane's history, too, through the building it's located in. The Genesee building is one of few still-standing brick structures constructed in the aftermath of the Great Spokane Fire of 1889, when most of the then timber-built city burnt to the ground.
Green says the partners chose Tacoma and Spokane as homes for their restaurants for similar reasons. Both are mid-sized cities seeing significant revitalization and growth, and offer less expensive commercial real estate than larger cities like Seattle and Portland. That fact partly results in less saturation and competition for the restaurant industry.
"We felt like it was a really awesome opportunity to do the type of restaurant we dreamed of doing, and open where there weren't a dozen similar concepts on the same block, and we could actually afford the rent," Green says. "It allowed us to do a restaurant where the main focus was about having a good time and providing a good experience for people." ♦
Wooden City Spokane • 821 W. Riverside Ave. • Open Wed-Sun from 4-9 pm • woodencityspokane.com • 822-7194