“Small Islands, Big Taste”

In Human Interest, Non-fiction on July 29, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Written by Alex Ashley

Put the question to a handful of Washingtonians, “Any suggestions?” when on the hunt for quality, interesting, and eclectic restaurants and eateries, and do you know what you’ll get? A map dotted with possibility after possibility–an exciting profusion of culinary prospects–and all of them waiting for you to grab a menu and pull up a chair.

This is especially true when visiting the San Juan Islands, the Northwestern most part of the great state of Washington.  Nestled safely between the United States’ mainland, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, the archipelago of six islands is home to a variety of eating houses, all of which offering an assortment of tastes and styles, catering to the diversified palettes of patrons–locals and visitors alike! And here’s a secret: You literally never have to leave the San Juan Islands area to get one of the best culinary experiences of your life.  Don’t believe me?


The Gere-a-Deli–Anacortes

            The Gere-a-Deli is our first stop.  Housed in a beautifully maintained old brick building that used to be the town bank in the 1920’s,  everything about it personifies the cheery, vintage, small-town charm patrons have come to expect of places like the Deli, which has been feeding and caring for Anacortes since 1981, and has been family owned and operated the entire time.

Stepping into the Gere-a-Deli is like stepping into a time machine and going back 60 or 70 years; it’s like revisiting an era young guys like me have only heard bedtime stories about.  An era characterized by smiling faces, classic cars, and a firmly rooted belief in human decency.  On the walls leading up to the 20-foot ceilings, vintage advertisements and old Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Carnation milk ads are scattered tastefully about as warm reminders of the passing of time.  That, and the cheerful, speedy, attentive, and well…attractive waitresses and servers only reinforce the intuition that you are in another world altogether.

But the special part isn’t at all about the spacious, brightly-lit dining room.  It isn’t about the wistful, nostalgic décor.  It isn’t even about the appealing personnel.  It is about the food.  With 14 different types of fresh-made salads, 27 different types of sandwiches (hot or cold), and what seems like an endless variety of other deli treats, including soups, pies, cakes, and cobblers, The Gere-a-Deli of Anacortes is one of Washington’s ways of saying “welcome”!


The Place–Friday Harbor (San Juan Island)

            Stop number two takes us a little over 20 miles West of the mainland to the beautiful San Juan Island, home of Friday Harbor.  It’s about an hour trip by ferry (much longer if you swim) but it’s worth it, and here’s why: In the Summer of 1995, allured by the majestic beauty of the Islands and their unique culture,  25-year chef and restaurant manager Steve Anderson and his wife Kathy, sold their home in Seattle, packed up their four kids (ages 7, 9, 13 and 17) and became Islanders.  Their goal was to introduce a high-quality fine dining establishment with a unique forte: Local cuisine.

They succeeded.

            “These days the terms ‘local this’ and ‘local that’ have become somewhat of a culinary ‘buzzword,’” observes Steve.  “Unfortunately, some establishments throw the term around just to appeal to diners, but they don’t necessarily have what it takes to hold to the standard you would expect.” Well, for the Andersons the word “local” isn’t just a “culinary buzzword.” They talk the talk and walk the walk!

“We source as many local island products as we can,” Steve explains.  “We feature Northwest cuisine, primarily Northwest-coastal.  And so our oysters are off Orcas Island, our clams are from right here on San Juan Island.  And there are three excellent farms on Walden Island that provide us with nearly all of our fresh, top-quality organic produce.  We serve Island wines, and there is also a coffee roaster right here in Friday Harbor that provides us with what I’d call the best coffee available.”

The Andersons and The Place will be celebrating 15 years of business this May, since the grand opening in 1996.  “We have been fortunate to have the success we have had in this area of competition,” says Steve.  And then, appreciatively, he adds: “And we are fortunate to live in an area that has so much to offer.” Indeed, if you’re looking for a top quality eatery that offers the best in Island cuisine from every angle, do yourself a favor and visit the Andersons.  It’s The Place to go! They have done something I’m not totally sure anybody else has been able to do of their caliber; they have learned to harness the power of local markets to create the ultimate Washington island experience for food lovers.

The Love Dog Café–Lopez, Island

            “All are welcome into this breaking of bread and this circle of friends.  May this food nurture your body and sustain your spirit.” So reads the sign displayed for all to see in the dining room of Lopez Island’s Love Dog Café.  Yet, as prayerful and welcoming as they may seem, there is more to those words than a mere proverbial “best wishes.” The entire eatery has been built around them.

Enter the Love Dog Café, and you’ll likely meet White Bear, the woman behind the Love Dog and its magic.  With silver hair and a beaming smile, she seems to be a living prism refracting all that is good about being an Islander: Zest, compassion, and accommodation.  But she also knows a thing or two–scratch that, all there is to know–about what it takes to make a meal into an experience.

“We try to bring a lot of spirit to our food,” she says, referring to the notably colorful and vibrant dishes that are served.  Diners have even been known, on many occasions, to stand up out of their chairs and take snapshots of their meals before eating it.

“We sell food here, that’s true,” states White Bear.  “But our product is love and healing. We put out high quality food that is beautiful and has really good intentional energy in it. We serve that food in a caring way in a space that radiates warmth and nurturing. People feel that.”

With a clean, empty plate or bowl as her canvas, White Bear uses as her paints and paintbrushes the best of ingredients from all over Washington state in her culinary creations.  From halibut swimming in the cold waters near Deception Pass, to salmon from the Columbia River, to clams and oysters grown locally, her seafood is top-notch.  Although White Bear’s menu is not all meat-oriented, the meat she does use–the lamb, the beef, the pork–is literally the best of the best, even award-winning.  Too, she tries to gather her own berries, and her organic produce is sourced from island and Skagit Valley farms.  However, White Bear is quick to acknowledge that although “local” to some is an indicator of freshness and quality, this isn’t always the case.  “Just because products are local doesn’t mean they are always the best quality,” she says.  “You still have to be selective, even on a local level.”

Unlike others in the restaurant business who sometimes use it merely as a job to keep them afloat until they find something they really like, cooking and accommodating passers thru is White Bear’s passion.  She put herself through college for six years working in the dining hall of her University while getting her Masters in Comparative Mythology and Creative Writing.  When the restaurant that is now The Love Dog was about to go into bankruptcy, she took over.  And now on her 11th year as an owner and host at The Love Dog Café, she loves her job more than ever.  Pay her a visit, have a bite to eat, and discover what humanity is all about.

Wherever your travels through the Evergreen State might be taking you, be sure to make time to enjoy what the San Juan Islands have to offer: the quintessence of Washington cuisine, made in Washington, for Washington, with Washington.  So taste! And see what being from our great State is all about!

{Published, Washington Magazine 2011}

  1. This is your best Alex.

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