Mostly I go out to dinner so I won’t have to cook and wash up. It’s nice to be waited on for a change. I care about the food, of course; I don’t like it to be terrible. With age one’s sense of taste changes and the ability to distinguish subtleties in flavor diminishes. One needs much smaller portions. Jerry and I usually share a main course, and we seldom eat dessert — although Jerry sometimes likes to have ice cream.
Here on the island we have 3 and a half eateries. There is the Willows which is a pleasant old house with a big veranda overlooking the bay and islands. When I first came to the island it was closed, having failed as an inn and restaurant sometime before I got here. It opened up again after Riley and Judy bought it. They had an organic chicken farm, Nettles Farm, just up the hill from the Willows, and they combined the attraction of fresh grown organic food and the lovely view. The prices were on the high side for a small island, but okay for a treat. The chicken was tough, the other food only sometimes good. After an early embarrassment — they were closed by police one night in the middle of service because they were serving wine without a license– the business limped along, aided by some island investors. Locally caught prawns cooked on the deck by Riley were a summer attraction.
Then Riley got some “consultants” to help. A wunderkind chef was hired and the “consultants” got the Willows reviewed in the New York Times as “one of the 10 best places in the world to fly into for dinner”. The fact that there is no air strip on the island apparently didn’t matter. You can come on your float plane, I guess. Business picked up, but not enough to save Riley (Judy had already bowed out). Now it’s owned by a few people (wunderkind among them) and financed by some wealthy island investors. Most people on the island (myself and Jerry included) can’t afford to go there. Dinner with wine is said to set one back around $600 for 2. I have had dinner described to me as many courses of tiny servings, each brought to the table by a “chef” (all the cooks at the Willows call themselves chefs) who explains (poetically) the ingredients and how they are prepared. One of my informants said he was told a lot more than he wanted to know about the youth and tenderness of the lamb he was about to enjoy eating (it “had never tasted its mother’s milk,” etc). The Willows “chefs” can be seen prowling about the island woods, meadows and beaches “foraging” for interesting snippets of edible plants and tasty seaweed. They buy lamb and other meats from island farmers (there are a few here, generally hobby farms). The menu is fixed, and the food is elegantly presented on rocks and planks.
Recently Facebook has been full of excited entries about a magnificent yacht (a helicopter on its upper deck), owned by a Russian Billionaire banker, that anchored at Lummi. The billionaire, his wife and 2 companions came ashore on a small boat for dinner at the Willows. The Islander, our island grocery, almost ran out of beer as locals bought six packs to sit on the beach and ogle rich Russians on their way to eat.
A couple from Iowa who were guests in my vacation rental went to the Willows as their vacation splurge. They did the whole $600 thing which includes a lot of wine. Just before the main item was presented (lamb) Kendra began to feel ill, the effects of a lot of rich food and excess wine, and she and Ed had to leave in a hurry. The numerous Willows staff who hovered and described the food seemed confused and annoyed by having their routine interrupted by what they felt was an inappropriate response to their performance. Kendra told me later that she had written to the actual executive chef, one of the owners, to complain of the way she was treated. She forwarded the letter of apology that she got. I thought it was a bit haughty. It advised her, if she needed anything in the future, to correspond with the “sales manager.”
There is an adjunct to the Willows, called the Taproot, which is in a daylight basement section of the old house. It has gone through a number if iterations all of them essentially sandwiches and fast food. The service has been terrible when I have been there or taken friends. However, it was reasonably priced. Now it boasts sandwiches with organic ingredients on fresh home baked bread. You have to get your own sandwich out of a refrigerator, and wait, sometimes a long time, for beverages. A friend says:”I’m not going there for a wet, cold sandwich I have to get myself.”
The Beach Store Cafe, the island’s only other restaurant, is what’s there if I don’t want to cook dinner.
It has had pizza, hamburgers, nachos, fish and chips and the like. Jerry and I share a pizza (10 inch was plenty for us), have a couple of glasses of wine and a salad. If we don’t drink too much wine we can get out for about $35-$45. The Beach Store Cafe is now owned and operated by the Willows. They need an alternative eatery for their guests who come to stay for a couple of days. Most people can’t manage a 20 + course $600 meal every night. So now the menu at the Beach Store Cafe pretends to be “local” “organic” and “gourmet”, though the big Food Services of America truck comes across on the ferry regularly. Perish the thought that it could be going to the Willows. You can still get pizza (not quite as good as it used to be), fish and chips and hamburgers. The rest of the menu consists of trendy descriptions of generally unappealing food.
After Kendra and Ed’s unfortunate experience at the Willows I suggested that they venture to the mainland and go to my favorite restaurant, The Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive. It has been operating successfully for many years. An older man who often waits on us told us he has worked there for 30 years. The building sits on a cliff on the side of a sheer hillside overlooking Puget Sound and islands to the west. The view is stunning. Kendra and Ed loved it. They said that the service was unusually attentive and pleasant. So when Jerry and I celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary on August 9 we went there.
The drive down Chuckanut is beautiful but scary with its sharp bends and long drops to the rocks of the shore. I love the views of the islands and the towering firs of the forest. Almost a month has passed since then, so I can’t remember what I ate, but it was good. There’s champagne sorbet between courses and a delicate little cheese souffle comes with dinner. We shared a dessert — tiny but nice.
Now we are in Alaska at our dear little house in Manley Hot Springs. We came as far as Haines AK on the ferry. In summer the boat is the Columbia. It has a dining room with views out the back of the boat. It’s a pleasant place to sit, but the food is really terrible. The portions are skimpy, so sharing doesn’t work. The alternative is fast food in the snack bar where you can’t get wine. After 2 dinners of almost inedible food in the dining room we got snack bar stuff and carried it into the bar (that’s allowed so long as you bus your own dishes) so we could have some wine with our fish and chips.
From Haines to Fairbanks you drive through Canada. We stopped in Haines Junction for the night and had dinner at the main local eatery. It is owned and run by a couple of Chinese men and it features “Chinese and American” (not Canadian) food. Jerry and I chose from the evening specials because they were relatively cheap. The Chinese cooks were barely able to tear themselves away from watching the US Open Tennis tournament on TV to prepare our dinners. Our waitress, a cheerful Canadian woman, told us that they bet on the matches. I had BBQ duck (?). I suspected it had been around for a while. Jerry had pork chops. They were wafer thin and cooked until hard. He had trouble chewing them.
When we got to Fairbanks we were again faced with the prospect of eating out in a place where there are no good restaurants. We went to the Pump House. This is Fairbanks’ high end restaurant. It’s on the Chena river in an old mining pump house. We parked our GMC pickup among the other pickups of various vintages. There are pretty gardens outside with giant Alaskan cabbages and artichokes among the flowers.
As you enter there’s a glass case containing a huge stuffed grizzly bear.
The walls are decorated with lots of old photos of the gold rush and old mining tools. The restaurant is near the University so there are often academic types eating there. I like the ambiance. The waiter was polite and tried to be helpful, but the food was pretty bad. Jerry and I shared grilled halibut recommended by the waiter. It was overcooked and dry.
More and more people are eating out these days. I regularly read the dining section in the New York Times and the food sounds so good — both the recipes and the descriptions of New York restaurant food. Is my problem my old taste buds, or is most restaurant food bad? Is it really so good in New York?
I have been thinking about the Manley Road House. It is an authentic old Alaska road house, one of the few left in almost it’s original condition. It dates from the early 20th Century.
A few years ago Jerry and I were walking in “downtown” Manley and we passed three well dressed people accompanied by a well groomed toy poodle. They were going to the Road House for lunch! I suppose they came on their private plane. There is an airstrip here, now updated to the tune of $14 million. That was before Bob Lee, its owner, died.
Now the Road House is owned and run by his widow. She is a youngish woman, not high energy, and known for her difficulty interacting with the public. So the Road House doesn’t serve the public any more, just visiting work crews, from the airport or the under construction road to Tanana which runs by our house.
I think of what a young person with some money and imagination could do with this: a real old road house in wild interior Alaska, a tiny town where bears and moose roam free, where locals go out to tend their trap lines or prospect for gold or fish the Tanana River for salmon and grayling, where there are undeveloped hot springs and where there is a good airport that private jets could easily fly in. Suppose the Road House had great food, specializing on local game. Suppose it had good service. Suppose it had well appointed luxury rooms and cabins and a well kept camp ground. Think of the possibilities!
Sometime, after Jerry and I are long gone, perhaps. Or perhaps the old house will just fall into disrepair and crumble away. I wonder which will happen.