One recent weekend, as Maximillian Petty wrapped up a busy Saturday night service at his new restaurant, Kinglet, in Walla Walla, his mind was already on a brunch dish he was about to serve at the other end of the state.
This year, the chef behind Seattle’s elegant Eden Hill expanded to Washington’s wine capital, perhaps the highest profile move in a slate of new developments in the town’s culinary landscape. Petty and his wife, Jennifer, took over the historic building that was long home to Whitehouse-Crawford and its tableclothed brand of fine dining. In February, it reopened as Kinglet, an 80-seat space that balances user-friendly burgers and pork chops with a tasting menu that might include savory churros and a yolk-topped risotto of green apple and wild onion.
Roughly half of Kinglet’s visitors are game for the chef’s tasting—an impressive ratio considering each course remains a surprise until it arrives at the table. The regular menu includes a section of canapes that can make even the most straightforward dinner feel like a small party. “If people are going to taste around town with wine, we want them to have the same kind of fun here,” says Max Petty.
It’s rare for a Seattle chef to expand this far afield. That’s how Petty found himself overseeing Kinglet’s Saturday night menus, then hopping in his van to cater a private brunch in Seattle the next morning. One dish on the morning menu, a potato rosti, required four hours in a sous vide bath. Unable to find time at the restaurant, the enterprising chef plugged his sous vide setup into an outlet in his van, then buckled the potatoes in their water bath gently into the passenger seat to cook during the four-hour drive back to Seattle.
But he’s made it onto the text chain among Walla Walla restaurant owners, and he fields questions about the town from other curious Seattle chefs. With its proximity to Washington agriculture, Walla Walla’s always had an abundance of remarkable produce (not to mention those legendary onions). But the city’s restaurant scene has gained considerable dimension in recent years, even against the backdrop of a pandemic that hobbled tourism.
Abeja winery has added fine dining to its idyllic farmstead and inn property, serving multicourse seasonal menus that pair pork belly and king salmon with library pours. Andrae’s Kitchen, a longtime favorite, recently moved out of its memorable digs inside a gas station. Chef Andrae Bopp upgraded to AK’s Mercado, a bi-level destination for cheffy tacos inside a prime downtown address.
In Seattle, it’s hard to find a chef more respected than Mike Easton. Except now you’ll find him 20 minutes outside Walla Walla. The chef behind Il Nido in West Seattle sold his restaurant and moved to Waitsburg this summer to open Bar Bacetto. Easton and his family live above his seasonal pasta bar, which channels memories of his first restaurant, Il Corvo. Back in 2016, he wrote the opening menu at Passatempo Taverna in Walla Walla, which continues cementing a reputation for pasta so good you’ll gladly cross the Cascades to eat it.
That mountain crossing is a significant reason why Walla Walla’s restaurants don’t skew fancy, in the vein of California’s wine country’s dining scene. In this town, you better appeal to locals, or you’ll be hard-pressed for customers once the tourists head home. Chris Ainsworth of Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen remembers the year warm winter temperatures wrecked Washington’s ski season and kept the passes unusually clear. “That was the most successful winter we ever had.”
Though Walla Walla’s population hovers somewhere between Lake Stevens and the town of SeaTac, it draws steady visitors from Seattle, Portland, even Boise. As Washington’s wine claims an ever-grander position on the national landscape, it seems intuitive that the restaurants would follow suit. But the town’s geography serves as a sort of culinary bullshit detector. Or, as Ainsworth tells new staff during their orientation at Saffron, feeding the locals “is the foundation of what we do.”