Fine wine is only part of what makes a famous wine region, and Walla Walla's food scene is legit—seriously robust rather than “good for a small town.” Make reservations where they're accepted; if Walla Walla was ever a hidden gem, those days have long passed.
The passing of the great Whoopemup Hollow Cafe in 2019 opened a window for a new brand of Southern Exposure to step into the spotlight. Launched by an Alabama couple on a quiet downtown block (but near the town’s reigning fine-dining champ Passatempo Taverna), the small space dishes big flavors. Like very crisp fried chicken bathed in “backyard sauce”—flavored with the kind of herbs you might find in a personal garden. Muddled fresh peaches in a bourbon cocktail are a sweet Southern reprieve from all the wine, but the glassed-off wine cellar has its share of big local names. Don’t skip the housemade chocolate-studded bread pudding, whose aroma alone is enough to justify its addition to an already-hearty meal.
Dan Thiessen oversaw the kitchens at the Space Needle and Salty’s before he was drawn back to the Eastern Washington farmland of his childhood. It was more than a scenic return—the cattle ranch he grew up on helped inspire the Walla Walla Steak Co., a venture he co-launched in the town’s old train depots. He’s even rearing his own cattle, though they’re not yet part of the meat co-op that supplies the New Yorks, filets, and top sirloins that end up on the restaurant’s charcoal grill. The wine town is ripe for a steak-first joint, one serious enough to offer a 34-ounce bone-in rib eye, and the Crossbuck Brewing taproom that shares the building is burgers-and-IPA counterprogramming to all the cabs and prime cuts.
Other wine regions may sport Michelin-starred restaurants, but Walla Walla puts on a global banquet at small-town prices. Il Nido's Mike Easton helped open Passatempo in downtown Walla Walla (though he's no longer a part of it), and the handmade pastas—all under $25—are as notable as the fact that you can get in without a reservation on a weeknight. When it launched in 2016, Easton called the fare “a bit more interesting;” the relationship of the rustic Italian food with the local wines was always at the forefront.
Wine country can mean a slate of same-old American classics, maybe a sprinkle of French and Italian. Saffron isn’t afraid to serve gözleme, a Turkish flatbread, half a world from the Bosphorus. A slate of salads and housemade pastas, familiar Italian and steaks, makes room for fans of every part of the Mediterranean coast. Open since 2007, it's become a sort of elder statesman in the Walla Walla dining scene, its reliable reputation well earned.
It's right there in the name: Welcome to breakfast central in downtown Walla Walla. But for all the Ron Swanson simplicity, the menu spends more time in Mexico: migas, huevos con chorizo, chilaquiles. Between a tofu stir-fry topped with kimchi and stuffed brioche french toast, the plain old bacon and eggs entree is almost lost. Lunch includes a modest spread of sandwiches and salads, and a wall of hot sauces—look for the shelves under a luchador portrait—are not just Instagram bait.
One of the best meals in Walla Walla used to come out of a gas station. The food counter at Andrae's Kitchen dished street food that deserved a finer table than the ones near the Cenex gas pumps, but the ramshackle location was part of the charm. Andrae Bopp moved to a more conventional space downtown in early 2021, dishing tacos and smoked meats and hosting a market of local vendors. Jim German, the cocktail mind behind now-shuttered but much-beloved Jimgermanbar, leads the drinks program.