Published on July 20th, 2011 | by Kate Albert Ward1
Future of Food and Drink in Tacoma
Watch Tacoma Grow
This slogan is still appropriate today, especially when examining Tacoma’s burgeoning food and drink scene. In the past couple of years, Tacoma has seen several new restaurants and bars open their doors, bolstering neighborhoods like the Sixth Ave Business District and the intersection of South Seventh and St. Helens.
A recent trend in Tacoma’s developing food culture, however, warrants a modification of the historical slogan to read “Watch Tacoma Grow [Up].” By no means will Tacomans abandon the beloved dive bars and regular haunts of their youth, but the rise of innovative food and drink in Tacoma evidences a movement towards a more sophisticated palate.
Thanks to a new brand of civic pride that has led locals to invest in their community rather than flee, Tacoma has the privilege of hosting a number of culinary visionaries. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a few of these folks– Jaime Kay Jones and Kyle Wnuk of Marrow, Todd Buckley of the Tacoma Alcohol Consortium, and Chris Keil of 1022 South — in order to learn more about their latest ventures and borrow their insight into the state of food and drink in Tacoma.
Make New Friends and Keep the Old
As co-owner of Top of Tacoma with her husband Jason, Jaime Kay Jones firmly believes in the purpose of a favorite neighborhood bar. However, this self-proclaimed food nerd also knows there is a need in this town for something new — something drastically different, in fact.
The Joneses have teamed up with Chef Kyle Wnuk to create the newly opened Marrow, a fine-dining establishment founded in French cooking techniques and modern American cuisine.
Located in the spot once occupied by Beyond the Bridge Cafe, this new Sixth Ave destination boasts a seasonally-changing menu to take advantage of the best the region has to offer in produce and uncommon proteins, such as oxtail, goat, and wild boar. And a seasonally changing marrow dish, of course.
As a part of their impulse to be sustainable and stretch the visitor’s imagination for what constitutes food, the menu features dishes that emphasize the use of every part of the animal.
Not to be outshone by the exotic meats and unique ways in which they are prepared, the vegetarian menu, “Arrow,” offers tantalizing plant-based dishes that likewise push preconceived notions of vegetarian food. Accorded its own careful attention, one can rest assured that the vegetarian food is cooked on separate surfaces from the meat.
The careful planning put into Marrow does not stop there. The very naming of the restaurant intends to convey a sense of depth and the desire to reach the core of Tacoma.
The concept for Marrow is perhaps more typical for a city like Portland or Seattle, but, as Jones notes, “We’ve spent our lives defending Tacoma,” and she and her partners want to put their energy into things that will benefit the city they call home. Wnuk was the only student from Tacoma when he was in culinary school in Seattle, and despite offers to work in the Emerald City, he made it his mission to “make it happen” in Tacoma. The folks behind Marrow strive to create a comfortable atmosphere where they can share their passion for quality, locally sourced food with their neighbors.
Marrow is classy — a place to bring a special date — but also very accessible. Small plates starting at $6 allow diners at Marrow to explore new foods with little risk. The menu includes a glossary for unfamiliar terms and the staff has gone through rigorous training in order to guide diners through the experience.
“Good food is for everyone. I don’t think you need to go spend $100 on a meal to have a gourmet experience,” Jaime adds. Marrow is now open to the 21-and-over public. Hours are from 4pm to 2am, Tuesday through Saturday. You can follow Marrow on facebook.
A Second Renaissance
Todd Buckley says he first realized Tacoma was cool when he went to Murano, Italy over ten years ago; when he mentioned he was from Tacoma he was swarmed as if he were a rockstar.
Just as the studio glass movement put Tacoma on the map, Buckley believes that food and alcohol could spark a second Renaissance. The glass movement thrives in Tacoma in part because the city has a rich history of craft and a strong work ethic. This same foundation paired with a great location—necessary population density and close proximity to rich agriculture—grants Tacoma strong potential for becoming nationally recognized as forward-thinking in food and drink. From this vantage point, Tacoma can look to Portland for inspiration, but will inevitably infuse its own edge.
Buckley hopefully muses that “In five to ten years, Tacoma could have the Portland problem of being saturated with too many great restaurants.”
Buckley recognizes that the landscape of food and drink in Tacoma still needs to be cultivated. To help mold the future of the city in this arena, Buckley has created the Tacoma Alcohol Consortium (TAC) as a platform for like-minded individuals to come together and encourage each other to do great things. True to this cause, the list of attendees of TAC’s first event, a whiskey tasting held at Pacific Grill, reads like a list of “who’s who” in the Tacoma culinary scene. Buckley expressed great appreciation for Pacific Grill, a forerunner in the current epicurean trend, for hosting the event and providing an amazing bourbon-infused menu to complement the tasting.
Secondarily, TAC’s events also pave the way for the craft distillery Buckley hopes to open by the end of the year. Destiny Distilled Spirits will produce bourbon and brandy: “Bourbon because I love bourbon and it’s an all-American spirit, and brandy to take advantage of the great fruit in the region,” said Buckley. The demand for spirits has advanced nationally and locally, yet Tacoma does not currently have a distillery. Boutique distilleries have been popping up all over Oregon for the past fifteen years, but Washington has lagged behind because of a law that wasn’t repealed until just a few years ago.
In 2007, Dry Fly in Spokane opened the first legal grain distillery in Washington since Prohibition. Buckley points out that of the dozens of distilleries that have opened in Washington since the law changed, most produce vodka. By concentrating on bourbon and brandy, Destiny Distilled Spirits will reach an untapped market.
From Columbia Breweries’ almost 80-year long run (1900 to 1979) to the many bootlegging establishments in downtown Tacoma during Prohibition, Tacoma has a storied history in alcohol production. With the impending demolition of the Columbia Brewery, Joshua Swainston of the Volcano rhetorically asked “how Tacoma will fill the historical void.”
Figures like Buckley, however, prove that the legacy lives on in the people of Tacoma as he plans on opening Destiny Distilled Spirits in Tacoma’s historic brewery district. Buckley would like to see this area evolve into a flourishing distillery district because it would be restorative to the area as well as give Tacoma the opportunity to become a strong player in the growing market for craft distilleries.
The most recent Tacoma Alcohol Constortium gathering, TAC to TOC, was held on July 17th at 1022 South as a send off for several local bartenders who were heading down to the cocktail conference Tales of the Cocktail (TOC) in New Orleans. The next event will be a viewing party for Ken Burn’s documentary Prohibition in early October. Keep up-to-date with TAC via facebook and twitter @TACALCO.
That’s Right, Tacoma.
Owner of the highly-praised craft cocktail bar 1022 South, Chris Keil, was among the Tacoma bartenders who made their way down to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. Keil was impressed and inspired by the professionalism and hospitality of every restaurant and bar he went to in New Orleans. In terms of representing Tacoma at the conference, however, Keil remarked that “No one knows where Tacoma is and no one cares. That includes people from Seattle.” The lack of recognition at such an event makes it clear that Tacoma has not yet arrived, but the optimist in me doesn’t foresee it staying this way for long.
1022 South recently celebrated its second anniversary, and of the people with whom I spoke, Keil had the most tempered perspective on the future of food and drink in Tacoma. Though craft cocktails are in line with a national interest in cooking shows, Slow Food, Nose-to-Tail, Farm-to-Table, and other similar food movements, Keil points out that it is still a niche market in Tacoma. In Tacoma, he says, “people get excited about cheap food, but not necessarily about quality.” Keil sells his meticulous craft cocktails at the lowest price he can without compromising quality and “still keep the lights on.” In conceiving 1022 South, he created the kind of place he would want to go to– a place that is attractive and special, but still affordable and casual.
Keil acknowledges that food and drink could lead to a second Renaissance in Tacoma, but its going to take a lot of work. To open a restaurant in Tacoma, “you have to open something interesting. You need to be humble, have a good location, low overhead, and work really hard.” The role of hard work and a consciousness of demographic was expressed by all of my interviewees, encouraging my hope that they will incite further maturation in how we approach what we eat and drink in Tacoma.
Keil himself has a plan in the works to open a restaurant in the same building that houses 1022 South. When the the yet-to-be-named restaurant is fully realized, it will function as a coffee shop in the morning to address the lack of coffee on Hilltop, and an all-ages restaurant throughout the day until after dinner, when it will transition into a bar.
Keil’s finds inspiration in The Alembic Bar in San Fransisco as well as the old saloons of historic Tacoma. In trying to describe the future restaurant, Keil thew out terms such as New American tavern and Gastropub, but gave up in recognition that there isn’t a simple shorthand term for what he is trying to accomplish. He intends to have a predominantly vegetarian menu, though not strictly due to an understandable weakness for bacon.
Ideally, Keil would like to see more neighborhoods in Tacoma with a number of diverse shops, eateries, and drinking holes that would make them more walkable. He sees potential for this in East Tacoma near Top of Tacoma, South 56th near the new Sounder Station, and, of course, in Hilltop. These are all areas with affordable housing, where young professionals are moving in. Investing in these areas would in turn also attract more people, stimulating a sense of community and boosting the fiscal growth in those neighborhoods.
All of the constituents with whom I spoke firmly believe in the importance of supporting the local economy by sourcing ingredients and materials through other independent businesses in the region, such as Mad Hat Tea, Valhalla, and Corina Bakery.
Going with a large national company would perhaps be less expensive, but relying on others in their own community demonstrates a faith in Tacoma as well as keeps money local. This latter motivation was stressed by Keil and Buckley, who both quoted the aphorism “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and Jaime Kay Jones who pointed out the important work of Go Local Tacoma, an organization whose vision is to “[build] community that supports and is supported by local independent businesses”.
As a part of the developing local economy and its relationship to the food scene, Keil said he would like to see a year-round farmer’s market in Tacoma as well as increased availability of locally sourced meat. In tandem, Jones suggested that Freight House Square would do well to adapt into a market like Pike’s Place in Seattle. Additionally, Tacoma should look to thriving boutique markets like Seattle’s Melrose Market on Capitol Hill. More positive signs that Tacoma is on the right path include the impending opening of the City’s first food co-op. Models and movements such as these would benefit businesses like 1022 South, Marrow, and Destiny Distilled Spirits while encouraging Tacomans to be more aware of the importance of understanding where the food they put in their body comes from.
Playing with Food
As Tacoma “grows up,” the demand for something different will grow with it. This will most certainly include not only how Tacomans approach a night out, but also, how we feed our kids. A natural evolution would be an independent cafe that features an indoor playground to encourage physical activity. The cafe would serve nutritious, locally sourced food that would appeal to kids and adults alike. This would provide an alternative to the McDonald’s PlayPlace, allowing parents to feel good about supporting their local community and what they are feeding their kids. I have very little experience working in a restaurant and would probably name the restaurant something stupid like “Playing with Food,” so I am sending this out into the universe with the hope that someone else will make it happen. Please?