Saturday, July 3, 2010
WALLA WALLA - A white-linen restaurant wouldn't have lasted 10 years in a boots-and-jeans town if the Fork Police had been wandering around the dining room.
But such was the battle of misconceptions when the Whitehouse-Crawford opened in May 2000, said chef and co-owner Jamie Guerin.
"This perception got out there that we were very, very snobby and very expensive, and that you had to know what fork to use and dress a certain way," Guerin said.
Looking back this may have been a knee-jerk reaction to the restaurant's promise of a one-of-a-kind, first-class dining experience. It was only the beginning of several challenges to operating a fancy restaurant in a laid-back town.
Now at their 10th anniversary, operators have overcome - for the most part - concerns about flatware and dress code. They've also mastered the never-ending staffing cycles and off-season business fluctuations inherent in a destination town.
"There's no question you make progress May through October and then you have to save that money for paying your bills in the wintertime," Guerin said.
Dare he say it, the restaurant's success over the last 10 years may have even helped lay some ground for Walla Walla's upscale restaurant explosion.
"It seems to get a little better every year," Guerin said during a recent visit near the restaurant fireplace. "Even with the economy, we've been holding steady. I think a lot of it has to do with where we are - Wine Country."
The Whitehouse-Crawford was by no means the area's only destination for fine food when it opened at the corner of Third Avenue and Cherry Street.
By then Bruce and Heather Hiebert had been at it for 22 years at Patit Creek Restaurant on the northern edge of Dayton. Tiffany Cain had been creating dishes at the Weinhard Caf. Clark Covey and his then-Homestead Restaurant had long been staples of the restaurant scene on Isaacs Avenue. Bob Parrish had introduced his Backstage Bistro downtown as an eclectic attraction for food and music. And The Marc was establishing itself as a newcomer in the revitalized Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.
But as with those and others that came before, the Whitehouse-Crawford was designed to provide an experience diners could receive in no other place. And the owners were determined to do it with gusto.
The location was the beginning. Started by the late Carl Schmitt, a 1956 Whitman College graduate and retired California banker, and his wife, Sonia, the restaurant was the finishing piece in the preservation of an architectural icon.
The Schmitts had battled City Hall to save the historic building, constructed in 1903 as a planing mill.
"When we bought the building we had no idea it would become a restaurant," Sonia Smith said in a February 2008 interview with the Union-Bulletin after her husband's death. "We were trying to help the city agencies understand that you could utilize historic buildings and make them economically feasible ... And that is what we did with the Whitehouse-Crawford building."
The intensive refurbishment offset the old brick from the walls with whitewashed beams and ancient red-fir floors. Through a wall of old glass windows diners got a view of the barrel room of neighboring Seven Hills Winery. The unusual open kitchen formation also gave them a view of their food as it was made.
The opening couldn't have come at a better time, Guerin said. The number of local wineries was approaching 30, and "people in the wine business needed some place to showcase their wines," he said.
Guerin wanted to accentuate the local wine with local food. He forged relationships with area farmers, bringing seasonal produce harvested that morning from places like Castoldi Farms and Edwards Family Farm into the restaurant. Cheese from Dayton's Monteillet Fromagerie made its way into the restaurant, as did meat from Thundering Hooves.
And the selection of wines just got bigger and better, including vintages that can't be found at any other restaurant in the world since they come from winemakers right in the community.
"We wanted to represent Walla Walla," Guerin said. "We didn't want just a fancy restaurant that you can pick up and plunk down in any city. It's a local building, local wine list, local owners and local food."
As for the prices, Guerin's Wagyu beef tenderloin with red wine sauce, mushrooms sauteed in foie gras butter, and mashed potatoes is currently the most expensive entree at $39.
But a Whitehouse-Crawford burger with bacon, cheddar, mustard aioli, and fried sweet onions is $16, comparable to entrees at family restaurants throughout the area.
To accommodate trends in local dining - including the winter months when local residents seem to take in the cold weather holed up at home - the restaurant has played with its hours, its calendar, its menu and its specials.
More options means more opportunities to introduce customers to the restaurant. Something as simple as a sandwich or pizza and beer can be served in the bar area, or those who want a six-course tasting menu can enjoy it in the dining room. Some guests come for appetizers and wine. Others take in dessert and coffee after a movie.
"It's not just five courses and a car payment for your birthday dinner," Guerin said.
And it's nothing that requires special training in dining etiquette.
"You can use any fork you want on the table," he quipped. "We'll bring you a new one."
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.