Bites and Beers in Bellingham

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From the beginning, Bellingham has been a place between. Formed as a merger between four preexisting towns in 1903, Bellingham is halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, partway between the San Juan Islands and the deep snow of Mount Baker, somewhere between a college town and a city. The community attracts both outdoor enthusiasts and Western Washington University students who often end up staying permanently. I once overheard a bartender saying he came to Bellingham in the 1970s to go skiing and never left.

I know locals who complain that Bellingham can’t keep an upscale restaurant alive. At one time there were several fine dining destinations, like Nimbus, Flats and Tivoli. In recent years those businesses have dwindled and in their place has come a Portland-like plethora of brewpubs, sandwich shops, and food trucks that seems to fit the town’s casual approach. Despite the focus on non-pretentious, portable food, there’s still an expectation that restaurants will use local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients.

If you’d rather sit down to eat, next door to the market is La Fiamma Wood Fired Pizza. The pizza here is not traditional Neapolitan, but the crust is lightly burnt (“kissed by the flames”) and chewy, and they have every possible topping, from housemade lamb sausage or smoked salmon to vegetables of all sorts. Try the Grecian Formula, a white-sauced pizza topped with thinly sliced steak, feta, olives, spinach and peppers (also available in a vegetarian version). They recently opened a pizza slice window on one side of the building appropriately named “the Pye Hole.”

Many visitors are familiar with local microbrew juggernaut Boundary Bay Brewery, but trying to get a table can feel like swimming upstream, so it’s nice that there are now other options for good beer and pub food. One of these is the recently opened Aslan Brewery, featuring an expansive line of “dank” beers, served in a bright, minimalist space with a short but interesting menu that includes large metal bowls of kale salad and waffle fry poutine. Another favorite it the Local Public House, a taproom for Menace Brewing out of Ferndale, but also features rotating taps from other breweries in Western Washington, especially beers made in Bellingham. They make what is possibly the best Reuben in the entire world, although a server recently informed me that their pho burger would change my life.

Kulshan Brewery, a wildly popular hangout in the Sunnyland neighborhood north of downtown, has a taproom and a beer garden but no kitchen, so food trucks park there on a regular schedule to provide food to the beer drinkers. The most frequent truck, StrEAT Food, is credited with kicking off the food truck craze in Bellingham, and their falafel pita and chicken artichoke sandwich have become legendary.

In a similar spirit, one of Bellingham’s newer eateries, Schweinhaus, converted a drive-through coffee shack into a German sausage takeout window, outfitted a funky old truck with a wood-fired oven and a flat-screen TV, and set out picnic tables just in time for the World Cup last summer. With the arrival of winter, they have put a roof over the main eating area and are fitting it with canvas screens to keep out the wind, figuring that Bellinghamsters aren’t deterred by a little cold and wet. On a recent lunch we were kept warm by a combination of roaring heaters and big crusty pretzels, hot from the oven, with mustard so spicy I thought my nasal passages had caught fire. The currywurst with kraut didn’t hurt, either.

In a university town, takeout is king, from Peruvian sandwiches to hand pies, soup, tamales and dumplings. A personal favorite is Mediterranean Specialties, tucked into a unlikely-looking gas station strip mall near the university. Owned by a Lebanese family, it offers food to eat in or take out, including schawarma, gyros, spanakopita, dolmas, roasted vegetables and soups, plus a vast selection of middle-eastern groceries, spices and supplies. Za’atar, couscous, pasta, freekeh, wine, tea, and olive oil fill the aisles, and the cooler is stocked with fresh lamb, phyllo dough, labneh, feta and pita. It’s an excellent spot to pick up dinner or ingredients, and they have cooking classes in case you’re not sure what to do with all those ingredients.

Besides the pubs, food trucks and takeout windows, the heart of Bellingham’s eating-out scene centers around the intersection of Holly and Bay Street, where in nice weather the sidewalks spill over with people. Bayou on Bay serves catfish po’boys and gumbo, with a wide selection of deep-fried items, including okra, frog legs, and alligator meat. Less than a block away in any direction you can find fresh crullers and vegan dougnuts, crepes, pizza by the slice, burritos, and really good coffee. And then there’s the Temple Bar, one of the best places in town for a date night or casual happy-hour get together, with its daily special of a bottle of wine and cheese plate for $18, bordello décor, unusual cocktails, and special salads, soups, or cheesy gratins sourced from local farms or the owner’s personal farm, The Farmlette.

For those who prefer something stronger than beer or wine, there are finally some really good places to get a cocktail. The Real McCoy, which opened about two years ago in the old Prospect Street Café space, is the baby of Brandon Wicklund, who learned his craft under Jim German in Waitsburg, then ran a traveling bar business before settling into his permanent location. Wicklund knows his way around a craft cocktail—classics as well as his own elegant creations. I love asking him to surprise  me with something off menu, but I keep coming back for his Old Fashioned, which he keeps on tap and is absolutely perfect. The kitchen provides a selection of small plates to accompany the cocktails.

On the other side of downtown in the Bellingham Herald building is Rock and Rye, originally an oyster and cocktail bar connected with Bayou on Bay. They opened in their new incarnation earlier this summer and are taking the local scene by storm. It’s the place to get a cocktail and a truly fine plate of oysters (a recent menu listed nine different varieties), and at happy hour it’s easy to fill up on steamer clams or their astonishing pork taco, but it’s worth staying for dinner items like pork belly carbonara or shiitake and oyster chowder. They’ve just started serving brunch, with an intriguing menu of accompanying beverages, including an oyster Bloody Mary and a “breakfast martini” with marmalade in it.

On Saturdays, the food scene revolves around the farmer’s market, which runs weekly from April through Christmas, then switches to monthly for the winter. Even on a chilly, foggy day, the market is bright with squash and peppers while musicians tune up their banjos and a balloon man entertains small children bundled up in parkas. If it’s drizzling, the covered area fills up with people clutching hot coffee or takeout plates of curry while they shop. Besides produce, meat, cheese, bread, and crafts, the market has a great bunch of prepared food vendors. Many people just eat their way around the market instead of going out to lunch (two of the most popular, Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine and Brandywine Kitchen, have opened their own restaurants).

To end the day on a sweet note, there are plenty of bakeries and cupcake shops in town. But the hot spot—the one with lines out the door late into the night—is Mallard Ice Cream. Their Mint Oreo is a classic, but they have flavors for the adventurous ranging from Olive Oil to Frankincense, as well as a selection based on what’s in season from local farmers.

When it comes to good eats, the city between has come out on top.


Jessamyn Tuttle is a freelance writer and photographer based in the Skagit Valley. She blogs about cooking and eating at


Rock and Rye
1145 N State St
Bellingham, Washington 98225
(360) 746-6130

Bayou on Bay
1300 Bay St,
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 752-2968

Real McCoy
114 Prospect St
Bellingham, Washington
(360) 392-8051

Temple Bar
306 W Champion St
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 676-8660

The Local Public House
1427 Railroad Ave
Bellingham, Washington
(360) 306-3731

La Fiamma pizza
200 E Chestnut St
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 647-0060

Aslan Brewing
1330 N Forest St
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 778-2088

Kulshan Brewing Co.
2238 James St
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 389-5348

StrEAT food
6220 Portal Way, Ferndale, WA 98248 (trailer)
355 Harris Ave, Bellingham, WA 98225 (café)
(360) 927-0011

Schweinhaus Biergarten
1330 N. State St.
Bellingham, WA 98225

Bellingham farmers market
1100 Railroad Ave
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 647-2060

1323 Railroad Ave
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 734-3884

Mediterranean specialties
505 32nd St Ste 108
Bellingham, Washington 98225
(360) 738-6895

Ciao Thyme
207 Unity St, Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 733-1267



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