Step off the city’s ledge and land on Bainbridge Island.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY SHANNON DOUGLAS
Keith says Bainbridge Island’s maritime environment plus its proximity to Washington’s prolific wheat producers create a terroir that just can’t be replicated elsewhere. “One of the things I really wanted to do was make spirits that were evocative of where they were made,” he says. And the island is an intrinsic part of that, with its salt-infused air that creeps into the barrels as they breathe.
“It’s the perfect storm,” Keith says. “Where else are you going to get that?”
At his tasting room and distillery, where visitors take tours and sample the goods, Keith shows off another aspect of Bainbridge Island: the love of all things local. “People here move at a slower pace, and they appreciate the details,” he says. “They’re willing to give things time to develop. We wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for the people of the island and the people that visit here,” he says.
It’s that spirit that brought me to Bainbridge Island. As I rode the ferry from downtown Seattle, the late spring sun shone brightly on Elliott Bay, turning the crest of each wave into a disco ball. The curved summit of Mount Rainier flung pancake-shaped lenticular clouds into a saturated sky. Sitting on the top deck of the boat, catching glimpses of faraway mountains in between the groups of speed walkers, I was reminded of one of Seattle’s best aspects: the effortlessness with which one can step off the city’s ledge and into a spectacular escape.
From the ferry terminal on the island, it’s a quick walk to downtown Winslow’s Cape Cod-esque collection of shops and restaurants. I chose the indirect, scenic route — the Waterfront Trail — which wends along the northern edge of Eagle Harbor.
I settled into my room at the Eagle Harbor Inn, a collection of modern townhomes huddled around a leafy courtyard, two blocks from the downtown strip, near Winslow Wharf Marina. My top-floor room caught a warm, salty breeze from the harbor. With the windows open, I could hear the clanking of sailboat halyards against their masts. The inn doesn’t offer much in the way of services — there’s no front desk, for example — but it’s a quiet and convenient base. In the mornings, fresh coffee from Pegasus Coffee, just down the road, is available for the guests.
It’s easy to kill a few hours in downtown, where the few blocks are packed with wineries, a bakery, several top-notch restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, and the contemporary-leaning Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.
The museum is a must-stop on the main drag. Its small size relative to its metropolitan counterparts means that its exhibits are more tightly curated, focusing on local artists. The café, under the direction of Stephanie Knutson, sources locally whenever possible, especially when it comes to produce. There’s always a Farmers Market Special on the menu; beverages, including all wines, are sourced nearby, and many products are made from scratch.
Other potential stops include wine tastings at Eleven Winery, Amelia Wynn Winery, and Eagle Harbor Wine Co.; baked goods and coffee at Blackbird Bakery; and tuna sliders at Harbor Public House. Visitors can now sip beer at Bainbridge Brewing’s second and more centrally-located taproom, recently opened in the former home of Alehouse On Winslow, next to the art museum. The farmers market, held every Saturday from March 31 through December 15, shows off island gems within walking distance of the ferry.
The standout of the bunch is Hitchcock Restaurant, chef Brendan McGill’s magnum opus. It’s the flagship of his growing collection of restaurants and delis that stretches to downtown Seattle and Georgetown.
Since Brendan opened the restaurant in 2010, he’s racked up the awards, including a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for Best Chef: Northwest in 2014. Brendan continues to hold his own in an increasingly competitive farm-to-table dining scene, where it seems that every chef is figuring out inventive ways to preserve the growing season’s fleeting peak. He’s been a leading voice among top area chefs working to define Pacific Northwest cuisine. For his part, Brendan leans slightly Italian in his influences, with handmade pastas and charcuterie playing a central role in the Hitchcock menu.
When I visited, Brendan had recently celebrated the restaurant’s eighth birthday by briefly closing Hitchcock — and next-door Hitchcock Deli — for renovations. He spruced up and brightened the space, adding new tabletops and an ethereal mural of misty mountains and evergreen trees.
“We could have continued to grow our restaurant family, or we could have poured a lot of love back into this place,” he says. “We chose to go back to where we started.”
He also marked another milestone. He scaled up his Shady Acres Farm that he and his wife, Heidi, bought to complement the restaurant. After eight years, all of Hitchcock’s pork products come from Brendan’s Mangalitsa pigs. It’s an accomplishment of which he’s particularly proud.
Though Hitchcock has the spotlight now, there’s no denying that Greg Atkinson, who owns locavore favorite Restaurant Marche in downtown Winslow with his wife, Betsy, has long had an influence on the scene here.
At their charming, modern restaurant, traditional French dishes like croque monsieur, tarte flambé, and salade niçoise are executed to perfection. For Greg, being close to the sources of his ingredients — the vegetables, the berries, the orchard fruits — keeps him inspired. “The chickens that source our eggs live so close to my house, I can hear them clucking,” he says.
Greg and Betsy moved to the island from Friday Harbor in 1996. They had two small children at the time, and Greg was promoted from a consultant at Canlis to Executive Chef. “Moving to the city was too extreme,” he says. But Bainbridge was a perfect fit.
Save room for dessert at the island-born MORA Iced Creamery, also downtown. The from-scratch operation uses fresh milk, eggs, and cane sugar. Creative and traditional flavors range from dulce de leche to goat cheese with fig to banana split. The island-born favorite now has locations in Nevada and Utah, plus four others in Washington.
Bainbridge also harbors an impressive wine scene, with seven producers sourcing a combination of island-grown grapes and Eastern Washington fruit. Brooke Huffman, director of the Winery Alliance of Bainbridge Island and co-owner of Fletcher Bay Winery, says they each bring a different perspective to their craft.
“We’re all unique,” she says. “It’s fun to taste at all the wineries because you’ll try things you’ve probably never had before, but it all has the winemaker’s personal approach added in. The wineries are all small, so most of the time you visit, you’ll meet the winemaker.”
Why such a collection of wineries in an area that doesn’t produce many grapes? “When you come to Bainbridge, when you get on the ferry, it’s like letting out a big exhale,” says Brooke. “You’re going into this relaxing, laid-back, amazing place, and a lot of the winemakers visited and ended up wanting to stay.”
That’s a sentiment I can get behind. Aboard the ferry home, I take advantage of a rare warm breeze in late spring and find a seat on the top deck. As we push away from the dock, the Seattle skyline glitters back into focus.
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.