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Walla Walla, Wash.

This town is still famous for its sweet onions—but, oh, the food and wine.

picture Visitors at Pepper Bridge Winery sip wine
Photo credit
Photo: Andrew Geiger
Photo caption
Visitors at Pepper Bridge Winery sip vino, al fresco.

In a soaring, candlelit dining room, I’m feasting on plump mussels steamed with sweet leeks, apples, locally made hard cider, and cream. Beyond a tall picture window lie stacked oak barrels containing fine red wines from local vineyards. But to pair with my mussels, I’ve settled on a rarer bottle of old-vine sémillon– sauvignon blanc, also made from grapes grown nearby.

Despite appearances, this isn’t a four-star restaurant in California’s Napa Valley. Instead I’m dining at Whitehouse-Crawford in Walla Walla, Wash., four hours southeast of Seattle. The restaurant is in an old lumber mill adjoining Seven Hills Winery—and the food rivals that of a sleek upscale urban bistro.

Surrounding this uncommonly sophisticated farm town of 30,000, whose name means "many waters," is a multicolored patchwork of sun-bleached wheat fields, fruit orchards, and rolling vineyards strewn with some 80 wineries. Where sweet onions and Whitman College were once the main celebrities, full-bodied cabernets and merlots have been attracting attention for the past two decades. Now some imaginative chefs have moved into town, helping to transform the semiarid agricultural region into a culinary and viticultural destination.

Although big-sky views and meandering wine routes await on the outskirts of Walla Walla, you could easily spend an entire weekend venturing no farther than downtown. Restored 19th-century brick buildings and mills now house salumerias, wine bars, bistros, and nearly 20 tasting rooms, such as the one at Forgeron Cellars Winery, ensconced in an old blacksmith shop. Between sips, you can wander through art galleries or browse at Cheval, a clothing boutique owned by New York City fashion designer Giancarlo Solimano, a recent Walla Walla transplant.

From May through October, the weekend farmers’ market showcases local squash, tomatoes, corn, cherries, and peaches. At chef Mike Davis’s 26brix, diners relish braised lamb shanks napped with a syrah reduction. Luscious by Nature serves succulent pulled pork sandwiches and mojito chicken salad. Patrons cozy up to chocolate tarts at Colville St. Patisserie. By dusk, though, most diners are pouring their favorite bottle of local red and toasting the last few rays of grape-ripening sun.

Sample new wines from this year’s harvest at Walla Walla’s 12th annual Holiday Barrel Tasting, when more than 50 local wineries open their cellars to the public. You’ll meet winemakers and learn about the viticultural process. Dec. 1–2.

This article was first published in November 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.