I didn’t really want to be in Spokane. I mean, a five-hour solo drive over the pass just so I could accompany my daughter to a volleyball tournament smack in the middle of nowhere? Even the tourist literature kept harping on the bike trails, as if there wasn’t much else to do.
But like many of us who travel to Washington’s second-biggest city for business, I had no choice, so I packed my bag, notebook and camera expecting the worst. Instead I found block after block of striking architecture, visual and musical culture, and a thriving dining scene that made me wish I had another week to explore.
HISTORY AND ARCHITECTURE
Spokane doesn’t make a great first impression, whichever direction you’re approaching from. Miles and miles of scrubby brown countryside, flattish hills, and finally a city that lurks under Interstate 90 like a brown-brick troll. Once off the freeway, though, you step down into history. Spokane’s downtown holds block after straight block of architectural gems: big, square brick warehouses from the 1880s, clear-cut Art Deco theaters, curvy 1960s concrete and the industrial beauty of zigzagging fire escapes and ghost murals.
On the freeway side, Lincoln Street holds the perfectly preserved Steam Plant Square, the only such in the nation and now a funky host for chic shops and restaurants. One block north on First Avenue is the Davenport Hotel, a 1914 palm court beauty with twisty gilt columns, leaded glass ceilings and, yes, potted palms. Even if you don’t stay there it’s worth lounging in the lobby with a cup of tea, or wandering upstairs and checking out the sumptuous Marie Antoinette ballroom with pastel ceiling mural. You can also dine in style in the Palm Court Grill.
Wander down to Sprague Avenue to see the Art Deco Bing Crosby and Fox theaters, the latter restored inside to a blue-and-gold daze of sconces, mirrors and gleaming geometric proscenium. Walk past the stately busts across from The Spokesman-Review building to Riverside Avenue, which feels like London dropped into Eastern Washington: the neo-Georgian pomp of the Spokane Club, the Corinthian pillars of the Masonic Temple curving in parallel with the tree-lined median, and the soaring towers of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic cathedral. (One of Spokane’s charms is that none of its buildings are that much taller than its historic churches.)
Finally, head back east along Main Street, passing 1960s parking garages with space-age roof curves to the muralled Liberty Building (home to that rare species: a big indie bookstore), in a neighborhood where every other classic brick Victorian houses a café, bar or bakery.
But if you love historic buildings, you have two more walks ahead of you. Cross the mighty Spokane River on the Monroe Street Bridge (walking, to get a postcard photo) and on up the hill past funky vintage shops, turning left on Broadway for the gilt-turreted castle of the county courthouse and the elephantine curves of the Health District building.
A mile west of downtown you’ll find the genteel, tree-lined quiet of Browne’s Addition, established in 1883 and home to expansive Craftsman, Tudor, Queen Anne and Georgian homes. One of them is open to the public: the Campbell House on First Avenue, now part of the Museum of Arts and Culture next door.
CULTURE, INDOOR AND OUT
It goes against the grain for a Tacoman to admit that Spokane has the edge — after all, it only just outranks us for size. But one thing Spokane does well is blend sculpture with nature. The Riverfront Park, leftover from the 1974 world’s fair, juts out into the calm part of the Spokane River (before it hits the falls) with landscaped trails and works like Harold Balasz’ towering “Untitled (Lantern)” offset against the sleek lines of the Convention Center. This is a sculpture walk that kids will love, too: a garbage-eating steel goat, a giant electric-blue bug and the biggest Radio Flyer wagon in the world, which an entire volleyball team had climbed onto for an Instagram shot when I passed by.
Spokane’s Bloomsday run, pulling 50,000 runners every May, is so big it has its own sculpture. Wander down Spokane Falls Boulevard on the downtown side of Riverfront Park to see the determined metal runners stretching around the corner, then cross over into Huntington Park. Developed by Avista, which runs the hydroelectric dam that spills out the river in a majestic torrent, the park walks you down beside the spray of the falls and under the aerial tram cars to the foot of the towering Monroe Street Bridge. On the other side, the Centennial Trail offers scenic biking or walking for miles.
The other art to look out for is under the railway. Slicing through town like a knife, the railroad could have been a blight — instead it’s a host for murals under almost every bridge, like the underwater scene on Lincoln Street.
Indoors, Spokane’s culture gets even better. The Spokane Symphony, under director Eckart Preu, plays an eclectic season that mixes known and new with crisp, energetic playing in the luxe Fox Theater; visiting artists such as Pink Martini round out the calendar.
And over at the Museum of Arts and Culture, the quirky outdoor sculptures (Tom Otterness’ whimsical bronze animals perching on railings and munching in the amphitheater) lead inside to a smart, engaging exhibition called “100 Stories” — Spokane’s 100 years told through art and artifacts from Balasz to Bloomsday T-shirts.
HOT LOCAL DINING
My biggest surprise in Spokane? A dining scene that’s bursting with creative, fresh and often highly local food, housed lovingly in historic buildings with soaring ceilings and exposed-brick walls. You’d need weeks to explore every corner, but here were my finds:• A vegan-friendly breakfast behind the powder-blue trim at Boots (24 W. Main Ave.) With a case full of spicy slaws, salads and carrot cupcakes, I finally went for the pumpkin waffle, which came mouthwateringly crisp with organic maple syrup and a creamy chai butter. It all comes with a serve of edgy flair: tattoo-style art on the booths and a historic red-bull mural on one brick wall. Boots isn’t just a bakery, though. Come back for dinner and custom cocktails mixed behind the dark-wood bar.
• Even more tempting: Breakfasts across the street at The Common Crumb (19 W. Main Ave.), a Parisian-style bakery recently opened by the chef-owner of upmarket Santé and filled with house-made macarons, éclairs and baguettes. Stretch it out into dinner in the same building with brunch at Mediterraneo followed by Spokane’s own Brain Freeze Creamery ice cream (chili chocolate, anyone?) at Affogato.
• At Sandwiches at Stella’s (917 W. Broadway Ave.), a Northside café where the staff have piercings and wear Neff beanies, the wait is long but the food is — aha! — stellar. You’ll find veggie-friendly offerings such as a vegan Reuben and a spicy, sassy jerk tofu with sriracha mayo or parsley salsa. Eat in the light-filled warehouse or take a picnic down to the river.
• Coffee? Locals’ favorite Atticus (222 N. Howard St.), a hipster-and-flannel café with a finch for a logo and right by the endearingly-named Boo Radley’s novelty shop. You can also pick up Japanese coffee mugs, books, leather hip flasks and other essential Northwest items.
• Dinner is a difficult choice. For creative Asian fusion, try Mizuna (214 N. Howard St.). Plenty of vegetarian options include a Szechuan veggie soup that marries sour lemon with sweet rice and soy, and a vegan meatloaf with robust BBQ sauce and crunchy fresh salad. Or there’s the high-budget Santé (404 W. Main Ave.), where chef-owner Jeremy Hansen has two James Beard invites under his belt and creates Euro-style charcuterie dishes with über-local ingredients like shredded elk and broccolini. While the portions are protein-heavy and rich (the beet risotto was sweet and soupy, dusted with a frothy butter), the nutty roast of the vegetables balances. Don’t miss the house-created cocktails at the Butcher Bar.
• For the ultimate in artisan food, though, head over the river to the pretty West Dean neighborhood. At Batch Bakeshop (2023 W. Dean Ave.), they make five different kinds of European yogurt: from the milder Finnish and Swedish to the smooth Bulgarian and tart Mediterranean. All come in tall Mason jars and are made with local milk. Pick up a tangy lemon-jalapeno shortbread cookie while you’re there.
• More favorites include Wild Sage bistro (locally-sourced American food), The Flying Goat pizza, Durkin’s Liquor Bar for burgers, and Ruins for small plates and Art Deco décor.
So you’re stuck in Spokane? Lucky you. Business conventions and volleyball tournaments never looked so good.