Small-Town Stunner Olympia is on the path to trendiness

photo by Ingrid Barrentine

written by Naomi Tomky

Singing at the bar at Dillinger’s, the upscale cocktail bar built in an old bank building, I asked my bartender, Donny Drake, what Olympia was missing. “Lots and lots of people,” he answered.

As the I-5 corridor’s big cities grow up, Olympia has quietly and consistently kept its core intact. Washington’s capital remains the same as it’s been for years, now with a few fancier trappings (like the cocktail bar). You can still duck into bars and listen to bands that might someday be famous—the future Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill or The Gossip—but now you can pre-game with oysters shucked to order. The town’s best beers still brag about using artesian well water, but mass-market pale ale is out and microbrew IPAs have taken its place.

As Olympia eases along the path to trendiness that Seattle and Portland paved—gaining a food hall, a food truck pod and a cutting-edge coffee roastery—it does so at its own pace. The town of just over 50,000 refurbishes historic buildings into modern uses, offers reinventions of businesses that have been around for years—like the farmers market, which has been going for more than forty years—and welcomes newcomers to see the old stuff, be it in antique malls or historic landmarks.

Spend three days in Olympia, and you’ll walk from one edge of downtown to the other a half-dozen times, and like Drake, you’ll think to yourself—passing the uncrowded waterfront path—“Why aren’t there more people here? ”But then you’ll book a last-minute hotel room, saddle straight up to any bar in town, and think about how nice it is to be in a city that gives you a little bit of space.

Day 1
COFFEE • ANTIQUES • BEER

Olympia’s coffee scene, like so many in the Northwest, is world-class, starting with the flagship Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. The downtown location, opened in 2015, shares its obsession with coffee quality through the glass-walled roastery and in every cup. Nitro cold-brew kegs, various pour overs, and a view into the inner workings of a coffee company make this a pleasant place to pause before starting the day in earnest.

While the gem of Olympia’s market for old stuff, the Olympia Flea Market, closed in September, the city still has a walkable trail of shops through downtown. Start just up the block from the roastery at Finders Keepers Antique Mall, where forty booths sell everything from high-end dinnerware to heaps of old buttons. If that’s not enough, within a few blocks are the Courtyard Antique Mall, Antique Junkie and Peacock Vintage.

For lunch, return to the modern era with a stop at 222 Market, the food hall that follows the national trend to bring marquee restaurants and food shops under a single roof. Chelsea Farms, a second-generation family business, brings its fresh bivalves straight from the source to its oyster bar here. Dig into shucked-to-order platters of signature Chelsea Gems, sit at the beautiful bar, and wash them down with a bowl of chilled asparagus soup. Then it’s time to head off in search of further beverages—while there’s a budding wine scene, this has long been a beer town. Olympia Beer started bragging about its well water-brewed beer in 1896, and the legacy—and slogan, “It’s the water”—remain prominent today. Well 80 Brewhouse promotes the strongest ties to the well-water roots of Olympia beer, and the enormous restaurant caters to families. Three Magnets, a few blocks away, has more of a traditional taproom feel and the best beers by far. It does have a kid-friendly restaurant section, but the taproom is the best place to sample the half-dozen or so IPA options. For those willing to go farther a field, Top Rung, in Lacey, is worth the trip.

After an afternoon of beer tasting, come back to the center of town for a hearty plate of Rush In Dumplings. The Russian dumplings, in flavors such as curry beef or buffalo, will do the hard work of soaking up all that beer and get you ready for a night exploring the Olympia nightlife—or hitting the hay back in the hotel.

Day 2
SNACKS • OUTDOORS • COCKTAILS

In summer, the Olympia Farmers Market rolls up the doors four days a week, but even the weekly Saturday market in winter remains a destination for visitors. The permanent, dedicated location gives a community feeling—and having a roof makes it more palatable whatever the weather. Pick up a few snacks fora mini-hike and pop into Batdorf & Bronson for a cupping (the industry word for tasting) of its coffee beans.

Then head down the street back to 222 Market to sample baked goods at the Bread Peddler. The wild yeast breads, European-style pastries and rustic sweets and savories pile up along the counter, a feast for the eyes before becoming a feast for the stomach.

From there, head out for a taste of nature and history at Tumwater Falls Park, a quick ten-minute drive south from the market. The 15-acre park offers short trails starting at the falls themselves, with labeled native plants, historic building markers and footbridges. Look up to see the original Olympia Brewery building. Stop at one of the benches and dig into your picnic supplies from the market before heading back into town. Pop into Dillinger’s, the newly expanded cocktail bar in one of the town’s oldest buildings. The Security Building, from 1927, once held a bank. Owner Sandy Hall embraced that history in putting together a Prohibition-era theme for the bar. Drinks like the “ is is a Shrobbery” (mezcal, tequila, strawberry and lemon) play on the theme, and the original vault has a table for people who like to drink behind 6-inch thick concrete walls. Dinner is eclectic, including okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes), local crab cakes and pork and grits, but worth sticking around for.

Day 3
BRUNCH • KIDS TIME • PIZZA

Take a leisurely Sunday stroll right back to Dillinger’s next-door neighbor, Mousetrap, for a five-course brunch. The small, reservations-only meals aren’t a secret, but they fly under the radar—even though they have some of the best food in town. Despite the cheese-shop setting, chef Austin Navarre (previously at the Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar) goes light on the cheese, instead focusing on whatever local, in-season ingredients he can find—sautéed vegetables with cured egg yolk, duck fat biscuits and steak and grits.

The meal isn’t super kid-friendly, but they’re happy to accommodate. And if you do have little ones with you, reward them for their patience with a stop into the Hands On Children’s Museum. Olympia’s kids museum trumps both the Seattle and Portland versions and is worth a trip on its own, with crafts, local-themed activities and elaborate water exhibits. Older kids and adults can skip that in favor of a trip to the state capitol building, which offers free daily tours.

Cap off the trip with a casual meal at a local favorite. Decorated with retro memorabilia, Old School Pizzeria has been slinging slices since 1995. Long a favorite hangout of college students, it’s the sort that exists in every town, but gives as good a flavor of a place as any hyper-local, farm-to-table spot. It’s the kind of place where high school kids drink endless soda and their college peers drink beers while small children crawl about, where the people who are here, the ones who aren’t missing out, gather for pies.

Olympia, Washington

EAT

Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar

www.chelseafarms.net/oyster-bar

Our Table

www.ourtableolympia.com/our-table

Nineveh Assyrian

www.nineveholympia.com

El Pulgarcito

www.restaurantelpulgarcito.com

The Mouse Trap

www.olymousetrap.com

Old School Pizzeria

www.oldschool-pizzeria.com

STAY

The Governor Hotel

www.coasthotels.com

Swantown Inn & Spa

www.swantowninn.com

Hilton Garden Inn

www.hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com

PLAY

Tumwater Falls Park

www.olytumfoundation.org

Olympia Farmers Market

www.olympiafarmersmarket.com

Capitol Building

www.olympiawa.gov

Hands On Children’s Museum

www.hocm.org

Little Creek Casino Resort

www.little-creek.com