Saturday, June 23, 2012

Old Town Cafe: Hauntingly Good

I am almost ashamed to admit that after having lived in Bellingham for 3 years, I have never actually been to Old Town Cafe. I have ordered take out from them several times and the food has always been excellent. So the other morning, after a series of unfortunate food related frustrations, Ashley and I decided to go to Old Town, drink mimosas and have a beautiful breakfast.

The building that Old Town is in has an interesting history. According to an article by Heidi Shiller in the Bellingham Business Journal:
[Old Town Cafe is ] housed in the building known as the Oakland Block, built in 1890 and listed on the National Historic Register, the space now occupied by the Old Town Cafe has been a restaurant for 90 years, according to Jeff Jewell, photo archivist for the Whatcom County Museum of History and Art.

In 1904, the space was one of the only African-American-owned businesses in Whatcom County, called The Mobile Restaurant. It specialized in short orders, an early form of fast food.

The space continued its custom of open-door community through several owners during the course of the century. After The Mobile Restaurant, it was Matt and Millie’s place for about 35 years, serving the rough-and-tumble crowd from the mills. Then, Brainard [the current owner] recalled, it became a “hippie spot” during the ‘60s and was officially named the Old Town Café in 1967. Its reputation grew as a place where people down on their luck could get a free meal. Brainard began working there in the early 1990s, and bought the restaurant in 1995.

The Ghost Hunter's Guide to Seattle and Puget Sound by Jeff Dwyer indicated that the Old Town Cafe is haunted:
By design, the Overland [or Oakland?] Block was home to many small businesses including a rooming house, bars, a gambling hall, and a brothel or two. With this mix of seedy enterprises and the steady flow of lost souls over the decades, it is not a surprise to find a ghost or two in this building. In fact, the present-day Old Town Cafe is haunted by at least two ghosts.

[...] Employees have witnessed dishes that float in the food-preparation area for as long as fifteen minutes. Others, including regular patrons, often hear piano music in the dining area to the left of the doorway. The tunes are described as old-time or honky-tonk, quite a surprise since no piano exists in the building.

Last year, I took one of the Good Times Girls historical walking tours of Bellingham, the Gore and Lore tour, and they told us about reports of an apparition of a old man in the area to the left of the doorway. Also, the strong smell of pipe tobacco in the early mornings when the place is deserted.

When Ashley and I walked in, there was nothing ghostly about the active bustle of happy people enjoying their food amidst the sweet smell of breakfast cooking. As we were waiting, I noted the framed menus from Matt and Millies Good Eats Cafe with .90 cent T-Bone Steaks with French Fried Potatoes. We were seated in the spacious and sunshine bright area to the left, just next to a small play area for children.

We started off with two big mimosas. Ashley got her's with grapefruit. I chose the traditional orange. The juice was fresh and sweet and the bubble was amply present and tasty. The grapefruit especially had a nice balance of flavor with the champagne. 

Ashley ordered the French Toast: "grilled sourdough bread soaked in eggs, half and half, pure vanilla and cinnamon." This was covered in creme fraiche with locally picked blueberries, served with real maple syrup. It was a work of art. Huge pieces of bread, well battered and cooked to a golden brown, sweet enough to eat without any syrup. But with a little maple syrup and the creme fraiche with blueberries, it was a beautiful thing indeed.

I ordered the Farmer's Skillet Deluxe: "homefries grilled with onions, peppers, mushrooms and celery topped with cheddar cheese, salsa and sour cream with two eggs." I ordered the eggs over medium. We also ordered a side of Hempler's bacon. 

The plate was piled high with lightly seasoned, crispy homefries mixed in a nice balance with the peppers, mushrooms, onions and celery. Covered with just the right amount of cheddar cheese. This with an excellent fresh salsa on top with a small dollop of sour cream. The eggs were done exactly as I asked, the yolk just slightly runny, with a rich buttery taste. Two pieces of buttered toast. Soon enough, everything was deliciously mixed together, bites accompanied with cripsy peppery bacon and sips of mimosas. The only problem we had was a happy one: that it was more than we could eat.

The Old Town Cafe is one of the best breakfast places in Bellingham for good reason. Sitting in the rich and fascinating historical ambiance of the place only added more magic to the meal. And, yes, I have to say something about how the only thing you will be haunted by is memory of an amazing meal. My apologies.

Old Town Cafe
316 W. Holly Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 671-4431

All photographs by Ashley Berger and Scot Casey

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