BY JACK RUSSILLO
IF ANYWHERE MAKES YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE TASTING where your meal came from, it’s the café at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat (doebay.com). They manage to capture the spirit of place on every plate. The place? Horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island, at the northwestern corner of Washington in the San Juan archipelago. The allure? Its thoughtful sourcing and use of ingredients. Aside from their halibut—which is caught in Alaska—ingredients don’t come from farther away than the islands or Skagit Valley just across the Rosario Strait on the mainland.
As someone who grew up on Orcas Island, I appreciate the emphasis on local sourcing that forms the backbone of the café’s philosophy.
Built on a site that was traditionally used by Coast Salish tribes for potlatches, island settlers established the Doe Bay community in the mid-1800s. Over the next century and a half, as the island developed, the southeastern tip of the Orcas horseshoe grew as a place for people to get in touch with the natural world. In 2003, when Joe and Maureen Brotherton bought the Doe Bay property, they wanted to preserve its natural environment for generations to come.
After the land purchase, the waterfront restaurant was renovated to accompany the campsites, cabins, and yurts as a rustic resort. Slowly but surely, the café developed a seed-to-table vision that has transformed the well-lit space into one of the finest culinary experiences in an archipelago rich with an already notable food scene. While the restaurant is the farthest eatery away from the ferry landing, it has come of age in recent years and has become a destination well worth the trip.
Breakfast at Doe Bay once meant a solid breakfast sandwich with eggs, ham, and cheese on an English muffin. Today, that sandwich will be made with on-island ingredients and topped with garden-fresh kale and an artisan garlic aioli. It’s the attention to detail and importance placed on buying local ingredients that helped this one-time hippy haven step up its gastronomy game from ordinary fare to a fine-dining establishment.
Although the resort’s clothing-optional spa does draw some attention, it’s the dishes made with fresh, local ingredients that were the focus of my recent trip to the café. In addition
to having their own chickens and bees, Doe Bay’s on-site organic garden provides herbs and vegetables that are used for all meals and even some of the bar’s unique cocktails. Outside the garden, purveyors around the San Juan Islands—like Buck Bay Shellfish Farm—provide a variety of ingredients such as crab, oysters, fresh-roasted coffee and cheese. Locally made beverages, like wines from Lopez Island Vineyards, give the menu a local flair.
I began my Doe Bay meal by indulging in an Elwha Rock IPA from Island Hoppin’ Brewery. As I sat on the patio watching the sky turn from a soft blue to lilac, my order of roasted beets arrived, garnished with a garlic scape pesto, pistachios, fiore sardo, mint and Myer’s goat cheese. Soon after, a plate of fried summer squash and grilled onions atop a fragrant salbitxada sauce came. For the main course, I ordered gnocchi with uni, oyster mushrooms, grana padano and bread crumbs. Dessert consisted of a cup of house-made pistachio-oregano-chocolate ice cream, which, despite its savory tendencies, made for a sweet finish to the meal.
Overhead stringed lights lit my outside table, and flaming patio heaters took the chill out of the evening breeze that blew off the water. Warm blankets provided by the restaurant invite diners to cozy up and settle in for an unrushed evening. Inside, the café’s walls are made of island lumber with images of the island’s scenery and the resort’s annual music and art festival, Doe Bay Fest, decorating the exposed ceiling beams. In the middle of the dining room, the bar is loaded with spirits, with glasses hanging from the rafters above, giving a full view of the bartenders at work. The dining room windows offer a view to the bay below the restaurant and farther out to the Salish Sea.
On Thursdays, an open mic night attracts locals and tourists alike to the café to partake in songs and discounted drinks, while weekends bring heavier crowds and the need for reservations.
Find more adventures and lodging on the San Juan Islands at visitsanjuans.com.