I-5. Exit 260. Lummi Island. Someday…someday.
That was it. I had driven past that exit one too many times. I had read too many articles since 2011 about the Willows Inn and master chef Blaine Wetzel’s culinary magic. I had heard far too many “you MUST go, guarantee you’ll love it” comments from friends who had experienced the aforementioned magic. No more waiting. Time to go.
Approachable and warm. Elegant and cozy. Stylish and unpretentious. All words that I had heard used to describe the dining experience at the Willows Inn. I can safely add another…magical.
You’re doing yourself a disservice if you only go to experience dinner at the Willows Inn. Lummi Island is meant to be an adventure. One that opens your eyes, ears and taste buds to a deeper understanding of why Blaine decided to return to the PNW and put down roots on this special rock instead of zipping away to Seattle to do battle with the other local culinary kings.
It starts the moment you squeeze on the ferry (22 cars max, best to take a pack and bike on if you can) and feel the cool sea breeze hitting your face as you take a quick 6-minute jaunt over to Lummi. As you exit the ferry, take a deep breath and pause. Get ready to slow down life and embrace minimalism (locals will say the pace of life here is like Lopez…but slower). Pick a direction and go as your options for exploration are limited to a total of 9 square miles. You’ll quickly realize that it’s the size of Lummi that makes this place so damn special.
Beautiful forested hikes with jaw-dropping views of the San Juan Islands. Makeshift artist galleries set next to picturesque farms. Muffled sounds of the tide smoothing rocks on driftwood-strewn beaches. Empty roads scattered with local residents offering a a quick wave on their routine afternoon stroll. Time is meant to tick by and minutes enjoyed in this idyllic setting. You should treat it no other way.
Pulling up to Willows Inn is like arriving at your best family friend’s house for a low-key summer barbeque. A younger couple lounges peacefully in white adirondack chairs perched on a lush green lawn while enjoying mid-afternoon cocktails with a panoramic view of the Puget Sound. Subtle shouts of excitement are heard in the distance as a family competes in a friendly game of bocce ball.
Doors around the Inn and the restaurant are all wide open welcoming visitors to take a stroll, read a carefully selected cookbook, peek in at the kitchen or do nothing but stare outside and embrace the subtle ocean breeze. Sounds of an axe chopping wood are heard over the barely audible War On Drugs tunes projecting from outdoor speakers. The master chef himself is spotted outside, hunkered over his smoker fine-tuning a dish that is guaranteed to be one of the best single bites you’ve ever experienced.
As late afternoon bleeds into early evening, excitement and anticipation builds as you get ready to immerse yourself into a 20-course meal crafted by one of the most talented chefs in the world. Before you know it, Blaine is at your table welcoming you to try one of his favorite local ciders. For a moment you’re starstruck before realizing that this culinary wizard may in fact be a tinge more shy than you. A few “snacks” (yes, a single shiitake mushroom can seriously taste like gold melting in your mouth) later and you already have a clear sense of the masterful dining experience Blaine has created.
The wide eyes and “oh my gosh” remarks are consistent across tables as conversation and laughs fill the air with sunset drifting into darkness. From salt-cured beets with gin flavored yogurt (Good. God.) to smoked king salmon with lovage and cherry tomatoes to blackberries with shaved wild chamomile (Good. Good. God.) to perfectly paired wines and digestif teas (holy smoked birchwood pine tea), the food and drink pairings will undoubtedly blow you away. But for me, it was far more than questioning how and why every new bite could possibly be the best dish I’ve ever tasted.
As you look around the room and absorb the details, it becomes crystal clear. Blaine has it down. From the casual vibe and ample table spacing, course pacing and perfectly timed lighting adjustments, to the music selections, beautiful dinnerware and friendly faces mixed with sheer passion that emits from every person on his staff. He’s nailed it. Every detail is thought through. What you witness is an artist and his friends in their element wanting nothing more than to craft and share with you one of the finest locally-sourced PNW-themed meals you’ll ever experience. This is community. This is you experiencing Blaine’s sense of home.
Before you depart the Willows Inn, eat breakfast. I repeat, eat breakfast. I may have been churning in the afterglow of the previous night’s meal but I’m a pretty solid judge of a standout breakfast. To no surprise, Willows delivers beyond expectations. The variety and mix of locally-sourced goodness will make it just that much harder to leave this magical place. Be fair warned that you’ll need a good couple hours to pry yourself away from your french press coffee, zucchini bread, goat raspberry yogurt, salmon lox, cheese, fresh-squeezed grape juice and whatever other goodness they put in front of your bulging eyes. And if the food weren’t enough, be wary of getting a stiff neck from staring outside at morning beams of sunlight striking down on islands as far as the eye can see.
This island, this inn, these meals, this experience. it’s worth every penny and I can’t wait to do it again. Thank you Blaine. Thank you Willows. Until next time…