While in college, I attended a conference in western New York. I didn’t expect Buffalo to be particularly interesting (given its post-industrial decline and a decades-long flight to the suburbs), but I was surprised to find a slowly-revitalizing, unique city with an unapologetic sense of pride.
I think I was most surprised by the food. Either I had exceptionally capable storytellers as tour guides, or the region truly had its own unique cuisine, often brought by European immigrants to their new homes. Beef on weck (a type of roast beef sandwich), Loganberry (a berry flavored beverage), kielbasa (a Polish sausage), and of course, Buffalo wings. Regional cuisine had given birth to regional events. On Thursdays, thousands of Buffalo residents descend on a local public square to patronize a pod of twenty-plus food trucks and listen to live music with their neighbors.The level of regional identity, regional pride, caught me off-guard.
In Spokane, short of huckleberries, craft IPAs, and perhaps fresh salmon, we have few universally-accepted “iconic” regional dishes or ingredients. Our food truck and pop-up scene, while fantastic, doesn’t yet have the critical mass necessary to support weekly large-scale events. And even well-loved and established local restaurants, like The Blackbird or Santé, don’t always last.
Fortunately, these conditions enable our local food scene to experiment and create, and patrons are often willing to go along for the ride.
Without rigid constraints on what qualifies as a pizza (I see you, Chicago and New York), in Spokane you can order a Thai pizza—or one with blackberries, orange zest, and brie (seriously). Craving a happy hour snack? Indulge on some bacon fat popcorn. Want an interesting, globally-inspired new menu every month? We’ve got a restaurant for you.
Likewise, Inlander Restaurant Week and Pig Out in the Park offer “traditional” food-centric events, but the Kendall Yards Night Market—which does not focus on prepared food—attracts hordes of local residents with fresh produce and artisanal goods, live music, and spectacular people-watching.
In other words, because our local food scene operates free of the constraints of areas with more established cuisines, events, or environments, it can innovate with relative abandon. Our culinary identity can be one of diversity, creativity, and risk-taking.
To be clear, our local restaurateurs certainly need more support and resources. We need to streamline the permitting and licensing processes for new restaurants. We should support new patio dining and other opportunities to grow incremental revenue. We should work to ensure existing and future buildings are affordable to independent and chef-owned restaurants. And the scene as a whole needs significantly more marketing support, to share what our chefs have created here in a mid-sized, second-tier city between Seattle and Minneapolis.
But I would take unexpected gems, culinary diversity, and creative entrepreneurship over Buffalo wings any day or the week.
Anthony Gill is an economic development professional and the founder of Spokane Rising, an urbanist blog focused on ways to make our city a better place to live.