Vashon Island is 37 square miles of winding, woodsy roads dotted with adorable, honor-system farm stands. Its quiet beaches see more galoshes than shorts. A quaint, one-intersection town boasts a classic movie house and a Saturday farmers market. About the size of Manhattan, it’s considerably less crowded, with a population of about 11,000 (not counting the deer, bald eagles, etc.). A paragon of all things Pacific Northwest – bucolic, it feels as peaceful and is arguably just as lovely as the San Juan Islands, and it’s only a 15-minute ferry ride from Seattle.
This was named the most liberal place in the United States last year, and while some dispute the statistics, the visitor’s Vashon impression will have a crunchy edge. Witness the Vashon Intuitive Arts Center, the artisan fair-trade gift shop, or the fact that the island’s most storied attraction might be a bicycle stuck in a tree. The Sheriff’s Report in the Vashon Beachcomber chronicles mild island troubles: “A man was reported to be standing in the middle of the road in the 11900 block of Vashon Highway. Cars needed to swerve around him.”
Offerings on Airbnb tend toward cabins tucked away in the shaggy moss, but with wealth encroaching here as in the rest of the region, newer waterfront manses are also for rent. (As a sign of the times, a recent ad for a Vashon real estate agent trumpeted, “If Seattle were San Francisco, Vashon would be Marin … only better … no bridge!”) The latest among limited official lodgings, The Lodges on Vashon, seems airlifted from a much hipper place – it opened last year, and each contemporary suite-style unit features details such as a wall-mounted wire sculpture of an antelope head, or an acoustic guitar propped expectantly on a stand in a pristine corner.
For activities, there’s the Point Robinson lighthouse to explore, hiking and biking to be done, paddleboards and kayaks for rent, “social climbing!” on the bouldering wall at Vashon Recess Lab. The thirsty can wend their way to Nashi Orchards, a picturesque cidery with wizened fruit trees to wander through and an extremely cute, very sturdy dog named Franz. Dragon’s Head Cider, two wineries (Vashon and Palouse), and Seattle Distilling also offer tastings.
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But for a wintry weekend away, where’s there to eat?
You might not be tempted to stop at Zombiez. A zombie-themed burger joint could be just a novelty, another way to keep Vashon Island weird, as the faded bumper sticker still seen from time to time hopefully dictates. I passed it by numerous times in recent years until finally, driven by a sudden Saturday afternoon desire for chicken strips, I went in.
Everybody goes to Zombiez: kids and older folks, the hippies, transplants passing as native fleece-wearers. It’s the ideal of the cheerful small-town diner with its sparkly upholstered booths, chalkboard menu, perpetual teenager in training on the cash register, and signs warning of the coming zombie apocalypse plastered all over.
The chicken strips at Zombiez that day were the best ones I’ve ever had – crispy and juicy and full of actual chickeny flavor, clearly made by human hands instead of an indifferent machine. The fries, too, exceeded all expectations. A card on the table with the Zombiez logo (a skull functions as the dot on the “i”) inquired “Did you know???” Answer: They hand-dip their strips, corn dogs and fish ‘n’ chips; hand-cut Washington potatoes for their fries; house-grind Painted Hills beef for their burgers; and make their own tartar sauce, sausages and more. On subsequent visits (several of them), the burgers proved to be of the tasty, not overelaborate variety; Zombiez also has ice cream and beer. Almost everything’s under $10.
Just across the street and down the way sits another sort of culinary curiosity. This one’s the opposite of campy, but with windows snugly draped and little in the way of signage, just as easy to pass by. But inside May Kitchen + Bar, you may as well be in Thailand: Owner May Chaleoy had the carved interior teak and mahogany paneling of a 150-year-old house there brought all this way to be reassembled here. Islanders are used to it – the room’s rich glow, the ornate cutlery, the tranquil but vibrant atmosphere – but the effect is transporting. So’s the food: curries possessed of much more nuance than average; pad Thai mixed tableside to achieve a rare balance of sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy; a crispy stack of rice-flour-battered, flash-fried watercress, which is notably difficult to stop eating.
Also within a stone’s throw waits Zamorana, a mostly to-go Mexican place operating out of an unassuming miniature of a house. It, too, defies any underestimation. Vaunted Seattle chef Matt Dillon – who has a farm on Vashon, but no restaurant there – swears by this place. A few other standbys – the de facto community center that is the Hardware Store, the vegetarian Snapdragon, the intermittent farm-to-table dinners of Sea Breeze Farm – fulfill Vashon’s eating-out needs.
These local heroes notwithstanding, the island’s not been thought of as much of a destination for dining. Two new places, however, seem set to change that.
Bramble House is the work of chef Lia Lira and her husband, Cesar. She lived part time with her dad and stepmom on Vashon as a child, eventually moving far, far along to become executive sous chef at the three-Michelin-starred Jean Georges in New York City, then traveling the world on the team for the company’s restaurants abroad. Further fame: She was on season three of “Top Chef” back in the day (under her maiden name, Bardeen).
This spring – after effortful renovations, including clearing the blackberry vines of its name – the Liras opened Bramble House. This September, it got a three-star review from The Seattle Times.
The house is a small, storybook 1943 one that’s previously been a parsonage, an antique store, a wine shop and more. Its new incarnation is cozily elegant, with dark-stained exposed beams, cushy high-backed chairs, and coppery fixtures shedding warm light. Lira’s expertise and the surroundings come at a steep-for-Vashon price; weekend brunch entrees cost around $20. But on a recent Saturday, with the big picture windows framing a gray and blustery day, being inside felt just right.
A bowlful of creamy stone-ground polenta warmed with a rich yet light roasted mushroom gravy, topped with vivid-yolked poached eggs; you might start eating a dish like this with a fork, but you end with a spoon (and maybe a surreptitious swiping finger). Braised duck chilaquiles had a limey brightness from tomatillo salsa; Lira’s not ironclad about all things local, so avocado made a welcome appearance. A table nearby inquired about a corn soup, but that had gone out of season, prompting the response, “It was so good. I’ll just have to wait a year!”
Also freshly opened last spring, the restaurant known as Gravy already looks to be an island favorite, and it, too, is run by a husband-and-wife team. Dre Neeley, a former chef de cuisine of Seattle’s beloved French Cafe Presse, takes charge of the open kitchen; Pepa Brower oversees everything else. The room has black-and-white-checked floors, a ceilingful of starry white lights, and a happy soundtrack that includes old soul music, happy chatter and intermittent bursts of laughter.
Neeley and Brower have a knack for hospitality, and Neeley has a knack for fried chicken. Its crust isn’t herb-forward, just deep-browned and crunchy-good; it’s ungreasy without losing any indulgent tastiness. Recently, its accompaniment was an improvement-upon-homestyle red potato salad, lightly creamy with bits of hard-boiled egg and fresh dill. The pronounced potatoey flavor might be due to the fact that some of them were grown on Pacific Crest Farm, about five miles away. In the realm of indulgent tastiness, Neely’s burger is also not to be missed: He tried many different mixtures before settling on ground sirloin, smoked ham hock and duck breast. It’s a brilliant combination. Sundays at Gravy mean barbecue, a tribute to Neely’s Southern roots that reportedly is worth a trip all by itself.
Vashon’s evolving dining meets that same standard, whether for a day, an overnight or a longer stay. And don’t be afraid of Zombiez.
If you go
Vashon Island is reached by a short ferry ride from the Fauntleroy ferry terminal in West Seattle, the Point Defiance terminal in Tacoma, or Southworth on Kitsap Peninsula.
Autumn weekend rates at The Lodges on Vashon start around $250/night; 17205 Vashon Hwy. S.W., Vashon; 206-693-3750; lodgesonvashon.com
Also find listings on Airbnb, VRBO.com, Homeaway.com, etc.
Zombiez, 17705 Vashon Hwy. S.W., Vashon; 206-463-7777; facebook.com/ZombiezVashon
Zamorana Mexican Food, 17722 Vashon Hwy. S.W., Vashon; 206-356-5684
May Kitchen + Bar, 17614 Vashon Hwy. S.W., Vashon; 206-408-7196; maykitchen.com
Bramble House, 17123 Vashon Hwy. S.W., Vashon; 206-408-7159; bramblevashon.com
Gravy, 17629 Vashon Hwy. S.W., Vashon; 206-463-0489; gravyvashon.com