For all of Seattle’s savvy Belltown and hip Capital Hill dining haunts, and for all the trendy Sixth Avenue, Proctor District, and downtown noshing scenes in Tacoma, Thurston County has finally made its way into the South Sound’s “boutique restaurant” ring.

Small, chic, locally owned, and regionally sourced is the name of the game, whether it’s seafood, uber-Euro, Asian fusion, Southern-spiced, cafe-classy, or simply happy-hour jai alai. And, over the past decade, Thurston County has definitely become a strong competitor on the dining date card.

You could say that the restaurant scene in Thurston County has finally grown up.

In the beginning …

In the mostly forested and farmland swathes of Thurston roughly a quarter-century ago, the spark of change for dining throughout the county was the opening of Anthony’s HomePort Olympia at the edge of Budd Inlet.

Now the company runs 22 restaurants located throughout the Pacific Northwest, plus a wholesale seafood company, which altogether employ more than over 1,500 workers. More than 200 have been with Anthony’s over 10 years, and 60 have more than 20 years under their belts. In addition, Anthony’s employs 15 multi-generational families.

With this model in mind at the waterfront, downtown Olympia dining entrepreneurs like Jeff Taylor, owner and chef at the Water Street Cafe & Bar, took their visions into reality.

It was 2003 when Taylor opened the Water Street, and it’s still going strong today. However, the restaurant’s success was only through major tweaks to the business model, such as dropping prices 30 percent and shaving the average age of their customer base by half, from early retirees in their 50s and 60s to hip and groovy healthcare professionals and government workers in their 20s and 30s.

“If we were in Seattle, next to Microsoft and Amazon, with guys in their 20s and 30s making six-figure salaries who don’t care about money, we’d have kept it the same,” Taylor said. “But especially with the recession, it’s been a little bit like reinventing the wheel.”

That said, Water Street – and its later-opened sister restaurant, the ultro-cool Acqua Via on Capitol Boulevard in Olympia – is no media hound dog. Their customer base is still by word of mouth; not by Val-Pak voucher. There’s something to be proud of as far as image, Taylor emphasized.

“We’ve survived, and done well, so far because there’s no playbook; we’re not a corporate entity that has to go up the chain of command and follow specific procedures,” he said. “Therefore, this year has been the best of the past five, and we’re only looking forward.”

Small business star

Another surprising breakout in the boutique restaurant scene has been the Lemon Grass restaurant. It all started with owner Nicole Pham’s passion for cooking, and the opportunity for a small business loan.

With the laser-focused vision for her own dining establishment, and the help of the SBA, Pham opened her first Lemon Grass site in 2010. From there, the story took on a magic of its own; even in the recession, when the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Tumwater abandoned his property, Pham took it over to make it into a new, smaller and tighter, Lemon Grass Cafe. And when getting her hair cut in Lacey, another customer mentioned that the former Ruby Tuesday’s building on Marvin Road would be the perfect spot for a large, luxury-style Thai restaurant which would double the size of the original building, to 5,000 square feet.

Nicole jumped at the opportunity, and has had nothing but raves since the Lacey opening this past February.

Her brother, Dao, now manages that property, the largest Lemon Grass in Thurston County. He also designed the restaurant, all shimmering fountains and twinkly chandeliers; sleek and cozy fireplace; elegant banquet room; romantic curtained patio, and the rest of it.

“It’s all essentially Dao’s creation,” said server Ann Byers, who trained at the Olympia Lemon Grass last fall and was hired for the newest locale at the beginning of 2013. “Now, when you’re coming off the freeway and you see the outdoor, your eyes immediately jet over here. And you want to come in and grab a bite.”

The banquet room alone is booked nearly every day. And the restaurant is rocking seasons-through, for both lunch and dinner.

“We wanted to open a location in Lacey, after Olympia and Tumwater,” said Dao. “We never thought about this location. But when (the lady) mentioned to us about the location, (Nicole) came over to check it out, and called to the bank.”

For a small business project, Columbia Bank president Craig Chance said that Pham’s restaurant venture was exactly what the SBA envisions to support in this region.

“From a lending perspective, we see ourselves as working with businesses that are in different places in their life cycles and we have helped facilitate that growth,” he said. “And Lemon Grass, with their third location; that’s a success story that we had the opportunity to begin. Now it’s just booming.”

The next step for Lemon Grass is rumored to be Tacoma.

“No promise,” said Dao. “I mean, I’d like to keep going. But Nicole, she’s tired. We’d have to take a different formula for that. However, we’ll see.”

More boutique options

From Olympia’s waterfront to hardcore downtown to Lacey, the next boutique experience is on the West Side. The Iron Rabbit, which has been in business since 2005, is still the hotspot to hit even on a rainy Tuesday night.

The bar is packed. The restaurant is nearly full, at 6 p.m., no less.

“It’s just a regular week,” said head bartender Joy Hedlund. 

Then there’s Curry Corner off of Martin Way in Lacey, the raving favorite of many locals. Manjit Virk, father of owner Dave Virk, said that the customer base hasn’t varied since the Indian restaurant opened seven years ago.

In fact, the business has done so well that the Virks have opened not only a spa and massage clinic across Martin Way, but also a trendy Batdorf & Bronson coffee house and authentic Indian chai cafe next door, which just began serving java in February. The family knocked out part of the spa, as well as some retail space, to make it work.

Now, both businesses have been bustling since their arrival, Virk said.

“It’s a nice space to hang out, to accommodate family and friends, while someone goes to the spa,” he explained.

Final words

Swing Wine Bar is another boutique darling in Thurston County that set up before the recession, and has survived.

“We’ve always kept the same number of staff; Swing has a very controlled environment, which is good in that our overhead and so on stays the same,” said owner Nicole Butigan.

The biggest issue for all of the boutique restaurants serving drinks in the county – and the state itself – was the Liquor Initiative 1183, though, she said. In effect, besides the recession collapsing the customer base for many dining establishments, the liquor tax was a one-two punch to local businesses.

What’s saved it for many, though, including Swing, is tourism from area hotels, as well as advertising in the local markets.

That’s true, too, of Beau Legs Fish & Chips, another tucked-into-the-strip-mall boutique taste favorite.

Their market isn’t just the working lunch crowds and casual dinner dates and military workers from JBLM on daily breaks. It’s also the high school escapees looking for a cheap, filling, nutritious lunch.

Therefore, the menu has changed from just the basic fried fish to include specialties like fried okra and frog legs. But only if they were tried first, and customers deemed them as “winners.”

And now, they’d like to expand the seating of the 49-capacity restaurant to accommodate the additional patronage they’ve been receiving.

“It’s our game plan,” said owner Shelly Harris. “We’re doing really well, and that’s our goal.”

As is for all of the boutique restaurants above.