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Crab Fest 2019


Walla Walla Steak Co.

Modern steak house in a classic location

Without a steak house to call its own, Walla Walla was ripe for a great spot to enjoy high-quality beef. And who better to bring it to life than the team of Paul Mackay (El Gaucho), Dan Thiessen (multiple Seattle restaurants and his own 0/8), Philip Christofides (who has designed all of Paul's restaurants), and Steven Brack (brewer at Elliott Bay Brewery, Black Raven Brewing). Wanting to capture both upper scale and more casual dining experiences, they installed the Steak Co. at one end of the historic train depot and Crossbuck Brewing at the other.

Paul, Philip, Steven, Dan on opening night courtesy of Fire & Vine Hospitality

Paul had 'retired' to Walla Walla, and Dan had moved back (he grew up in a small town in Eastern Washington) to become the executive director of the Wine Country Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community College. When Paul and Dan ran into each other on the street one day, it was a 'What are you doing here?' moment.

They've taken the historic train depot (built in 1914 and entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988) and created a place that offers a modern experience reflecting the Walla Walla of yesterday and today. The original brick from China is still in place, along with white subway tiles from the depot. "We were able to salvage enough tile for one wall in Crossbuck Brewing," explains Dan. "We put in a great back bar at the Steak Co. The rail car onsite was moved from one end of the building closer to the Steak Co. where we use it for overflow seating on weekends, private events, and winemaker dinners. Dovetail Studio, a local company, built the black walnut tables and solid one-piece bar top as well as the booths and wine storage lockers."

Historic train depot, courtesy of Fire & Vine Hospitality

The restaurant wasn't built for tourists; it's not on Main Street. When no events are taking place in the city, their crowd is 75% local. "We felt people here were ready for a high-quality steak house and a come-as-you-are experience," says Dan. "We wanted to create the vision for hospitality that has a high level of service standards, so we can manage to those standards. This is a family-owned and -operated restaurant, but most of us have worked in businesses and have corporate backgrounds. We have manuals for servers. We try to ensure that each manager touches every table in an evening." Staff members wear jeans; it's not a stuffy steak house.

Executive Chef Chad Bostwick (Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center, The Reserve House at Woodward Canyon Winery) ensures menu items stay simple and reflect the area, whether he's in the restaurant/taproom shared open kitchen or the mobile kitchen. "So often food is overplayed, and it gets lost in translation," says Chad. "You want to look at the source, correct presentation, and focus on the guest experience. In the beginning, and still, we asked ourselves, 'What would the guest want?'" Many things are house made: pickles, sauces, dressings, desserts and some of their ice cream. Some dressings are made using ver jus instead of vinegar. "It's about malic vs. acidic acid. The ver jus is bright and smells acidic but doesn't taste acidic. Winemakers love it because it pairs nicely with wine unlike vinegar-based dressings." The ver jus is made from grapes growing on Dan's farm just outside town. "When Chad and I talked about menu items, I said there are three that you can't change that I'm bringing with me!" For those familiar with Dan as a chef, these are welcome sights: raw scallops on the half shell with soy-miso vinaigrette, wasabi aioli, pickled ginger; Dungeness crab cakes with apple slaw and curry aioli; and the El Gaucho signature Tenderloin Diablo.

Chef Chad Bostwick

Steaks are cooked over a mixture of half charcoal, half mesquite. USDA Prime and Choice Angus beef comes from Cattle Company in Spokane. Dan grew up on his family's cattle ranch, which he now owns. "We like to get cattle from a cooler climate, further north. There's more marbling so more flavor." Also offered are seafood dishes, chicken, vegetarian lasagna. Seasonal produce is used like Walla Walla sweet onions, and Klicker strawberries which come from on/near the Blue Mountains. The Klicker family started growing strawberries in the Walla Walla Valley in 1918. "They're so flavorful, you cut into them and they create their own juice. We're using them in our version of no-added-sugar strawberry shortcake this summer with a lavender shortcake," says Dan. The mint leaves used in the dessert often come from a pot right outside the door, attached to a root system just minutes prior to use.

Klicker shortcake

Wine Enthusiast recently included Walla Walla Steak Co. in their list of 100 Best Wine Restaurants. An annual list, it is curated by the editorial staff who look for restaurants focused on excellent food and service with wine. They highlight creativity, quality, and unique experiences that hold special appeal for wine lovers. "We're especially proud of this recognition because it's about the entire experience, not just a wine list," explains Dan. "And because it comes from outside of us. It's not something that can be applied for; they hear about you and do their research. We want our list to appeal to visitors as well as locals. We're not done innovating and are talking with some of the Godfathers of wine in the valley about doing flights that include library wines."

Their top two cocktail sellers include the Smoked Maple Manhattan (photo) that comes partially poured. In a separate glass container is the rest of the Bulleit bourbon filled with cherry wood smoke. Depending on how much smoke you like, you can pour the rest in right away or let it sit and reach a smoke level you enjoy. The other top seller is the refreshing Bees Knees with Bombay gin, lemon, lavender syrup and local honey.

Since opening in October 2018, their planning has paid off. Over a recent three-day holiday weekend, they did 1,900 covers between the two concepts. "We can't sit back. We have to keep innovating and stay focused on the level of hospitality and experience guests want. We're so happy to be here."

Walla Walla Steak Co.
416 N 2nd Ave
Walla Walla, WA 99362

Click here to read more about Dan Thiessen

Connie Adams/July 2019

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