MARBLEMOUNT — When you live somewhere like Marblemount (population 200-something), the arrival of a new restaurant is big news. I don’t live in the small Skagit County town, but my boyfriend does, so when a pair of out-of-state climbers bought up the infamous Buffalo Run (known for serving exotic meats such as kangaroo) and transformed it into a welcoming taproom with a liquor license to boot, it was all anyone could talk about.
The newly remodeled restaurant, Upriver Grill & Taproom, is located along Highway 20, making it a convenient dinner stop for those traveling home from North Cascades National Park. My boyfriend and I went around 5:30 p.m. on a Monday night, just as tourists were wrapping up a long weekend. Though there was some seating available inside, we wanted an outdoor table, so we sat down at the bar to wait.
The restaurant’s revamped interior is modern and upbeat, with a distinctly drink-craft-beer-after-doing-mountain-stuff vibe. On a far wall is a colorful, eye-catching mural of the North Cascades, hand-painted by one of the restaurant’s owners, Brenda. The tasteful décor and overall atmosphere is a huge improvement from the severed animal heads and problematic art that formerly littered the walls.
The taproom offers a decent selection of local beers, many of them from Bellingham. You can also opt for a Climber’s Beer ($4), a light domestic beer, such as Coors, served with two limes. As soon as we sat down, one of the owners, Bob, set us up with two cold pints of Kulshan Hazy IPA. We sipped our beers as the restaurant continued to fill up with road-tripping families and hikers back from their adventures. People duck-walked around, their knees stiff, feet sore. Despite the unrelenting rush of tourists, everyone, including the overextended waitstaff, seemed to be in a good mood.
Our beers were still mostly full when we settled into a four-top in the outdoor courtyard. It’s a cheery scene with picnic tables, bright blue umbrellas, string lights and a sizable stage we hope will one day host live music. For now, a wooden canoe claims the space. My favorite thing about the outdoor seating is that it backs up to a wall of dense, jungle-like forest that, to me, always feels synonymous with the Cascades.
The food menu has everything you might expect from a grill in a tourist locale — burgers, sandwiches, wraps, wings — with a few curveballs like the vegetarian Thai red curry ($16). We started out with the nachos ($11), which were satisfying and hearty, with generous servings of sour cream and enough black beans and cheese to constitute a full meal. Though we ordered our nachos sans meat, you have the option to add chicken or ground beef. That day, they were also running a special where you could add a handful of chicken wings on top.
The “Handles” part of the menu is where the real action begins. Choose from three types of burgers: the Plain Jane ($14), Old Whiskey ($16), or Up River Heat ($16). We got the Old Whiskey, which comes with caramelized onions, tomatoes and a lip-smacking cumin BBQ sauce made in-house. Because my boyfriend is engaged in a long, slow battle against his arteries, he also added bacon.
For any burger, you can choose a patty made from beef, bison, chicken or a vegetarian option. One thing I love is that the menu incentivizes the veggie option: going veggie subtracts $2 from the burger price. We stuck with bison and were pleased; though it’s not the best burger you’ll ever have, it’s on par with many downriver burger joints.
For lighter fare, try the caprese sandwich ($14), served with a thick layer of Buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, basil and sourdough so tasty I would have been happy to eat it plain. Keep it healthy and order it with a side salad tossed with a mild lemon vinaigrette dressing. Though the salad has no frills, it does come with a generous portion of greens. For something salty after a long hike, the fries are also quite good, though I’ve heard rumors they’re different week by week.
If you’re craving something a little more sophisticated, go for the Salmon Mashed ($22). The salmon was perfectly cooked, the mashed potatoes were buttery and fluffy, and the asparagus was flavorful, fresh and not soggy. Overall, it was a surprisingly good meal worthy of the price tag.
You absolutely should finish your meal with dessert. Though we were stuffed, we made room for a brownie ($6) with huckleberry ice cream ($3) and had no regrets. It’s the kind of confection where you take a bite and your eyes light up. For something even more special, order the carrot cake ($7.50), a moist, spice-forward treat made in-house. In the future, the owners plan to offer to-go pastries, as well as individual pizzas and crowlers.
If time allows, walk off your meal at the newly upgraded Pressentin Park just a stone’s throw away. Groomed trails descend through lush forest and mowed camping areas to views of the Skagit River.
Just a reminder that the Upriver Grill & Taproom is a small-town restaurant serving big-city crowds. If you show up and it’s busy, remember to be patient and kind. And if you need a plan B, keep heading down Highway 20 to Birdsview Diner, another great place for post-hike burgers and beer.
Upriver Grill & Taproom is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 60084 Washington Hwy 20, Marblemount. Info: uprivergrill.com