Bellingham is a town that has no reservations about staying up late. The multitudes — relative to our size — of bars and clubs are a testament to that. But, with a population of night owls, one would expect there to be more options for late-night dining. With a large percentage of the population working in the service industry, you’d at least expect some spots for bartenders and cooks to stop in.
With that in mind, I reached out to people in my circle with an unscientific poll asking the following: What is the best late-night eatery to you in downtown Bellingham? Armed with a loose plan, I drank some water, ate some toast and phoned some friends.
We started our night at Bellingham Bar and Grill. While the name gives that away, much of the popular culture surrounding them revolves around low-cost beverages. Ordering fries ($5) to go with our whiskeys and gin-and-tonics produced a generously salted plate and a bottle of Hunt’s ketchup. They’re very good fries: battered, crispy and fresh — enough said.
My previous experiences with Bellingham Bar and Grill were primarily to drink, so I was surprised to see a robust menu of pub classics, with a couple surprisingly tasty-sounding options. Despite the selection, I still can’t shake the feeling that, at any moment, a round of vodka shots will be slammed in front of me.
Next on our list was the steamy and warm interior of Pel’meni. A Russian word meaning “dumpling,” they stay true to the name with two items on the menu: beef or potato dumplings.
Ordering is simple. Pick your dumpling, pay $9, then sit down and wait. You will be handed a plastic clamshell box with generously curry-dusted dumplings, a drizzle of the house hot sauce and a handful of cilantro. A small slice of rye bread tops it all.
Bottles of oil and hot sauce sit on the counters next to a tub full of containers of sour cream. Everyone fond of this place has their own specific way of eating these dumplings. My personal method is to get one on my spoon, scoop a dab of sour cream, then pour hot sauce straight on top. Across from me, one of my friends poured everything into his box and stirred it into a slurry — evenly coating every square inch.
There is something supremely restorative about these dumplings, an effect I credit to the beautiful simplicity of the food and the carb bomb they represent.
Next up, and my personal favorite, was El Capitan’s, on the corner of Chestnut Street and Cornwall Avenue. It may seem to be a simple hot dog stand, however, it’s anything but. They serve up nine different sausages (two vegan!) with nearly 30 different toppings, plus pretzels, fries, a couple of specialty sandwiches and dogs, alongside a well-stocked tap and bottle list.
With a presence in Bellingham for more than 20 years, many a sausage has been consumed beneath the flag of the dread pirate. Melting into the warm embrace of a German smoked sausage with chimichurri, grilled onions and a streak of barbecue sauce ($9) after a night out has been an integral part of my personal routine since approximately three days after I turned 21. The sausages are premium, the toppings generous, the staff patient and friendly.
The astute among you may have noticed that, so far, most of these locations have barely qualified as a restaurant. So what gives? Well, it may come as a surprise to some of you but it is not eternally a Friday or Saturday night. The desire to go out for food late is not exclusive to the weekend, and therein is made apparent the crux of this dilemma.
Bellingham really doesn’t have that many late-night restaurants.
On the weekends it opens up a bit. You can stop at the Pye Hole and get yourself a slice of very good and affordable pizza, but you’re going to be standing outside because they do not have any seating. It’s a walk-up window. You can go to Black Sheep, which, my personal opinions notwithstanding, still has the air of a bar when you get to the weekend and their later hours.
Closer to the mark is The Redlight Kitchen and Bar, which offers a distinctly upscale Chinese-inspired menu all week, and in my research may fit happily into the position of service industry hangout. There is always the option of going to the venerable Horseshoe Cafe, famously (and formerly) one of the oldest 24-hour diners in the state. With a homestyle menu of American diner classics, you can probably find something you like on their menu.
But these pickings are slim. It’s apparent what is at work here. The Invisible Hand of the Free Market, that seemingly omnipotent killer of so many mediocre cocktail bars, has done the math, added the figures, and found a truth we may not be willing to tell ourselves — Bellingham rarely shows up for anything after dark that does not involve alcohol.
While this is a broad generalization, I can’t help but feel it is generally true. Perhaps the profit margins are easier to stomach with a bar over a restaurant.
Maybe we’re just unlucky.
But at the end of the day, we’re still missing something. Restaurateurs, consider this to be an open invitation. Give me somewhere that I can go have a good, sit-down meal at 11 p.m. on a weekday, and I promise you, you will at least have me as a regular.