Oysters, cheese, cider, a spectacular year-round farmers market, plus more reasons to make the trip from Seattle, Portland, and beyond

Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar
Credit: Poppi Photography

Suppose you were around in the 1990's, and old enough to appreciate the great college towns of the era—the ones with the good record shops, the coffee houses where you camped out on frayed couches for too many Americano-fueled Risk marathons, the comfortable old shoe taverns where you managed to finagle your first microbrew. Now suppose you find yourself the tiniest bit nostalgic for any or all of that, because surely, everything has changed now, and really, how fast time flies—where do you go?

Sixty miles from Seattle, at the very southern tip of Puget Sound, Washington’s state capital of Olympia, which comes awfully close to being one of the country’s last great living museums of 1990’s culture, is a fine place to begin. Just far enough away from the quickly changing, vastly expanding urban agglomeration to the north to remain mostly unscathed—a normal person with a decent job can, for example, still afford a house here—Olympia is rather happily lost in a world of its own, a place where people can still be overheard speaking in very 1990’s terms, about the triplex on Pear Street where Kurt Cobain did the lion's share of his songwriting (#114), and the restaurant where he liked to eat macaroni and cheese (King Solomon’s Reef, still there), and how Carrie Brownstein went to school here, at Evergreen State College, and how she started Sleater-Kinney, long before she went on television.

Olympia's busy downtown—most of it steps from generally very scenic waterfront—is a place of comfortable coffee shops (Batdorf & Bronson has been a presence on Capitol Way since 1986), of lived-in bakeries, and casual taverns; there’s a worker-owned cafe (New Moon), which feels much older than it actually is, and there are, at last count, two actual, real life record stores, one that was only recently advertising an interest in buying your old cassette tapes. Sometimes, you can go home again.

There’s another 1990's-era institution still going strong still here too—back in 1996, after years of bouncing around town, the Olympia Farmers Market moved to a permanent location at the top end of Capitol Way, where you will find it thriving today. Featuring more than 100 vendors, operating year-round, and open four days a week during the warmer months, the market offers a crash course in something else that Olympia is exceptionally good at—provisioning. Come here looking for a sprawling restaurant scene, and you might be slightly underwhelmed; come here ready to cook, and you may never wish to leave. From local oysters to local oyster mushrooms, if the market does not have it all, it comes awfully close, and certainly much closer than you might expect to find in your average town of 50,000—a trawl through is practically a requirement, and best of all, it’s just the beginning of the foraging fun to be had around town. Looking to stock your larder? Toss a cooler in the back of the Subaru, and lets get started.

If you only make one stop, it has to be the market

From the tightly-curated tables of seasonal vegetables to oysters from just up the road for $12 per dozen, not to mention the abundance of locally-grown lavender, a walk through Olympia’s farmers market offers one of those periodic reminders that Northwest truly is best, at least when it comes to putting food on the table, and particularly during times of year when the ground lies entirely fallow, in so much of the rest of the country. Shopping for supplies is only the start of your market experience, however—from Professor Bamboozle and his balloon animals to the regular rotation of live music to the food stalls, including the on-site trailer building their daily menu entirely around whatever’s being sold in the market, there is typically a whole lot going on here.

Next, buy all of the croissants

When Left Bank Pastry owner Gary Potter decided to throw himself headlong into the viennoiserie game, he took the whole thing very seriously—Potter rounded up his family, moved to Paris, and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu. The result? You will look up and down the Northwest, and you will often pay double, but you will be hard-pressed to find a classic croissant quite so wonderfully evocative of that daily staple of French life. At the minimal (but also civilized) retail shop, out along the eastern fringe of the city center, it's all about what's in the cases, and nearly everything tastes as good as it looks.

Espresso time

No discussion of Northwest coffee history is complete without a mention of Olympia’s contributions; the pioneering Batdorf & Bronson, for example, remains an active presence in the city, decades on. Also, there is no discussion of modern American coffee without Olympia Coffee Roasting, not only one of the best in the country for quality and taste, but also a leader in areas of accountability and sustainability. (As if that wasn't enough, they recently became a Certified B Corporation.) Embracing the best of regional coffee tradition, and then dragging the whole thing right into the 21st century, a feat many of the Northwest’s lovable old-timers haven’t quite achieved just yet, co-owners Oliver Stormshak and Sam Schroeder are what so many coffee roasters around the country want to be when they grow up. Drop by and ask about the latest and greatest roasts, or time your visit to their weekly public cuppings, held Fridays at 10 am, in a dedicated space at the appealing downtown flagship.

Say (local) cheese

You’re never far from a hunk of decent Northwest cheese in these parts, but true connoisseurs ought to make tracks for The Mouse Trap, an excellent little cheesemonger's where everything is cut to order—look for local greats like Lost Peacock Creamery, located just beyond the edge of town; their raw milk, 60 day-aged gouda is pretty much an Olympia essential, at this point.

Stock up on oysters (and everything else)

Kumamotos by the caseload, bucketfuls of delicate clams, piles of the vaguely unsettling geoduck, and every other delicious thing pulled out of chilly Northwest waters can be had both at the farmer’s market and the nearby Olympia Seafood Co., sometimes at prices that would make raw bar enthusiasts gasp in appreciation. Barely twenty minutes from downtown and you’re at the mothership of Taylor Shellfish Farms, a dominant presence on the Northwest scene—for many road-trippers through the region, their on-premises market is an essential stop, and for good reason. Ready for a break and a bite? Drop into local player Chelsea Farms’ cheerful downtown bar, found inside the 222 Market, something like a very mini-Pike Place, and order a dozen on the half shell.

Bring extra ice, because gelato

In almost no time at all, Sofia Landis and Christopher Proctor’s little gelato operation—Sofie’s Scoops—has become one of those places you just have to go, whenever you’re in Olympia; you’ll find them inside the 222 Market (right near the oyster bar, conveniently), serving up their classically great product, made from local raw milk—flavors rotate regularly, and they’ll pack up as many pints as you feel like taking home.

Time for a drink

Washington produces six out of every ten apples consumed in the United States, so you’d hope to find some pretty great cider here, and you absolutely will not be disappointed. One of the best, Whitewood Cider Co., can be found, rather conveniently, right here in Olympia—look for their tiny tasting room just up from the heart of the downtown core, essentially surrounded by some of the city’s best food trucks. (The nearly delicate falafel, plus an order of the chunky potato wedges served with generous portions of garlicky toum at Nineveh might be one of the best snacks in town.)