Just 20 miles from Walla Walla, buoyed amid the waving wheat of the Palouse, sits tiny Waitsburg, WA. With a population hovering around 2,000, Waitsburg is but a speck on Washington's map - that is, unless you like booze. In that case, Waitsburg is a big, red star on the map of Washington mixology thanks to Jimgermanbar. Owned and operated by Jim German and Claire Johnston, this small, lovingly-crafted bar has been called one of Washington's - if not the nation's - best. It is best known as a showcase for German's extensive knowledge of the art of the cocktail (German is featured as Wine Enthusiast Magazine's "Mixologist of the Month" in its current issue) but quick on his heels is the work of his wife, Claire, who bangs out made-to-order small plates and creative seasonal dishes from a kitchen with just one burner and a small convection oven. Not to rest on these laurels alone, German and Johnston - both accomplished artists - also run the town's only fine art gallery. Jimgermanbar makes the trip to Waitsburg worth the effort. Stop in and prepare to stay a while. Like most, you'll never want to leave this little slice of Heaven.
Claire and Jim - doing it no way but their own.
O.K. Why Waitsburg?
Jim: Well, we moved out to Walla Walla when Jamie Guerin offered me a nice job at Whitehouse-Crawford restaurant. We weren't here a month and on a Sunday drive came out here and found these two buildings for sale. And it's the buildings - it had nothing to do with anything else. Walla Walla is fantastic and we were looking at buying a house there but then we saw these buildings and we as artists had been kind of fixing up building for years - Claire in Los Angeles and myself in Seattle in various neighborhoods and it was just like - really beautiful and so that was it - the love of the buildings.
Claire: Right, Jim was working at Whitehouse-Crawford and so was Ross Stevenson, who Jim had worked with at Campagne. Ross and his partner Leroy were living in Waitsburg and wanted us to come visit and see their place - and also to see the building they were in the process of buying. They were planning to open a restaurant called the Whoopem Up Hollow Cafe with some friends - all people we knew from Campagne and other places - so they were all moving out. So we're looking in the windows at this place they bought and and then we see these for sale signs in the building across the street and we were like, "Oh my God. We could have a studio, we could live in these buildings and fix them up!" So we found out the price, put money down and proceeded with purchasing these buildings because we figured it was cheaper than the house we were looking at in Walla Walla and it would be fun to have them - and a studio space - though they were really in a state of disrepair.
Jim: A lot of people had seen them before us and they needed roofs and everything so that tends to slow people down. And they had a lot of superficial and cosmetic problems so we really had to look through that. There's a big difference between a fixer-upper home and two buildings and 10,000 square feet of fixer-upper!
Claire: Yeah, stuff happened. The price was right and these beautiful buildings needed some tender loving care and some artists in them. So, that is why we're in Waitsburg - just because of these buildings.
Jim: We walked through and saw our dream, you know? I mean, fixing up buildings for other people just to increase their assets is one thing, and after you do that five or six times you're like, "OK, this is a lot of work for not much reward." Usually by the time a landlord realizes you've done such a great job, they're ready to move on or raise your rent or whatever...
Claire: They're like, "Oh, thank you so much, it's great! The property is more valuable now so your rent is going up!"
Jim: Very typical for most artists in cities that don't make it easy for them - like Seattle. Tacoma is a little different.
Claire: And Los Angeles was different too. I could live in my studio space but I didn't own it so we decided finally - let's do it for ourselves!
You obviously had a strong vision for these buildings. Did that initial vision also include a bar, restaurant and art gallery?
Claire: No, not initially.
Jim: If nothing else, we thought we can have the most amazing studio we've ever had in our lives. It's still kind of raw and what you see now is a little of what we saw when we first came in. In the last couple of years we've just continued to fix up one corner or another, and still have places to go, but it's been a lot of fun. We've kept ourselves really busy.
Initially, I loved Walla Walla - obviously there were more people for business and it makes a lot more sense to be there than here. But the prices in 2004 were almost the same as in Ballard and it just didn't pencil out to buy a house and then also have to rent a building in downtown Walla Walla to do a bar.
Claire: About a year and a half after we found the buildings, Jim was hardcore looking into spaces in Walla Walla. He had a partner to do a bar and restaurant there but that's when it came to the point when we said, "Why don't we just do it in our buildings? It's Waitsburg - but so what? Let's just do it!" The partner said no way, so we just decided to do it ourselves. What the hell? We own the buildings!
Jim: There was another restaurant in Walla Walla at the time called 26 Bricks. It was an extremely ostentatious approach to Walla Walla - and I don't mean that in a bad way. The guy did some great stuff, had great people working there, and some great food for sure. But it was truly like a spaceship that landed and was trying to replicate Charlie Trotter and the French Laundry all at the same time - which is a tall order to fill no matter how cool you are or where you are - and this guy was kind of latching onto that bellwether and trying to call Walla Walla the next Napa. Which is quite a misnomer. Anyway, I helped him create a bar that was a little better and I got to do my thing there - so between working there and at Whitehouse-Crawford for almost two years, I realized I really wanted a destination place. I love the idea of being being forced to travel a bit.
Some of my dream places to eat and drink have been Spain, Italy and the south of France. There's exquisite food in a casual environment and you've got someone who's an off-work waiter sitting there with the guy who owns all the land around you for 10 miles and they're sitting there having a great time together. I liked how it was kind of an equalizing environment in those countries and that's what I dreamed of. So all the sudden, Waitsburg started to look like the Sabine hills outside of Rome to me. People have to make a point to come out here and with the heat and the slower pace, you know - it just seemed like more a destination like that. We aesthetically kept it rustic for that reason - we weren't trying to be a restaurant, we were just trying to be a bar that served good snacks - that's it. And so we kinda switched the model around so it was more bar-centric and that took the restaurant pressure off. We weren't a competing restaurant - we were a little bar out in the country and just kinda flipped the whole idea on its head a little bit.
Jim: Not really, because after a couple of years I realized there's tons of people out here. Most of the people out here are savvy enough that this isn't a big learning curve for them. They want to have cocktails and a place to go to escape going to the same place every night - whether they're in Dayton or Walla Walla or the Tri-Cities.
Claire: And Jim is too modest but people love Jim's cocktails. People follow him - they did in Seattle and they do in Walla Walla. So, he was the draw at first. And still is. There's a lot more going on now in Walla Walla in terms of drinks and places where you can get a fine cocktail, but at the time, there weren't a lot of places. There was Whitehouse-Crawford and there was 26 Bricks. And when Jim left, the crowds followed.
Jim: Oh, that's so nice.
Claire: Well, it's just truthful. You make amazing cocktails.
Jim: And that's kind of where egocentric name comes from - it PAINED me. It was kind of the working title of the bar and I wanted to change it at the end.
Claire: Can I give credit to the person who came up with the name? It was Charles Smith. He was like. "You know what you guys should do? You should open a bar in your own building and you should call it Jimgermanbar. Jimgermanbar!" And he would yell this thing out and he would call me Claire Jimgermanbar.
Jim: And that's what everybody was calling it anyway. Charles has a great marketing background and he was always trying to get us off our other ideas - we had half a dozen wonderful Latin or Spanish or Italian names, like Bar Etrusco, which would have been cool in Portland or something but here it would have just been a lot of explaining to people what it meant.
Claire:So Charles just has great ideas and the name stuck.
Speaking of genius - Claire, were you originally planning on being the chef here?
Oh God no! Oh my God! I have worked in a restaurant once in my life and that was for six months when I was 23 and waited tables in L.A. I worked in the art world in L.A. and Seattle and travelled a lot with my job - I managed travelling exhibitions for MOCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art) in L.A. I lived there 11 years and was travelling for nine of those and so I was eating lovely food all over the world - but I'd never cooked. Maybe a little bit with Jim, maybe for a dinner party, but I wanted to work here somehow so I was like the cheery "Yeah! I'll take your order!" person.. I worked with Charles at K Vintners and then pretty soon it was too much so I decided to just do it on our own - and we did. I waited tables and we had Tall Dave, the cook for the first year and a half. Then Tall Dave needed time off and we needed to open so...Jim was like, "Claire, you should cook!" and I was like, "Ahhhhhhh!" - having never, ever done that before. But we were desperate so I said OK!
Jim: It was good for the business and also made it completely personal - totaly mom and pop kinda place. And Claire is SO opinionated about flavor and food - and now she's the one being too modest - she has an amazing palate. Her palate is respected by great winemakers, by critics, by chefs, and she just has a super precise palate and aesthetics. So the food kind of ended up being this angelic version that was way beyond what I could ever hope to serve. I was thinking of maybe cheese plates when we first started! And so it really took it to this other level.
Claire's garlic rice with nori and homemade worchestire sauce.
Claire, were you surprised by how good you were?
Yeah, I suppose so. Well, yeah. I mean, I was just thinking people need to eat something that goes along with Jim's beautiful drinks.
Jim: Yeah, but that changed.
Claire: Well, that's what I still feel it is. That's the level I want it to be on.
Did you have a huge adjustment/culture shock going from Seattle to Walla Walla to Waitsburg? Or was it the town of Waitsburg that had the culture shock?
Claire: A bit but we are so inspired by the Palouse Hills. I mean, the rolling hills seduce people. It's beautiful out here - it's the opposite of Seattle, it's the opposite of Portland. It is wide open, you can breathe, and I LOVE this area for that. But I think Waitsburg had more of a culture shock from us moving in - and they still do! But that's why I personally do not participate in the town. I just don't. It's like, I'll be nice but I'm not going to any more City Council meetings.
Jim: Well, we used to. We tried. We're not trying to change anyone but I think complacency goes a long way in this day and age. It really kind of disarms people that may not have wanted us to be here. 15 years ago you wouldn't have a mixed-race gay couple living here, you just wouldn't. They would have been run out of town and they would not have been allowed to buy their house in the first place. So, things have moved along and have gotten a bit more progressive and people agree to disagree. I think that's the most positive thing I can say about the conservative, conservative movement out here. It's just kind of ingrained in people to a certain degree - and by the same token there's quite a few people who have come from other places who believe in modernist ideas like partnerships, same-sex marriages and that people just should be allowed to give their best shot at anything. And there's a lot of old farmers here who really support us.
Claire: Oh, come on! They're good old boys, that's what they are. But they're wonderful. They love us and they love to come in and have a drink here. It's really a nice mix of people now. When we first were here people were so suspicious of us, oh my god. We were called the "Goddamn 206ers" "You Goddamn Westsiders!" because they saw us as opportunists and they didn't want their town to change. A lot of people just wanted let this town to die - and when we got here, it almost was - it just was.
Jim: Well it was alive a little bit. There were a few businesses, including the little grocery store, that served people's needs but the town was not sustainable and was not going to continue much longer in any sense of that old system - and that's kind of the rub these days. You can't operate outside of the norm of what the established laws are in Washington. The Health Department is going to drive out to Waitsburg now so you just can't keep doing the back-room things that used to - for better or worse - allow these places to exist in their own autonomous way. So, that's the rub.
People have to put up with us - and others not necessarily like us - from somewhere else. That's the thing "from somewhere else". And my point was always like, "Hey! We're American. We've been paying taxes, we've been working our whole lives, we weren't ushered in with a silver spoon to come and do this - we worked really hard, we invested all of our savings here, we do like it here, it is beautiful!" And, for the most part we really love all the people we've come in contact with. However, it's a free country, right? So if you want to pay money to buy something that's for sale and change it into something that brings business somewhere - that's a positive thing right? It sounds elementary but we were explaining that elementary idea in concept to several people as we came in - and a lot of people, to give them credit have come about. People who were totally against us being here - even owning anything here- and are now customers here. Decent hospitality is hard to find anywhere and if you're sincere and you treat people well, they tend to like it. We've kind of worked that into "kill 'em with kindness" - but that's the way we wanted to be too so, it wasn't a stretch for us. We just wanted, sincerely, to make an amazing watering hole out here.
I've heard stories about the clash of political ideals at Jimgermanbar - one specifically about a drink for Obama?
Jim: Yes, during the election we made a drink called The Obama Royale. It was a split of Rose champagne, 2 champagne glasses, and then two little pours of Anniversario rum from Venezuela. So you get this whole set up for two people: an explosion of zig-zag lemon, lime and orange zest coming out of each glass, two little things of rum - which just happened to be Hugo Chavez's favorite rum - and the rose champagne. It was like a crazy Kir Royale.
Claire: The cost of it was $45. $19.61 of that we donated to the Obama campaign because that was Obama's birth year. Some people liked them, some people really did not like them.
Jim: Christophe (Baron, of Cayuse) bought like six of them at least.
Claire: And he bought them for people he knew were Republican winemakers - he'd send them over and it was great fun. We sold about 40 of them! But some people would see it on the menu and get all red-faced and be like, "What kind of a place is this?" and I was like, "You don't have to order it."
Jim: Some people would say, "Well why don't you have a McCain cocktail?" and we were like, "Are you kidding?! We are into delightful and delicious things here - and that would just be so bland, boring and bitter. We don't serve things like that here." That is, of course, not what they wanted to hear.
Claire: And it's O.K. Our place isn't for everyone.
Jim: But the thing is, for people who believe that there should only be one party here, or would prefer that it be like a kingdom or dictatorship or something totalitarian, well then, that's tough. We believe in multiple parties and we're not afraid to talk about it. Although this year I do think we should avoid having signs in the window.
Claire: We've already had our door smashed. People get nervous about change and there hasn't been a lot of democratic, liberal-thinking people in their world so, not that we're in their face, but we put it out that there that we do things differently, perhaps? And sometimes it's hard for people.
Jim: And some people just don't know how to have a constructive, respectful dialogue. All they have is a brick through the window and, "They'll know my opinion now, won't they?" But at $500 a pop for a window it gets a little pricey to instigate these kinds of things.
Claire: Yes, this is true. Luckily they still do not think that.
Jim: That's where "Etruscan snacks" came from.
Claire: We couldn't use the word "tapas" because all the guys would get all giddy and red-faced when they saw me and that's when we were like, "Oh God!"
Jim: I was like, "No, not 'topless'! Tapas means a snack!" And the Etruscan thing was my kind of Italiophile leanings because this place reminds me so much of the areas outside Rome. It's hot and dusty with lots of fields - like going out to the Etruscan tombs. And, from what we know about them, the Etruscans were a good example of the kind of people we wanted here - they were fun-loving, they liked music, they liked wine, they liked food...
Claire: They liked to party!
Jim:...they respected their spouses and they were artists. They had a love for beautiful artistry like clay and pots. That's where our collection of Grecian pottery comes from. The Etruscans were obsessed with Grecian culture. The reason why Italian culture has such Greco-Roman influence is because of the Etruscans' "borrowing" the goods of the Greeks. And the Etruscans were buried in cities of the dead complete with all of their possessions - thus all of the Grecian pottery they had "lifted" from their friends down South, ended up preserved for 1500 years in these tomba and we have these amazing examples to enjoy and draw inspiration from.
You both are artists and have a gallery next door to the Jimgermanbar, right?
Claire: Yes, AMO art! It stands for Art Movement Organization. It's sort of like a riff on bringing contemporary art to a little town. I like to show individual artists for two-month periods. I like pretty moving, thought-provoking, pieces that inspire a lot of questions. I like installation works so do a lot of installation pieces.
Do you concentrate on local artists or folks from outside the area?
All. I like to have it all-encompassing, the quality of the art is most important. We've had some amazing shows. The first show we did was of the artist Gretchen Bennett, who is based in Seattle. She did a pretty amazing show of felted pieces that were like tepees in these crazy, amazing installations. She's a pretty interesting artist. That was my opening show and it freaked out all the locals actually.
What's coming up you're most excited about?
Jim: Two things: special events for special people. Two couples that we know are celebrating right before they are getting married, or during their marriage, this summer. So, with their friends and families, they'll take over the whole place so it's like this huge event where they get the garden, the get the bar, they get the gallery, there's dancing - it's so awesome.
Claire: But before that, on April 22, we're having an oyster fest! It starts at 11am and goes all day - oysters and beautiful wines that go with oysters. It's Oysters Volents, which means "Flying Oysters" in French, and they've done this same event at other places like Zeitgeist and Lecosho in Seattle. No reservations needed, just come on out - it goes all day.
Jim: It will be like a dollar an oyster and beautiful wines - and I'll be doing some little sausages out back. But it's really about oysters - it's also really French so we'll have these little sausages to supplement too with white Burgundies and Chenin Blanc - and glass wine is usually like $5 a glass. Also, the night before that our friend Jay Kuehner, who was the bartender at Sambar, he's going to be guest bartending so he'll be out there - it's going to be fun.
Second, it's an exciting time for us because we've finally finished our studio and it's our five-year anniversary here - the fifth anniversary of Jimgermanbar is July 1! This summer we're going to be bringing work down from the studio into the bar. And we're getting to work on a lot of side projects with art - and free to finally work in a finished studio - so that's very exciting now we can start doing shows there.
Everything behind - and coming out of - Jim German's bar is beautiful
Claire: I do want to say we are on the edge of the wilderness and it does take a bit of time and effort to make your way to our beautiful space. But if you're willing to do that - it's a concerted effort, but well worth it.