Nell Thorn Waterfront Bistro & Bar
La Conner’s Nell Thorn has been serving locally sourced food before it was trendy. It is one of the original farm-to-table restaurants in the area, thanks to forward-thinking owners, Casey and Susan Schanen.
The husband-wife team are natives of Skagit Valley and have extensive food and wine backgrounds. The couple met about 25 years ago at the Wild Iris Inn, where both worked. The pair teamed up to establish Cafe Flats, a small bistro inside the inn, exclusively for hotel guests. There, the couple’s idea of running a restaurant with locally sourced food gained momentum. Casey and Susan both grew up on farms, and had mentors who were exploring the idea of farm-to-table-style restaurants. The concept creates sustainability within a community — customers eat at restaurants that source from local farms. Everyone supports each other in the chain, so it’s easy to see how, as Casey describes it, “A restaurant that focused on its local food shed was a great way to be part of the community.”
So Casey and Susan set off to establish a restaurant focused on local food. In 2001 Nell Thorn opened with tables covered in white tablecloths. Without a reputation, potential customers assumed white tablecloths meant expensive fine dining. After seeing too many people come in, look around, and decide they didn’t want an expensive meal or weren’t dressed for the venue, the Schanens decided to ditch the tablecloths. They set out to tone down the atmosphere but not the food. The decor turned a bit more casual, but the Pacific Northwest-style menu retained its quality ingredients, cooked from scratch with French and Italian techniques. Interestingly, today many frequent customers will describe Nell Thorn as fine dining, choosing it for special occasions and dressing up for dinner. There isn’t a white tablecloth in sight, but the quality of the food, drinks, and service translate into a fine dining experience.
In Nell Thorn’s kitchen, you’ll find only three things in cans: coconut milk, tomatoes, and olive oil. Ingredients are fresh, clean, sustainable, organic if available, and locally sourced. Everything is cooked from scratch, including their fresh pastas, stocks, and locally grown and dried beans. If you visit at the right time of year, you’ll get a taste of fresh-shell beans. These fresh beans are encased in drying, sometimes shriveled, pods. The season for the fresh-shell beans lasts for about a month and Nell Thorn makes the most of the beans’ wonderfully creamy texture and fresh flavors.
What sets Nell Thorn apart from other restaurants in the area is their supplier relationships. Casey and Susan have been working with an extensive list of local growers and fishermen for about a decade. Keep in mind when they first started, farm-to-table wasn’t the movement it is now. It was barely an idea. Some of Nell Thorn’s earliest customers were farmers who understood the social and culinary benefits of locally sourced food. In turn, building relationships with the suppliers required a personal touch. “You have to be sensitive to the unique needs of each supplier,” said Casey. Some are actual businesses while others answer business calls on a home phone. Schanen described getting to know his suppliers: their children, their hobbies, the vacation rhythms and weekend trips to visit family or attend a kid’s soccer game. It’s a more personable way to do business and helps build the social component of a community-focused restaurant.
Thanks to the abundance of fresh local ingredients, Nell Thorn’s menu rotates seasonally and features daily specials. There are a number of fan favorites, like the Dungeness crab pasta, which swaps ingredients seasonally like sweet corn in summer and hearty squash in winter, and the seasonal pot stickers that are filled with fresh vegetables.
If you can’t settle on a starter, choose the crispy polenta cakes. A fan favorite, they’ve been on the menu since Nell Thorn was established. For salads, they have three house dressings: champagne vinaigrette, pumpkin-seed vinaigrette, and a creamy gorgonzola dressing, together offering versatility in complementing the seasonal ingredient-topped salads. The quiche is executed well with fluffy eggs and a flaky, light crust, while the no-fuss Nell Burger has simple toppings that don’t overburden the perfectly cooked, juicy meat patty.
Since Nell Thorn is seafood-heavy, trying one of their seafood dishes is a must. Usually their daily specials take into account the freshest catches, but on the menu you’ll usually find some kind of seafood pasta, filet-topped salad, and oysters.
Don’t forget a drink with your meal. The bar serves an extensive wine list of domestic and European bottles, 16 local beers are on draft, and the seasonal cocktail menu is crafted with careful consideration. Non-alcoholic choices include seasonal fruit shrubs, made with fruit, sugar, and vinegar they’re slightly sweet with a pleasant vinegary zing.
If you leave Nell Thorn feeling satisfied, but not weighed down, the Schanens consider their jobs done well. The outside patio is an ideal place to spend a lazy, sunny autumn afternoon, and the casual bar area is perfect for a cozy dinner. Nell Thorn’s popular waterfront dining room only seats about 30, so if you want a view with your dinner, it’s a good idea to make a reservation. If you just want a delicious meal made with local ingredients, then walking in gets you a seat in the bistro, bar, or patio, all ideal settings to enjoy a locally grown meal.