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Originally published Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Downtown Yakima comes back to life

Yakima has more dining, more lodging and more attractions in its renovated downtown, in the middle of Washington wine country.

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

Yakima

Upcoming events

Fresh Hop Ale Festival, featuring 16 microbreweries from the Northwest and Northern California, 6-11 p.m. Oct. 4, in and around the Millennium Arts Plaza, South Third Street and Yakima Avenue, downtown Yakima. More info: www.freshhopalefestival.com.

More information

Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau has information on lodging and attractions, plus a list of Yakima Valley wineries, fall events and online maps of wineries and local farms: 800-221-0751 or www.visityakima.com.

More on Downtown Yakima and Operation Downtown Renaissance: www.downtownyakima.com.

Get ski and boarding conditions all winter long with webcams, snow alerts and more at seattletimes.com/snowsports

YAKIMA — Conversations and laughter filled the little pub tucked away in the town's original City Hall and fire station as we squeezed into the after-work crowd at this Historic District hot spot. Grabbing two plastic chairs from a corner stack, we settled in for a cold one and conversation at Bob's Keg and Cork on a recent summer evening.

Bob Hargreaves opened his popular pub and casual dining spot (27 N. Front St., 509-573-3691) a decade ago, back when there wasn't much going on in the old town, a time when there wasn't much going on anywhere in downtown Yakima.

"It was dead," Hargreaves says. "But there has been a dramatic change in the last three to five years. There are people on the sidewalks again. Even locals are noticing. It's been a long time since we've seen people on the sidewalks."

We were in my hometown for a shot of solar-powered vitamin D, using it as a base for weekend explorations in Central Washington's wine country, an area now boasting more than 60 wineries scattered throughout the Lower Yakima Valley.

What we hadn't expected was the lure of Yakima's revitalized downtown. With new eateries, wine-tasting rooms, entertainment venues and hotels, a weekend visit wasn't enough time to experience it all.

Not so many years ago, the sidewalks were empty, as were many of the storefronts. Even portions of the retail hub, the Yakima Mall, were boarded up for a time after the last of the retailers headed for new digs in the suburbs.

"Operation Downtown Renaissance," an intense effort by civic and business leaders, has brought new life to the area stretching west from Interstate 82 through the heart of town to its Historic District.

Front Street

Historic District

A recently completed face-lift gave the oldest part of town a new "old" look. Cast-iron lampposts line spacious sidewalks, and Front Street is again paved with bricks, much as it was when first paved in 1907.

For 25 years, the Greystone Restaurant, in the 1899 Lund Building at 5 N. Front St. (509-248-9801, www.greystonedining.com), has been the area's fine-dining cornerstone. Now, with five other eateries open, the selection of culinary offerings in this compact time-capsule district has expanded to include French cuisine, Northwest fare and pub grub. A favorite stop, The Depot Restaurant & Lounge at 32 N. Front St. (509-949-4233, www.depotrestaurantandlounge.com), opened six years ago in the former domed passenger waiting room and adjacent baggage room of the century-old train station. It's an expansive, tranquil setting disturbed only by the occasional passing freight train. (Passenger service ended decades ago.)

The sidewalk is a maze of shrub-filled pots and overflowing greenery in front of the Garden Girl, 25 N. Front St. (509-452-2612), one of several boutiques that have recently sprouted in Yakima's first Opera House. Wine aficionados are drawn to the Cascade Wine Store, 26 N. First St. (509-972-2811, www.cwcwine.com), to sample retail selections at the small tasting bar, while java and gelato lovers head next door to the North Town Coffeehouse, 28 N. First St. (509-895-7600, www.northtowncoffee.com), which opened in July.

There's free on-street parking in the area as well as in several lots accessed from Front or First streets. Accessible walkways lead from all lots.

Downtown

Walking along Yakima Avenue, the town's main east/west drag, is one of the best ways to see all that's new. Those once-empty sidewalks are being enlarged to accommodate and encourage pedestrians. They are also serving as patios, with some 15 businesses making the most of the town's annual 300 days of sunshine by offering outdoor dining and/or drinking. One of the newest and prettiest patios is walled with lush flowering baskets and enormous planted pots at Santiago's Gourmet Mexican Restaurant, 111 E. Yakima Ave. (509-453-1644, www.santiagos.org), where they've been serving south-of-the-border fare since 1986.

The sidewalk tables under the vintage neon sign — a hunter with his rifle aimed skyward — at the Yakima Sports Center Restaurant and Lounge, 214 E. Yakima Ave. (509-453-4647, www.yakimasportscenter.com), are the first indicator of change at this old landmark, once a smoke-filled diner and card room. While the sign and name nod to the past, in 2006 new owners opened a brighter, livelier restaurant and lounge. Its food and beverage menu packs them in, along with late-night live music.

It's worth a jog off Yakima Avenue to visit Essencia Artisan Bakery and Chocolaterie, 4 N. Third St. (509-575-5570, www.essenciabakery.com), where it's futile to resist the baked goods and chocolate creations.

Masset Winery Downtown Cellars, 312 E. Yakima Ave. (509-248-5251, www.massetwinery.com), is among five recently opened tasting rooms within a five-block area of downtown. Wine is paired with appetizers, and local artists are showcased in this tasting-room/art gallery that also features live music on weekend evenings.

The sparkling chandelier and vaulted ceilings create an elegant ambience in the lobby of the 2-year-old Hilton Garden Inn, 401 E. Yakima Ave. (509-454-1111, www.yakima.stayhgi.com). The 111-room hotel, in what was once a part of the old mall, is flanked by upscale shops, one selling home décor and the other wine and entertainment items. There's direct lobby access to Ummelina Spa, 399 E. Yakima Ave. (509-225-4772, www.ummelina.com), a sister to the one in Seattle. From a lengthy list of treatments, I tried a 20-minute foot soak ($20), a curiously refreshing combination of salts and shells, misting and massage — a perfect tootsie treat after exploring the town.

In June, the Ledgestone Hotel, 107 N. Fair Ave. (509-453-3151, www.yakimawahotel.com), opened for both long- and short-term stays. There's a contemporary feel to the hotel's sleek lobby. Its 110 suites look like high-end condos, each with separate bedroom, living room, kitchen and eating area. The hotel is near Interstate 82, a bit of a hike from the city center.

Coming soon: A 124-room boutique hotel, with oversize rooms and high-end rates, is scheduled to open in late spring 2009 in the northeast corner of the former mall, near the Hilton Garden Inn. Planning is under way for a 120-room full-service Holiday Inn at East Yakima and Fair avenues.

Entertainment happenings

The Seasons Performance Center, 101 N. Naches Ave. (888-723-7660, www.seasonsmusicfestival.com), transformed a former church into a 400-seat performance center in 2005 and has taken center stage in Yakima's entertainment scene. Its musical lineup includes jazz, classical and world music performed by local and internationally known musicians.

The interior of the elegant, 90-year-old Capitol Theatre, 19 S. Third St. (509-853-2787, www.capitoltheatre.org), is more visually striking than its exterior. Call to arrange a tour if you can't make it to a performance.

We hit the downtown's First Friday celebration, a mishmash of activities that begins about 6 p.m. and varies by business, ranging from live music to product demonstrations, and special menu items at eateries and tasting rooms. It's relatively new, and activities vary each month.

We'll soon head back to Yakima. Next time, though, we won't venture far from downtown.

Freelance writer Jackie Smith, a Yakima native who now lives in Kirkland, is a regular contributor to NWWeekend. Contact her: travelnwrite@msn.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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