WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Mount Rushmore-type figures for the Washington wine industry have called Walla Walla home for decades and made some of the Northwest most famous steak-worthy reds.
And yet, there wasn’t anything resembling Walla Walla Steak Co. in downtown Walla Walla until cattle rancher/chef/vineyard owner Dan Thiessen brought his lifelong vision to reality two blocks from the iconic Marcus Whitman Hotel in 2018.
“Why there hadn’t been a dedicated steakhouse was baffling,” Thiessen says with a chuckle. “That was a home run concept for us — a hometown, blue jean-comfort steakhouse tradition.”
At the other end of the circa 1914 train depot on Second Avenue is Crossbuck Brewing and its stylish sports bar atmosphere.
“The magic of this place is getting here and then deciding if you want to go left to the taproom or right to the Steak Co,” Thiessen says. “It doesn’t depend upon the menu choices, only what vibe you are looking for.”
Thiessen entered Culinary Institute of America as teen
Thiessen’s pursuit of fine cuisine took him straight from Asotin, Wash., High School — Class of ’90 — to Hyde Park, N.Y., where he graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America two years later. His work ethic originates from the cattle and wheat ranches his forefathers ran in the Lewis-Clark Valley starting in the late 19th century. Those roots and legacy inspired Thiessen to offer an authentic, vertically integrated agricultural experience in Walla Walla.
“When our guests can hear that the Thiessen Ranch Burger comes from Thiessen Ranch, who is the managing partner of the restaurant, there’s a level of authenticity that cannot be challenged,” he says. “We’re able to show a bottle tableside that comes from Wagon Wrench Vineyard — the vineyard that my wife and I and our boys live on. And all of our staff knows my wife and our three boys because we try to dine in the restaurant once a week. They are seeing our boys grow up, and we know their families.”
After cooking in Switzerland for three years, Thiessen’s career in the Seattle area included serving as executive chef at the Space Needle, corporate chef of Salty’s Restaurants, a five-year run with a radio program and a teaching stint at the Art Institute of Seattle. The opportunity to become executive director of the Wine Country Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community College in 2011 gave him the chance to return Eastern Washington. His wife, Melissa, who grew up in Walla Walla, directed communications and marketing for the college. Much of her time now is spent heading up sales for Thiessen Beef LLC.
“It’s really fun for our boys to be raised around the cattle and understand how it all works, and that was one of my dad’s final wishes,” Dan says. “Now, the boys have their own egg business, and we’ll see how it goes. We have a lot of irons in the fire right now. I drink a lot of coffee, but I’m blessed to have great teams.”
Ownership of the restaurants includes Paul Mackay, who retired to Walla Walla after a career that launched and involved a number of the Northwest’s most revered restaurants, including El Gaucho, 13 Coins, Metropolitan Grill, Elliott’s Oyster House and Waterfront Seafood Grill — now AQUA by El Gaucho. In 2016, Mackay began to purchase historic buildings in the Walla Walla Valley, including the former train depot that was home to Jacobi’s Café for three decades.
“I’ve known Paul since 1996 when he opened up the original El Gaucho, but I didn’t know he retired here, and he didn’t know I grew up here,” Thiessen said. “Paul and I had a lot of coffee together and a lot of conversations about what this town was ready for and what I wanted to do. He kept bugging me about how much longer I was going to stay at the college.”
So he resigned in 2017, and they teamed up with Philip Christofides, an architect whose design clients have included Starbucks and Mackay’s operation. Their Walla Walla Steak Co., came out of the chute in the fall of 2018 and survived the pandemic with some changes that have made it easier on his staff and proved to be popular with patrons.
“Post-COVID, we had no idea what we were going to open up to, so we decided to switch to reservations,” Thiessen said. “It allowed for a throttle to be applied to the flow of the night. We no longer had that 6:30 p.m. spike in sales that was really rough on the staff and the kitchen. And we learned that we can provide an even higher level of service to our guests if we take reservations.”
Thiessen also decided to serve only dinner and do so just five nights a week, scaling back from lunch and dinner seven days a week.
“We’re open 27 hours a week, and we did nearly as much in sales in ’21 as we did in ’19,” Thiessen said. “If we would have been open in January and February of 2021, we would have beaten 2019’s numbers.”
Rèsumè paves way for Rock Silva’s homecoming
A key figure in the transition has been executive chef Rock Silva, whose résumé includes the now-closed RN74 — a downtown Seattle concept by acclaimed Bay Area restaurateur Michael Mina, work within the ever-growing empire of Ethan Stowell and time in the kitchen of James Beard Award-winning chef Jason Wilson.
“I was born and raised in Walla Walla, but I moved to Seattle four days after high school graduation to go to culinary school,” Silva said. “Dan ran that program but left the quarter before I started.”
Not long after that formal education, Silva worked in Australia for four years, which included two years with iconoclast George Calombaris.
“I’ve always tried to work for the hottest chef that time and learn what worked for them,” Silva says. “George Calombaris was more than a celebrity chef — more like a Gordon Ramsay personality. And he was all over the place.”
Thiessen and the Walla Walla Valley continue to benefit from Silva’s desire to come home and raise a family with his wife, Amanda.
“Rock has got an incredible range of abilities,” Thiessen says. “He’s not afraid of looking at a 400-cover Saturday, then turn around and do a killer seven-course meal for 12 people — and be in his element. That’s not always easy.”
And the long-range plans for Silva extend beyond Walla Walla as the Walla Walla Steak Co./Crossbuck Brewing concept has expanded to Woodinville’s tony Schoolhouse District. They will have diners who live a stone’s throw from the eateries. Sandwiched by the District Flats condos are five wineries — Barnard Griffin, L’Ecole N° 41, Landlines, Montinore and Spanish-owned Valdemar Estates.
“I have chef friends who give me a hard time because they have Seattle restaurants, and they’ve downsized to come to Walla Walla to slow down, and here we are, starting in Walla Walla and now launching in Woodinville,” Thiessen says with a chuckle.
His mobile catering operation is called Angus Prime, and given his background, it’s easy to understand why Thiessen approaches a cut of steak that came off his ranch as a winemaker might who’s working with estate grapes and deciding when to harvest, how to ferment, how long to age the wine and how it should be enjoyed.
“When you look at beef — the cut of beef, the grade of beef and the preparation — those three differences can apply multiple factors on the same product,” Thiessen says. “And grass-finished, no-graded beef is going to taste significantly different that corn-finished USDA Prime. And then how is it aged?”
When it comes to his wine list, there’s also a product raised on Thiessen Ranch — the Walla Walla Steak Co. 2018 Wagon Wrench Vineyard Sangiovese, which is made by Jason Fox of Lagana Cellars. In a valley famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, some diners may wonder why a bottle of Sangiovese deserves a prominent spot on the wine list at Walla Walla Steak Co.
“I think Italians would challenge that and say that Sangiovese is the classic red meat preparation,” Thiessen says with a smile. “I think it depends upon where you are from. In Walla Walla, people are going to say, ‘Cab.’ That’s not to say anyone is right or wrong. My deal has always been about personal choice.”
And Silva built a dish that hits on many aspects of Thiessen’s homegrown wine — the Cast Iron Cowboy Ribeye with Marinated Spring Vegetables.
“I think it’s safe to say you can go red with beef, and with something like a Sangiovese, it always screams Italian, so you can pair it with any sort of red sauce because of the wine’s acidity,” Silva says. “I added tomatoes and oregano to bring in a Mediterranean herb component, and there’s a little bit of red wine vinegar in the vegetables, which brings out the acidity of the wine and cuts through the fat in the beef.”
Walla Walla Steak Co. set to expand into Woodinville
Thiessen’s business empire also includes Yellowhawk Resort and Sparkling House. The ownership group hired George-Anne Robertson — like Fox, a graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s enology and viticulture program — to be their winemaker.
“At Yellowhawk, everything on the menu will pair with sparkling,” said Silva, who also oversees that kitchen. “For this, I wanted to do a dessert to show how versatile sparkling wine is.”
He crafts Chocolate Crémeux Tart with Cocoa Nibs and Hazelnuts in a way that’s not creamy like a custard, but it’s not a ganache, either. The chocolate showcases the strawberry notes in the wine, while the inherent brightness of Malbec makes the bubbles dance, cleansing the palate for another spoonful of the tart and providing yet another example of why bubbles go with just about anything.
“If the tart is cold, it will bring out a bit of booziness in the wine, but once the tart is warmed up, it’s a slam dunk,” Robertson said. “And with the bubbles, oh, wow! the hazelnuts are enhanced. Good job, Rock!”
Silva and “G.A” — the chef’s nickname for Robertson — also will be centerpieces for the second annual Shindig, a consumer festival at Yellowhawk that spans the final weekend of August. Immediately, it turned into one of the biggest fundraisers for Walla Walla Valley nonprofits. Awareness of Shindig got a big boost through Steak Co.’s ties to the Revelers Club, an innovative loyalty program launched more than decade ago by the Mackay restaurant group. Its membership roll is larger than the population of some Eastern Washington counties.
“It’s a party to celebrate the valley, and it’s going to be massive,” Silva said. “Last year, we had 350 people. This year, Dan wants closer to 500 people.
“Friday is a big reception with a magnum tent this year. And Saturday is the Grand Gala — a big six-course epic meal all paired with wine, and then there’s an auction after,” Silva added. “And all of the proceeds go to agencies around the valley. We raised $160,000 last year in our first year!”
- Walla Walla Steak Company and Crossbuck Brewing, 416 N. Second Ave., Walla Walla, WA 99362, WWSteakCo.com, (509) 526-4100.