Downtown Restaurant Week validates Juneau’s growing food scene

Travis Smith, a co-owner of a number of downtown food service businesses including The Rookery Cafe, PanhandleProvisions, The Taqueria and In Bocca al Lupo, talks about the Downtown Juneau Restaurant Week and Juneau’s growingdining scene at The Rookery Cafe on Monday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Kimchi, duck ramen and khekda bharjiya.

 

You couldn’t find any of these on a Juneau menu five years ago, yet with a burgeoning food scene spurred on by a handful of chefs and restaurant owners, at least one food blogger has declared Juneau one of the nation’s “10 small cities with world-class food scenes.”

The Downtown Business Association is so proud of its cooks that it’s organized a whole week to celebrate.

The inaugural Downtown Juneau Restaurant Week, which runs until Thursday, aims to highlight these culinary hot spots. Seventeen downtown restaurants and a tour company are offering discounts and exclusive options in an attempt to lure customers who may still be in the dark about their hometown’s gastronomic greatness.

According to event organizer, food critic and Juneau Food Tours owner Kelly “Midgi” Moore, eatery options are now more varied than ever.

“We now have everything from really comfortable, casual dining to unusual finds and high-class, sophisticated options,” Moore said. “McGiveny’s has given us a sports bar, Hanger has Wharf has that wonderful comfortable Juneau feel and that amazing view, In Bocca Al Lupo has their wood fire grill, The Rookery has that rotating, eclectic menu. … V’s Cellar Door will change your life.”

Though Moore could go on — and most foodies do, if you ask them about their passion — she’s not alone in her esteem of Juneau’s nascent scene. A 2015 New York Times article claims that, “Until recently, Juneau didn’t have much to offer the discerning diner.”

Well, bites from downtown now include Indian, Korean, French, Italian and Thai — all from restaurants opening in the last five years. The diversity allows Moore to run food tours three days a week all winter and daily all summer.

Moore says one harbinger of change was when The Rookery Cafe opened up shop.

With the help of chef Beau Schooler, owner Travis Smith has opened three restaurants downtown in the past six years. The Rookery, Smith and Schooler’s “home,” came first.

The Taqueria, which celebrates its two-year anniversary in March, came next. Smith conceived of the taco joint as a temporary restaurant but it gained a larger following than he anticipated.

His third project, In Bocca al Lupo — an Italian restaurant with a from-scratch philosophy — is now almost a year old.

Though opening three businesses in six years has earned Smith his share of gray hairs, he’s excited to be part of restaurant scene which has begun to push its limits.

Like Moore, he too felt like a restaurant week was a long time coming.

“Like everything, we’re always about three, four years behind trend, so I’d say we’re spot on,” Smith said. “This is something that has gone on in bigger cities for years and years.”

To celebrate the week, The Rookery is aiming to showcase a few of their most popular dishes: ramen, steam buns and bread pudding.

“We wanted to feature some of the things that people come in for all the time and get people who are maybe coming downtown to try us out as a new restaurant, getting them to see a couple of things we do that we’ve become well-known for,” Smith said. “The dinner menu changes a couple times a week sometimes. Not huge changes but there are always things going on and off on the basis that we just try to focus on what’s fresh and seasonal and play around with fun flavors.”

Now in their fourth year of dinner service, Smith said The Rookery came around at a time when his patrons’ interests in cooking have been at an all-time high, allowing him and Schooler to take chances.

“People are more informed about food. The rise of the TV-food-lifestyle industry with all these television shows — they may not get people cooking like that at home, but they open people up to the idea of new and fresh flavors people might not even try. In a lot of ways we benefitted from having things that are wild and exotic on the menu that can be found in other locations.”

Participating in the Downtown Juneau Restaurant Week are: Baranof Bubble Room, Capital Cafe, Coconut Thai Cafe, El Sombrero, Hangar on the Whart, Heritage Coffee Company, In Bocca al Lupo, McGivney’s downtown, Pizzeria Roma, Rainbow Foods, Red Dog Saloon, Sandpiper, Saffron, Salt, The Rookery Cafe, TK Maguire’s, V’s Cellar Door, Zen and Juneau Food Tours.

A full list of restaurant discounts can be found at http://www.downtownjuneau.org/rw/menus/#bucco.

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