In the late 1800s, a farmers’ association called The Grange — a reference to the medieval European term “granary,” or grain house — was organized in the United States. Along with serving agricultural interests, the organization strived toward community outreach, holding meetings and social activities in a large barn or public hall typically called the Grange. Towns across the nation had Grange Halls, but over the many years and decades, these buildings have nearly all but disappeared, taking along with them some of the history, connections with local farmers, and fresh food. But an Eastside cafe is keeping the tradition alive.
The Snoqualmie Valley remains a rich agricultural source, supplying restaurants, grocery stores, and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. It’s a model of sustainability, and one of the region’s farm-to-table ambassadors is The Grange Cafe, celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Located in Duvall, within the heart of the lush valley and with a view of the Snoqualmie River, it’s a showcase setting to bridge the gap between past and present.
“We fell in love with the building,” said Rod Neldam, owner of The Grange Cafe. He first laid eyes on Duvall’s historic Grange Hall in 2006, when it was up for sale, but the building has had many former lives. It was first built for the Grange Association in the 1920s, and then became a meeting place for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a centuries-old fraternal order; it was a restaurant called the Silver Spoon in the 1970s; and for many years it was a gallery space for garden art. Perhaps that history spoke to Neldam, as he envisioned a return of the Duvall Grange Hall’s role as a community-gathering place.
“I’m a third-generation baker,” Neldam said in describing his lifelong relationship with from-scratch foods. “I come from the Bay Area. My grandfather, who was a master baker, came from Denmark; he was European-trained. He started a bakery in Oakland, California. I worked there for probably 15-20 years.”
Originally thinking it would become a bakery — the building was so large and spacious — Neldam decided it would be a better fit as a restaurant. His name may sound familiar — he is also the founder of the Grateful Bread Bakery, a 20-year-old Seattle staple, which now has a shop in Duvall, right across from The Grange Cafe.
“We’ve always been health-conscious, and aware of sustainable, clean food. We carried that (from the bakery) to the restaurant,” he said, gesturing to an illustrated chalkboard hanging above the kitchen that proudly displays the local farms that contribute to what’s on the plate.
“We do everything from scratch; we don’t buy premade things. We buy everything, we assemble it, we cook it, we break it down.” – Rod Neldam, owner of the Grange Cafe
Familiar names like Anchorhead Coffee, Oxbow Farm, Local Roots Farm, and many other Eastside producers build The Grange Cafe’s menu of comfort foods and American classics. Their ability to source locally continues to expand with their involvement with the recently formed Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Cooperative, a collective of small, organic, valley-based farms pooling their produce to supply ingredients not only to The Grange, but restaurants all over the Seattle area.
This distinct sense of place extends to the cafe’s interior, furnished with the country charm of shopworn farm tools and furniture, a cast-iron wood stove, and vintage cooking appliances, all collected from nearby antique shops. Historic photos of Duvall are scattered throughout the restaurant, as well as art by local photographers.
“There are people who make trips out here on the weekend, to visit the Valley and get more in touch with the local food source. They’re coming into the place where the food is produced; it’s a complete picture,” said Neldam. Visitors enjoy the fact that they drive past fields whose produce winds up in The Grange’s kitchen, providing the rare opportunity to taste their surroundings.
It’s that pledge of sustainability that keeps The Grange’s kitchen on its toes, and employees welcome the Iron Chef-like challenge. There’s a constant balance being maintained, developing seasonal specials with local ingredients, while making sure the menu is rounded out with customer favorites, like their number-one seller, The Grange burger with bacon and cheese, and the recent addition of a weekday happy hour.
Whether it’s a main ingredient or a flavorful flourish, there’s always a little bit of the Northwest in each dish. Fresh summer cherries come from a farm outside Ellensburg in the peak of season, and they’re incorporated in fresh salads or desserts, while the surplus is preserved as compote to be used throughout the year. A pear tree in the garden allows the menu to become hyper-local, where they can serve salads featuring an ingredient picked only steps away from the tables. Despite winter’s chill, kale is always available and used in inventive ways beyond the trendy smoothie. Take note of that burger between delicious bites: The tangy relish is composed of onions plucked from Washington soil and pickled on-site.
Restaurant practices of extending ingredients hearken back to an era of small household farms using and preserving every bit of every harvest, with nothing left to waste. “We do everything from scratch; we don’t buy premade things,” said Neldam. “We buy everything, we assemble it, we cook it, we break it down.”
Despite his passion for farm-to-table eating, Neldam is the first to admit he didn’t always eat his veggies. “I was the kid that hid the veggies under the plate, pushed them aside to try and make them look smaller!” he laughingly admitted, recalling childhood meals of overcooked greens.
“It’s really, for me, been an evolution,” he said. “I can’t imagine some of the things I used to eat. I haven’t had any fast food in 12, 15 years, but I used to; I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But now, I don’t want it at all. You have the knowledge of what’s in it.