Maybe It’s in the Water

The legend of Olympia’s water may just be that, a legend. But there does seem to be something special about what’s been brewed and baked in our capital city.

It was the year 1902. An intrepid, new brewery company founded by Leopold Schmidt, a German immigrant to the South Puget Sound region, was doing brisk business at Tumwater Falls. The name of the ale? Olympia Brewing Company, with its iconic slogan — “It’s The Water” — coined that very year by brewery employee Frank M. Kenney. The phrase still adorns every can of Olympia Beer sold today, though the Tumwater Falls facility closed in 2003, and the beer itself is now brewed near Los Angeles, where the water is nothing special.

But today the water-as-ingredient tradition set forth by Schmidt and Kenney lives on in the city’s lively bread, pizza, and pastry scene. Water’s impact on regional foodstuffs has long been legendary, from the croissant-friendly waters of Paris to the legendary New York City tap, a critical ingredient in creating the city’s iconic pizza (and bagel) culture. Combining yeast, salt, wheat, and a host of other ingredients to create stunning baked goods is nothing new, and most cities boast a few bakeries that do it well. But in Olympia — population 50,000 — it seems like there’s a great one on every block, tucked into neighborhoods and dotting each street downtown. It’s almost as though baked goods in Olympia just … taste better. Maybe it’s the water?

To learn more, I snacked, nibbled, crumbed, noshed, and morseled my way across town, checking out a clutch of the city’s very best bakeries, pizzerias, patisseries, and boulangeries. Diet-friendly this guide is not, but indulge us (and yourself) for a moment. Let’s do this right, with plenty of high-quality, local flour; homemade icings and doughs; and, of course, a plethora of vegan and organic options — this is Olympia, after all. 

The Bread Peddler

Overseen by French transplant Andre Le Rest (born in Brittany, in the north of France), the Bread Peddler is a quality-focused institution opened in 2002. Each day, the Peddler’s pastry case is a riot of carbohydrates, a veritable forest of chausson, gougere, kouign-amman, orange rolls, savory tarts, and all manner of croissant, from simple Parisian butter to a genre-bending, everything spice croissant stuffed with cream cheese. 

But the baguette steals the show. Le Rest’s baguette offers the most wonderful tension, with a crunchy crusty snap giving way to fluffy pillow clouds. A generous dusting of flour on the outside adds just a bit more complexity. It is the platonic ideal of a baguette, fermented over 48-hours and often long gone by lunchtime (or earlier on weekends). 

“Good flour, good ingredients, good water — we are very lucky to be here,” Le Rest said, but I think he’s underselling things just a touch. A lovely baguette like this seems simple, and yet is considered by bakers to be among the hardest things to do and get just right. Like singing the national anthem or throwing a pinpoint changeup, it is deceptively difficult to get a baguette to taste this good, and Le Rest and his team are making some of the very best, not just in Olympia, but in all of Washington.

Old School Pizzeria

Downtown Olympia’s iconic punk rock Old School Pizzeria has held court on Fourth and Franklin since the late ’90s. That’s when Kenny Pugh, an Olympia native living in New York City, headed back home with his brother to bring a by-the-slice approach to the Pacific Northwest. This style of pizza was rare then — it has since grown in popularity, even spawning direct imitators in Portland and Seattle — but Pugh’s sole location for Old School maintains a hard-earned authenticity and outsider artist vibe that captures Olympia’s spirit and history simply by existing each day and cranking out pies. 

And oh, those pies. Judge them first on a plain, simple cheese slice: Old School’s is substantial, a meal for one on a paper plate, foldable enough to be identifiably New York in style but with a bit more fluff in the crust, and a delicate, subtle smoke-and-sweet flavor combination in the sauce. There is this ethereal crispiness to the slice, light yet chewy, the gentle alchemy of water and yeast revealing a duality of textures. 

From there branch out. I especially like the slice-only, square-cut Sicilian-style pizza at Old School: thick, crunchy, and thrice-baked, redolent with sauce and garlic and thick enough to make a single cut your dinner. 

Like Andre Le Rest down the street, Pugh is humble about what they’re doing at Old School, which he sees rightly as a piece of living Olympia history. “It’s this super basic dough recipe,” he said. “My buddy, he just kinda had this recipe, you know — it’s just flour, yeast, water, and salt.” 

Not much else to it than that — with maybe a little bit of that water magic thrown in. 

Blue Heron Bakery

With apologies to Blue Heron’s charming café out near the Evergreen State College, my favorite place to try the bakery’s turbinado sugar cookies and fresh baked breads is downtown, at their long-running market stall inside the Olympia Farmers Market. My wife, an Olympia native, claims to have grown up primarily on Blue Heron’s famed mud bars: a crust of sweetened grains heaped upon which is a half-inch of fudgy chocolate topped with a peanut butter swirl. Similarly excellent is the bakery’s garlic and green olive bread, complex and savory on its own, and the perfect vessel for a smash of avocado or some scrambled eggs. 

San Francisco Street Bakery

Perched on a quiet suburban side street in Olympia’s leafy East Side neighborhood, San Francisco Street Bakery offers a daily range of fresh baked goods and an enviable expanse of outdoor seating in a quiet garden environment. Upon entry you’re greeted by a gleaming row of pastry racks, flanked by a row of diner seats occupied by newspaper-reading regulars, either soaking in the sun or hiding from the rain, depending on the morning. 

San Francisco Street makes a wide range of pastries, including cakes, tarts, fresh rye bread and Challah, and most Olympians have a favorite — or favorites — from inside that case. But it’s the spice cookies — available as either gingerbread men (traditional) or stegosauruses (modern) — that result in the most rhapsodic, glazed-over looks, with their moreish hybrid of shortbread and sugar cookie textures with a pleasant chew and complex, rolling spice. 

The bagels are great here, too — like the baguette at Bread Peddler, this is another technique-heavy, ingredient-minimal baked good for which water is a critical component, and the version served here is boiled, not too big, and just the right kind of doughy. Toasted or not, they’re the perfect vessel for the café’s homemade range of cream cheeses, including pesto, garlic chive, and a vegan cashew curry (the bagels happen to be vegan, too).

Wagner’s 

I’d be remiss not to mention Wagner’s here, for their crazy-good cinnamon bread; fresh-made daily donuts; classics-focused sandwich bar; and range of cookies, tarts, éclairs, and bars. But the real story at this family-owned European inspired bakery are the springy, delicate, and beautifully constructed cakes. From massive wedding cakes to more humble family affairs, Wagner’s is a Valhalla for cake lovers. Custom orders can be placed in advance, but if you’re snacking for one, consider a “cake ring” — essentially a tiny cake of the day, available in flavors like German chocolate and white chocolate raspberry.   

Also don’t miss…

The exemplary kouign-amann at Left Bank Pastry.

Excellent macarons and custom cakes at Gotti Sweets. 

A range of breads, rolls, ice cream sandwiches, meat pies, and excellent vegan bars at 8 Arms Bakery. 

Family-style pizza from the long-running South Sound institution Dirty Dave’s Pizza Parlor.

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