It is the Pastime with a twist.
Even the name says as much. Passatempo Taverna.
What served for decades as a reflection of Walla Walla’s Italian heritage and a trusted spot for dinner or just drinks in an era when Walla Walla was known for only wheat is re-imagined — this time with collaboration from a well-known mixologist, one of Washington’s well known Italian restaurateurs and paired with a brand new companion winery being built in the empty lot next door.
Actually, the winery was the original concept. The remake of the historic restaurant came after. More on that later.
The vision for both is coming to life at 215 W. Main St. Passatempo Taverna is expected to open by summer, a decade after the building was sold and the Pastime closed.
A sneak peek of wines from The Walls, the tasting room under construction to the immediate west at 219 W. Main, came Thursday with the first releases. The wines were being poured at Taste Washington in Seattle over the weekend.
Partners in the collaboration are a Who’s Who of talent: Jim German, who brought urban cocktails to rural Waitsburg and helped make that community’s Main Street a must-stop for food-and-drink-lovers before closing last year: winemaker Ali Mayfield, who’s developed a reputation in the Walla Walla Valley for her old-world-style wines; and Mike Easton, the Seattle restaurateur behind Il Corvo and Pizzeria Gabbiano.
Walla Walla’s DeMambro Architect is behind the design component, with building from Ketelsen Construction.
Behind it all is Mike Martin and the most magnificent story of a hole-in-one.
Martin is a corporate attorney whose fascination with Walla Walla grew in tandem with his interest in wine after an initial introduction to the community in the late 1990s.
On a trip through town ultimately aimed at Boise seven or so years ago, he and a friend decided to play what was then the new Wine Valley Golf Course.
On his first round, he got his first hole in one. He took it as a sign.
“I think in some ways it was a higher power speaking to me that Walla Walla was going to be a bigger part of my future,” Martin said. “It was funny. The place we stopped on the way to where we were going turned out to be the highlight of my trip.”
He came back. Increasingly so. To the point that he purchased a condo at Vue 22 and began splitting his time between his new Walla Walla home and his one in Bellevue. At a housewarming, Mayfield was among the guests who stopped by.
Martin was a fan of her wines, and Mayfield had been working largely in a consulting winemaker role at that point. He thought she should do something bigger, so she presented him with her business plan.
Together, the two got in on a late harvest and made wine through Artifex in 2014.
“That kind of started us on this journey,” Martin said.
“I had been a big fan of Ali’s wines, her style and her winemaking, she’s very passionate but also very quiet and determined.”
With a goal to build a winery they began looking at land and buildings. The focus is on offering visitors a one-of-a-kind experience.
“I can remember certain wines I had in certain places,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the wine. Sometimes it’s where you were and who you were with. We’re trying to create memorable experiences.”
An initial idea for a location fell through.
Mayfield then suggested the former Pastime.
Meanwhile, Martin, who had also developed into a huge fan of jimgermanbar worked to woo German into the project.
“I joke that I drove out to the jimgermanbar every weekend to see if Jim would go to the prom with me,” Martin quipped.
When Martin made the building purchase last May, he drove to Waitsburg and told German.
“That’s what kind of launched us into the path that we’re in,” he said.
The opportunities aligned. German, who had long known Easton, brought in the collaboration for the kitchen.
Easton has a consulting role. He’s helped with the kitchen design and menu development and will continue in that capacity. Martin likens the future relationship to that of a visiting professor.
The remodel of the space carries a huge responsibility, Martin acknowledged. The nostalgia for what was a relic of the past — from the neon sign of the Pastime Cafe to the practices of free soup to those down on their luck — holds meaning for local residents.
“It’s been an opportunity for me to be a caretaker to Walla Walla’s history,” he said. “To hopefully create a public space for people to really meet and have community, which is one of the great things that attracted me to Walla Walla since the beginning.”
Nevertheless, the days of $4.95 lasagna have passed. Passatempo is not a replica, operators emphasize.
During a tour of the property German explained the “Taverna” name is indicative of a less formal, more day-to-day ambience of the space.
As with the Pastime, guests will walk through the doorway and have a choice between a right turn into adult-only territory or a left turn into family dining.
In the former, a long bar will run along one end of the space, just as it had in the Pastime.
Some elements that are actually older than the Pastime will be new to Passatempo. As part of the construction, crews have unearthed skylights that had been covered in layer upon layer of ceiling.
They’ve also discovered banks of frontage windows previously covered and adorned with the words “Italian” and “American.” The windows are said to date to 1927.
The redesigned kitchen sits in the same space, as does the former card room.
German and Mayfield said surprises await. Although they aren’t revealing all of the plans, there will be pockets where diners can sit with relative privacy for a date night or meeting. The family dining space will be available to rent out, too.
The taverna will connect to the tasting room, as well as a courtyard in front of it. The connection will provide food for those at the tasting room and a wine option for those who want to experience The Walls.
That will not, by a long shot, be the only wine on the menu though.
A specific opening date has not been identified. Partners say the construction will be given the time that’s needed to get the project done right.
Delving into the former Pastime was like an archaeological dig, German said. Construction has included pouring new concrete walls, and, of course, the creation of the new tasting room.
Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of excitement for the eventual opening day.
“I feel like it’s like a baby,” Martin said. “It grows up a little more every time I get to come back.”