We love eating at a places loaded with history and the Baldwin Saloon in The Dalles in Oregon’s beautiful Columbia River Gorge has plenty of it. Baldwin’s, as it’s affectionately known by locals, began serving terrific food back in 1876 when two the Baldwin brothers, James and John, ran a restaurant and saloon here. With its location right next to the railroad and near the busy Columbia River, the Baldwin Saloon became the gathering place for rail men and sailors.
After the Baldwin brothers, “Dr.” Charlie Allen operated a saloon here. He was an arrogant man who was never really a doctor (he’d previously sold eyeglasses). But to ensure his name would be remembered as one, Allen had iron medical insignias (caduceus) made by Golden State Iron Works in San Francisco cast into the building’s façade. During the good ‘doctor’s’ ownership, a small frame building was attached to the back of the building and Doc Allen and his wife operated a brothel there together.
Over the years, the Baldwin Saloon building served as a steamboat navigational office, a warehouse, a coffin storage site for a local mortuary, and a state employment office. In 1962, custom saddle makers, Garth and Evelyn Bonney, purchased this building and, for 30 years, they operated the Bonney Saddle Shop. (To this day, you can still buy quality Bonney saddles.) Then, in 1991, when Garth was just shy of his 80th birthday, he retired and he sold the building to a young couple, Mark and Tracy Linebarger.
The Linebargers, who grew up in The Dalles, had come home. They wanted to bring the Baldwin Saloon full circle by restoring it to its original use as a restaurant and bar. Like the Baldwin brothers, the Linebargers made the Baldwin Saloon a favorite gathering place for locals and visitors alike.
Over the past 25 years, Chef Mark and his wife have created a destination for foodies and history buffs. The old building’s original beadboard and brick walls and fir floor are complimented with period pieces, including rich mahogany and golden oak booths and tables with brass fixtures, beautiful turn-of-the-century oil paintings, and an impressive, 18-foot long mahogany back bar made in the early l900s that features large scrolled columns and an original mirror trimmed with stained glass. A piano player tinkles the ivories on an 1894 Schubert mahogany piano. Fans whirling from the 20’ ceiling keep the place comfortably cool.
The food at Baldwin’s is impressive. They use quality ingredients, the portions are generous, and they make everything in-house–from pillow-soft bread to luscious sauces, desserts, and even pasta.
The menu is huge. They serve appetizers/starters (11 choices), salads (12 choices), homemade soups, including lunch Bouillabaisse, and side salads, burgers, a dozen different sandwiches (which include soup, salad or fries), pasta dishes, and 15 dinner entrees that include fresh seafood, chicken, pork, and beef. And that doesn’t include the nightly specials. Oftentimes, such an extensive menu indicates a lack of focus on the part of the restaurant and the results are disappointing. At Baldwin’s, it reflects the longevity of the restaurant, the chef’s broad set of culinary skills and tastes, and, for diners, it offers plenty of great choices.
A few years ago, Mark turned the reins of his restaurant over to Executive Chef Tammy Huffman, a 32-year old graduate of Western Culinary Institute. We’d eaten years before at the Baldwin when Chef Mark was cooking and we were a little worried about a new chef, but we needn’t have.
Chef Tammy grew up in The Dalles and used to babysit Mark and Tracy’s children. For her, running the Baldwin is a dream come true and, eventually, she’d like to own the place. “This place is about community, my community, and I love it,” she told us. “It has so much history and Mark’s created a level of excellence that I’m honored to continue.”
On a recent balmy summer evening, we started our meal with salads and warm, house-made bread. The Caesar was everything this classic starter should be—crisp leaves of Romaine, crunchy croutons (made in-house, of course), and long shreds of Parmesan lightly dressed in a creamy, garlicky dressing. This one was so good, I wish I’d ordered it.
My salad, though not quite as impressive as the Caesar, featured crisp lettuce, shreds of red cabbage and carrot, tomatoes, and a black olive. It was the house-made blue cheese dressing that made this salad memorable—chunky with a nice, acidic tanginess.
I ordered the 12-ounce prime rib (they also offer a 16-ounce) and this quality piece of beef came perfectly seasoned and cooked to medium rare just as I’d ordered. It came with au jus that wasn’t overly salty and creamy horseradish. My baked potato was big and loaded with butter, sour cream, real bacon, and a sprinkling of freshly chopped green onions. The sautéed Brussels sprouts, cooked al dente, were a real standout—slightly caramelized and buttery with a bit of salty tang from a sprinkling of Parmesan.
My dining companion’s meal was just as good—a fat piece of fresh halibut lightly crusted with Parmesan. It was served with a buttery sauce that put the dish over-the-top.
Save Room for Desserts
And then came desserts. Years ago, Mark was mentored by Northwest chef-icon Jamilla Lucas and pastry chef Nancy Main (of the Arc Restaurant fame) and the time with these two culinary stars paid off. The Baldwin dessert menu is large (11 choices) and includes some of Nancy Main’s original desserts like Carmelo and Walnut Tart.
Desserts at Baldwin’s are also reasonably-priced. These days, big city restaurants are charging $8 and up for desserts, but desserts at the Baldwin range in price from $3.25 for a scoop of house made ice cream to $5.75-6.25 for other desserts.
Being a serious chocolate fan, I ordered Triple Chocolate Decadence. It’s a tall, pie-shaped wedge with a dense, flourless chocolate cake as a base, a layer of rich chocolate mousse filling, all topped with chocolate ganache. It’s incredibly silky with intense chocolate flavors that reflect the use of quality chocolate. I loved it, but be forewarned: this dessert is so rich, you’ll likely end up taking some home.
My friend ordered the old-fashioned bread pudding that’s made with plenty of cream, eggs, and vanilla. It was served warm and topped with whipped cream and blueberries. The dessert was creamy and satiny smooth. After a couple of bites, my friend enthused, “Every mouthful is pillowy heaven.”
Chef Tammy wanted us to sample some of the other Baldwin desserts and we did. The key lime pie, served as a large wedge topped with whipped cream, is smooth and tangy. I’m not a big key lime pie fan, but even I loved this one.
The carrot cake is moist and chunky with shreds of carrots, raisins, and walnuts and it’s topped with plenty of vanilla buttercream. This is what classic carrot cake is meant to be.
The Walnut Tart was one of my favorites and I found myself unable to stop eating it! It’s walnuts and silky caramel encased in a sweet dough crust and topped with chocolate ganache. I was in heaven. Even my dining companion, who isn’t a fan of walnuts, agreed this dessert is a winner.
Strawberries Romanoff came with fresh sliced strawberries in a creamy pudding and was the only dessert we felt didn’t really measure up. While it was okay, it lacked the complexity and ‘wow’ factor of many others.
There are other desserts like chocolate peanut butter pie and mango Swedish cream we didn’t try, but they’re on our list for next time. Our advice to you is: save room for dessert (or take one home!).
A note about the service at Baldwin’s: We dined on a busy Friday night. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations except for large parties, so we ended up waiting about 30 minutes. The building is small and there’s really not much space for folks to wait for a table. If you can’t get a place at the bar, you can wait outside. The bottom line is: the wait is worth it.
When we finally got a table, the service was outstanding—attentive, friendly, and knowledgeable without being intrusive.
Real bottom line: If you want to dine at a restaurant with outstanding food and interesting, historic ambience, the Baldwin Saloon in The Dalles, Oregon, is a terrific choice. The food is fresh and delicious with a large menu with so many choices everyone in your party will find something to love. It’s a place with a tradition of excellence that marks it as one of the Northwest’s finest restaurants. We know we’ll be returning to the Baldwin Saloon again and again. – Review by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor
205 Court St
The Dalles, OR 97058
Open 11 am-10 pm