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Sunday, July 23, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hospitable Little Dayton Serves Up Some Surprises

DAYTON, Columbia County - Quick now. There's just one four-star restaurant in Eastern Washington. What's its name and location?

If you answered "The Patit Creek Restaurant in Dayton, the county seat of tiny Columbia County in the southeast corner of the state," you're correct.

Dayton, whose enormous Jolly Green Giant vegetable-processing plant was taken over last yar by a New York firm, is on the Lewis & Clark Trail, in the shadow of hills etched in green-and-brown patterns by wheat farmers and their tractors.

It's close to nature; and so are its people.

"While I was taking my morning run, I saw a cougar silhouetted aginst the sky as it loped across the hills," a young woman told me.

It's easy to drive right through Dayton without noticing the little blue-painted Patit Creek Restaurant. Or, for that matter, the striking Victorian-style Weinhard Hotel, recently given birth on the site of old Jacob Weinhard's saloon.

To miss either would be a shame.

Those who daydream at the wheel also might miss:

-- The white stucco Columbia County Courthouse - topped by a 22-foot-high tower with shuttered windows, mansard roof and wrought iron - which is the oldest (circa 1887) in the state still used by government. The Italianate architecture also makes it one of the state's most attractive.

-- The Dayton Historical Depot, a block north of the main street, which is the oldest existing railroad depot in the state. Built in 1881, it was used continuously until 1971. Completely restored in 1981, it has been furnished with railroad and local turn-of-the-century memorabilia by the Dayton Historical Society. Public visits are welcomed ($1 admission charge).

-- Those "old fashioned" Dayton homes, in Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, Colonial Revival, Italianate and Pioneer/Homestead styles. A pamphlet available at the Depot guides visitors past 40 homes more than 100 years old, including seven dating to the 1870s.

-- The Rev. Bob Shields, a kindly retired minister who performs all funerals for free and has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles because his minutely detailed diary now is the longest (about 30 million words) in the history of the universe.

The restaurant

The Patit Creek Restaurant - in an undistinguished building that has served as a service station, grocery store and drive-in restaurant - was started 17 years ago by Bruce and Heather Hiebert, who grew up in Walla Walla.

The Hieberts struggled for the first few years. But now, thanks to glowing writeups in slick magazines and big-city newspapers, it is a destination eating-place for people from Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, Lewiston, Idaho, and even Seattle.

Tables are filled with out-of-towners even on week nights. Many couples return each year to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays.

Residents of Dayton (pop. 1,000) - even those who feel they can't afford to dine often at the Patit Creek - speak proudly and possessively of "our French restaurant."

Many pass along the long-standing rumor that both Hieberts studied cooking at L'Ecole Cordon Bleu in Paris and have French blood.

In truth, neither has studied a minute in a French cooking school, and they pronounce their name in the good old Anglo Saxon way, "Hee-bert." But if others choose to give it a French twist ("A-bear"), they smile and say nothing.

Quiet, creative Bruce - whose dishes are fit for royalty and often have French names - spent three years as a college English major, thinking he would become a teacher; then, because he truly enjoyed cooking, he spent one quarter at Walla Walla Community College to learn about "large-scale food preparation."

Outgoing Heather, who concocts the restaurant's mouth-watering desserts and doubles as a server on busy weekends, has never studied cooking at all; she's a registered nurse.

"Bruce," she says, "is the truly creative one - because it's the sauces and the truly distinctive entrees that set a restaurant apart. Cooking is an art. Making desserts, as I do, is more of a science. You have to read carefully and follow directions to the letter."

Forget the credentials. Cooks either have it or they don't. And the Hieberts' talents complement each other.

The setting is warm and friendly, not overpowering: fresh-cut flowers, candles, crisp linens, stained-glass windows. And on the walls are Heather's special touches: handsomely framed studio portraits of Hollywood's most glamorous stars of the '40s and '50s.

They both select the music, which is unobtrusive and tends toward classic jazz.

The wine list is extensive, the servers knowledgeable, the coffee is brewed to perfection and the menu is long enough to satisfy most tastes.

Entrees run to such things as lamb sirloin, chicken Riesling, filet mignon poivre vert, medallion of beef Hiebert and sauteed breast of duck. All dinners come with both soup and salad. Bruce's tomato bisque may be as close to heaven as many people get.

"We got this place quite by accident," says Heather. "We were thinking of buying a house in Waitsburg. When we showed up at the realtor's office, Bruce was wearing his kitchen whites, because he was cooking in a steakhouse in Walla Walla. The realtor said we should buy an old `restaurant' just across the Patit Creek Bridge."

The hotel

A dozen or so years after little Dayton got its four-star restaurant, Virginia "Ginny" Butler and her husband, Dan, who had been living in San Francisco, moved to nearby Waitsburg to live in Dan's old family Victorian house.

Dan became principal of the junior-senior high and Ginny looked around for something to do.

Ginny, whose father had operated Dorsey's Restaurant in Dayton when she was a girl, "had always been in love with the town's history and architecture, and when I found a restaurant in town the caliber of the Patit Creek, I decided to establish a hotel that would be suitable for the restaurant's clientele."

The Weinhard Hotel opened last spring in a building that began life in 1890 as Jacob Weinhard's saloon. Jacob, a nephew of Henry Weinhard, the Portland brewer, was sent to Washington by his uncle to establish a brewery in Spokane.

Jacob got caught in a snowstorm in Dayton and decided to establish the brewery there. He became a civic leader, building the town's first sidewalks, a malt house and a saloon in which to market his product.

The saloon closed between 1905 and 1910, Ginny says. The second-floor became a lodge hall (Ginny has yet to discover the name of the lodge) and the main floor was occupied over the years by a variety of businesses, mostly dealing in pharmaceuticals and groceries.

The structure was gathering dust when Butler decided to save the transoms and ornate moldings and gut the rest.

Today, The Weinhard looks exactly as a fine turn-of-the-century hotel must have looked - thick carpets, flowered wallpaper, 10-foot-high ceilings, grand piano in the lobby, bathtubs with clawed feet, canopied beds and paintings and photographs in gilt frames.

Adjacent to the hotel, Ginny built a clothing store and a small restaurant - for breakfasts and lunches, "not to compete with the Patit Creek."

To manage the hotel, Ginny called on an aunt, who calls herself "Aunt Doris" Attebery. ----------------------------------------------------------------- More information

Phone the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, (509) 382-4825.

Don Duncan is a former Seattle Times reporter. Next Sunday in the Small-Town Washington series: The mining town of Republic turns to tourism.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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