Bookwalter opens restaurant at Richland winery

One of the Tri-Cities' oldest wineries has made a lot of changes in the past decade, perhaps none bigger than what it has done in recent weeks.

The day after Thanksgiving, John Bookwalter opened a restaurant inside his south Richland winery, focusing on fresh, locally grown ingredients.

The restaurant, called J. Bistro, features the cuisine of Kristin Swaggart, a recent graduate of the Walla Walla Community College culinary program.

"We've done food for eight years," Bookwalter said. "This is an expansion of that."

Bookwalter returned to the Tri-Cities in 1997 to take over the winery his parents began in 1983.

During the ensuing 14 years, he has changed just about everything, from the winemaking to the label. Eight years ago, he transformed the tasting room into a more relaxed atmosphere with bistro tables and overstuffed chairs.

In addition to providing tastes of his wines, he also began to sell wine by the glass and plates of artisan cheeses and charcuterie. He's also begun to remove some of the five acres of vines on his 10-acre property just off Columbia Park Trail to make more room for events, as well as recently installed bocce ball courts.

For years, he has provided live music four nights a week and has worked hard to create a comfortable atmosphere where Tri-Citians and travelers alike can relax and enjoy a glass of wine. Expanding to a restaurant was a natural progression, Bookwalter said.

"We're going to use as many local ingredients as we can," he said. "We are in an agricultural breadbasket here. I think we're as well positioned as any community in the country to embrace fresh, local cuisine. We're here to bring attention to Eastern Washington, to the food we grow and the area we live in."

Bookwalter said opening a restaurant isn't a huge risk for him. He already has a staff used to serving food, and he built a small commercial kitchen during one of his expansions a few years ago. So his only investment is in four new employees. He can comfortably seat 60 during the winter and 150 when the weather allows him to expand outdoors.

For Swaggart, 41, this is her first experience running a restaurant, but she is far from intimidated.

She grew up in a family that did not embrace cooking beyond something out of a box. But when her youngest son was born in 2000 with severe food allergies, she had to learn how to cook in creative ways to keep him healthy.

"I found out that I absolutely love to cook," she said.

The former stockbroker, who grew up in Pendleton and spent most of her adult life in California, Oregon and Florida before moving to the Tri-Cities in 2007, was encouraged by her husband to pursue her passion for cooking. She graduated from the Walla Walla Community College program in June after an intense two-year program. She then won a national competition of culinary students and also won an Iron Chef-style competition in August at the Benton Franklin Fair.

She never anticipated working for a restaurant. Instead, she planned to be a chef for private events and work with Tri-City school districts to help educate children on healthy eating.

"I didn't have the desire to work in a commercial kitchen," she said. "I didn't want to be stuck in the back just pumping out food."

When the opportunity with Bookwalter arose, she was intrigued. After three interviews, she joined the winery in early October and began to redesign the kitchen and work on a menu. In early November, she slowly introduced the new cuisine to customers. And the day after Thanksgiving, she and Bookwalter opened J. Bistro with the full menu.

Swaggart describes her style of cuisine as familiar with a fun twist.

"I love to cook comfort food in a healthy way with fresh ingredients."

She plans to change the menu seasonally to reflect what is available from Mid-Columbia farms. Her current menu includes a range of tapas, pizzas on naan bread, soups she makes from scratch and specials that range from empanadas to buffalo Wellington.

All of Bookwalter's wines are available by the glass or bottle, as is a wide range of regional microbrews.

J. Bistro is open daily from noon until an hour before the winery closes, which is 6 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Bookwalter does not take reservations.