Downtown Bellingham has never been livelier than right now - at least not since the days when The Bon and JCPenney were still downtown.
On Saturdays, when Bellingham Farmers Market draws a crowd, sidewalks all over the central city pulsate with urban energy. Ditto on any pleasant summer evening.
Much of the liveliness comes from Western Washington University students, but not all of it. Many new apartment buildings have opened in recent years, and more are nearing completion. That means more people live downtown, giving central Bellingham a real urban ambience.
The renaissance has encouraged a new wave of downtown dining spots, while injecting new life into some of the old standbys. Here are several worth checking out. Because hours and menus can change, you might want to call ahead or check online to confirm.
The Bagelry, 1319 Railroad Ave., 360-676-5288. With a wide variety of fresh bagels, available plain to go or served up as sandwiches, the Bagelry was satisfying appetites downtown long before the current renaissance. I love the pumpernickel. Also a popular breakfast place.
Bayou on Bay, 1300 Bay St., 360-752-2968. Bellingham might not be the likeliest place for Cajun and Creole cuisine, but Bayou serves up hearty and spicy fare that is a unique alternative for diners. They specialize in oysters, but there are many good choices. Fried okra is an unusual, worthy appetizer. I've enjoyed the prawn etouffee. Gumbo, jambalaya and bouillabaisse are also available. Outdoor seating.
Boundary Bay Brewery, 1107 Railroad Ave., 360- 647-5593. The bar and family-friendly restaurant sets the pace for local brewpubs, with a range of richly flavored beers, ales, stouts and porters. The food is also deservedly popular, with an extensive menu from snacks to dinner. Imperial nachos are big enough to stuff two and satisfy four people. Pickled jalapenos and black beans enliven the nacho formula. Outdoor seating, frequent live music.
Ciao Thyme Café, 207 Unity St., 360-927-4890. Ciao Thyme's main business is catering, a cooking school and occasional special dinners, but its midday repast is perhaps the most sophisticated meal you'll find for miles. Culinary creativity is the order of the day, so the menu varies. Recent example: A fiesta salad of grilled chipotle and lime-marinated chicken, three-bean salsa, avocado-lime vinaigrette, local romaine and baby kale, spiced pepitas, pickled onion and sheep's milk feta.
D'Anna's Café Italiano, 1317 N. State St., 360-714-0188. Housemade ravioli is the centerpiece, but there is a wide range of other pastas and Italian dishes. Try the butternut squash ravioli or the bruscellone, a flank steak rolled around a savory stuffing.
India Grill, 1215 Cornwall Ave. 360-714-0314. For years, this has been a dependable place for north Indian delights, with a lunchtime buffet and an extensive dinner menu. Chicken tikka masala is sure to please, with tandoor-roasted chicken and a rich, flavorful sauce.
La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza, 200 E. Chestnut St., 360-647-0060. Lots of pizza choices with imaginative and tasty toppings, plus pasta, panini and appetizer options. One of my favorites is chinois chicken salad, an Asian-style shredded chicken with sweet and tangy sesame mustard dressing and romaine lettuce. Outdoor seating.
Old World Deli, 1228 N State St., 360-738-2090. This is the place for delicious and creative sandwiches. Simple plates of cold cuts and cheeses are also available, along with microbrews and wines. All of the sandwiches should please. The Reuben is my favorite.
Taco Lobo, 117 W. Magnolia St., 360-756-0711. Lobo breaks out of the tried-and-tired formula you can expect at many Mexican restaurants. Housemade tortillas help make it special, and they smell good too. Chile relleno, pollo verde and carnitas are my favorites. Outdoor seating.
Wasabee Sushi, 105 E Chestnut St, 360-223-9165. An alternative to conveyor-belt sushi, Wasabee offers tradition and tranquility, with lovely morsels in roll and nigiri styles, served in a stylish interior.