Chowder rules at Dirty Dan Festival in Fairhaven


Western Washington University students Casey Olive, center, and Toby Reif pull their piano up the hill of Harris Avenue on April 25, 2010 in Fairhaven as part of the piano race at the Dirty Dan Festival in Bellingham.


The Dirty Dan Festival is Fairhaven's annual celebration of seafood and of the "unscrubbed" community founder, Dirty Dan Harris.

This year, the festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27, at Fairhaven Village Green, Mill Avenue and Tenth Street.

Although the uphill piano race (with local teams pulling and pushing pianos up Harris Avenue) gets a lot of hype as the only one of its kind in the world, it's the chowder that draws the crowds.

From 2 to 3:45 p.m. visitors to the free festival can buy $10 tickets to sample chowders from area restaurants. The tickets cover a taste of each chowder on hand, and a bowl of your favorite, with a piece of bread alongside.

Tickets also allow for an opportunity to vote in the People's Choice contest for best chowder.

There's one restaurant that seems to be the consistent chowder winner. Skylark's, which has been in business since 1985, has won first place in People's Choice every year from 2008 to 2013, and won Judge's Choice in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2013.

I asked Don White, the owner and operator at Skylark's (short for Skylark's Hidden Café, "but we aren't very hidden anymore," he says), the secret to his success. He adds that any year the restaurant did not come in first, they came in second or third.

How does he do it?

"Quality ingredients," he says. "We never cut corners."

"Of course," he adds, "that means our chowder is expensive to prepare. Also, cooking the ingredients to just right point to release the flavors without turning the vegetables to mush or the clams into rubber!"

And, he says, "Chowder-lovers like Skylark's chowder! I have learned not to mess with a classic."

He says that every year the restaurant has won first place, they have used his original recipe.

But does he listen to his customers?

"I always listen to customer feedback," he says, and "when it can be incorporated into the business, I do make changes."

Once, he says, in 2007 he thought he'd change and make corn chowder.

"That was the year I learned about customer feedback. They absolutely want clams in their chowder!"

And the chowder does take time to cook. He's fortunate that Skylark's is only a block from the Village Green.

"I start early in the morning in our prep kitchen," he explains. "I usually make about four batches of chowder; then keep it hot on the stove until they need it at the event. I get a call from our 'ladlers,' then two of us hand-carry a fresh pot over to the park."

This year, he says, the host committee is setting limits. Restaurants are not allowed to bring more than 20 gallons.

"That's actually more than we have served before," White says.

Skylark's opened on Harris Avenue in Sycamore Square in the space that is now Archive Records, and moved to the old Cobblestone Kitchen location in 1996.

And how does it feel to win year after year?

"I am actually rather shy, so my ladlers have to drag me out of the booth to accept the award," he says. "It's really embarrassing."


What: Dirty Dan Day Seafood Festival

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27.

Where: Fairhaven Village Green, at Mill Avenue and 10th Street

Highlights: Trout toss for kids and salmon toss for adults at 11:30 a.m.

Uphill piano race showdown at noon

Beer-and-wine garden, noon to 5:30 p.m.

Doughnut-eating contest, 1:30 p.m.

Chowder cook-off, 2 to 4 p.m.

Dirty Dan look-a-like and 1800s dress contest (for people and dogs), 3:30 p.m.

A bit of history: In 1854, Dan Harris arrived on the shore of Bellingham Bay as a 21-year-old adventurer. He became a legend as a homesteader, land owner, smuggler, hotel owner and seaman who founded Fairhaven in 1883.

He picked up the colorful nickname "Dirty Dan" due to his infrequent bathing. Dan's feats include traveling by rowboat between Fairhaven and Victoria, B.C.

A shrewd business man, he once rolled his piano out of the Fairhaven Hotel in 1890 and straight down Harris Avenue into the bay after the hotel's new owner wouldn't pay for it.

The festival is produced by Historic Fairhaven Association, a nonprofit that promotes the historic character of Fairhaven and puts on district festivals.

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or

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