John Gray’s culinary journey had already taken him around the world before the pandemic began two springs ago. As shutdowns put the restaurant openings he was working on in Miami on hold, he discovered an opportunity about as far away from southern Florida as you could get in the Continental U.S.. The owners of Jeremy’s 1896 Public House had put their Prosser restaurant up for sale. The establishment occupied the home of the town’s first mayor. And for Gray, the allure of a historic small-town setting proved too strong to resist. Now that Gray has established his new restaurant, The Prosser House (above), in the space, he is adding to the allure of Prosser. I’ll share more from my conversation with Gray later in this post. But I’ll start off with a round-up of the fun restaurants and wine tasting opportunities that await throughout Prosser.

Wine tasting made simple

Mercer Wine helps anchor the Prosser wine scene.

If you’re new to Prosser, the sheer number of wineries and tasting rooms, just past the truck stop, might make your head spin. At Vintner’s Village, along Merlot Drive, you can sample offerings from familiar brands such as Milbrandt Vineyards, Thurston Wolfe Winery and Wautoma Springs. As you continue along Wine Country Road, you’ll reach Desert Wind Winery‘s Pueblo-inspired facility, which includes a tasting room, shop, restaurant and four-room inn. Just a little farther down the road, stalwarts in and near the Prosser Wine & Food Park include Mercer Wine (above) and Alexandria Nicole Cellars (more on these guys later). As a wine fan, I can’t decide if Prosser feels like Disneyland. Or if Disneyland feels like Prosser.

Interesting accommodations

The Historic Mercer brings modern comfort to downtown Prosser.

There are not a ton of places to stay overnight in Prosser, but the ones that are available score high on the uniqueness scale. In downtown, you can book posh suites (at reasonable rates) in the Historic Mercer (above). The rooms occupy the second floor of a renovated building originally built by Willis Mercer in 1906. Mercer was a successful cowboy, rancher and businessman whose family’s roots run deep throughout the area. Two of his great-grandsons oversee Mercer Wine. And one of his great-granddaughters manages his downtown building. With hardwood floors, custom tiling, Wi-Fi, SmartTVs and stainless-steel ranges and refrigerators, the refurbished spaces offer a hip, modern aesthetic.

The rooms at Desert Wind Winery come with a stylish, modern-Southwestern feel, while providing a chance to spend the night at a winery. And Prosser is also home to the phenomenally popular Wine Country RV Park, right off Interstate 82. At the park, all 126 sites are equipped with full hook-ups and space for Class A motorhomes. But off-grid camper vans are welcome, too. The friendly staff keeps things convivial for all with wine tastings, food truck nights and live music on select nights. If a boutique inn or RV park isn’t your thing, there’s also a Best Western Plus and Holiday Inn Express right off the interstate.

Head to Horse Heaven Hills

Horse Heaven Hills vineyards have a profound influence on Prosser wine.

Growers have been planting vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills, just south of town, for decades. And the prestige of the area’s vineyards got a shot in the arm in 2006. That was when Quilceda Creek Cellars received its first in a string of 100-point ratings from The Wine Advocate for its 2002 cabernet sauvignon. The grapes came from the prestigious Champoux Vineyards, which continue to yield standard-setting wine grapes.

You know you’re in for a treat when you see Horse Heaven Hills on the label of your wine, particularly a red. Its vineyards sit on south facing slopes, over the ridge from downtown Prosser, overlooking the Columbia River. Heat, wind and cool nights help produce robust, thick-skinned grapes that retain acidity.

You can get a feel for these conditions yourself on the roughly 45-minute drive from Prosser to Alexandria Nicole Cellars Destiny Ridge Tasting Room. The vineyards, winery and tasting room sit on a 327-acre expanse overlooking a quiet stretch of the Columbia River. They even offer overnight guest accommodations in custom-built tiny houses (above). In addition to the tasting room near downtown Prosser, Alexandria Nicole operates tasting rooms in Woodinville and Seattle. But its home base is the place to go to soak in the elements that give its wines their seductive properties.

A taste of the Thames

The Yakima Valley doesn’t seem to have too much in common with England. But you can get a taste of the latter at Jade’s British Girl Treats. The cafe offers a wide selection of sweet and savory pastries, sandwiches, cakes, pies, confections and more, made fresh on-site, with locally sourced ingredients. This includes meat-filled pasties, breakfast sandwiches and fresh-fruit Danish, along with locally roasted coffee. The owner, Jade Visser (above), is a chef from Sheffield, England, who moved to Yakima Valley about five years ago, after living in Oregon for several years. And it didn’t take her long to build a following. She began with a counter in Desert Wind Winery, offering handmade confections, along with sandwiches and other grab-and-go items. She then opened her cafe, just outside downtown, about two years ago.

Cherries to celebrate

Chukar Cherries offers a tasty cherry pit-stop in Prosser.

Worldwide shipping has made Chukar Cherries’ products widely available. But there’s still something special about tasting them at the source. And thanks to an expansion completed in 2018, Chukar’s Wine Country Road facility offers a comfortable space for visitors to explore and shop. COVID-19 safey measures have changed the way they offer samples. But if you are curious about a product, just ask one of the staff members for a taste. If you’re wondering where to begin, head over to the shelf with the chipotle-cherry and cherry-peach salsas. After that, a few dark-chocolate covered cherries will bring your palate to a sweeter place.

Laid-back dining

Western murals at Horse Heaven Saloon

As far as wine destinations go, Prosser is about as unpretentious as they get. The staff at most wineries and tasting rooms create a welcoming vibe, and this extends to the area’s restaurants. The Horse Heaven Saloon (above) and Whitstran Steak and Spirits offer particularly nice settings to indulge in local hospitality. The former offers refined pub grub in a century-old downtown building that underwent a massive renovation before opening in 2013. Local artists painted the Western-themed murals that cover the inside walls. And owners even refashioned a pair of antique six-shooters into door handles to add to the frontier theme. The menu features Angus burgers and hearty sandwiches. But they also intend to offer weekly ramen specials this fall. The gastropub also serves delcious, house-made beers and craft cocktails. And its wine list showcases producers from the immediate area.

Just a short ways up Wine Country Road from downtown, Whitstran Steak and Spirits satisfies cowboy appetites with prime rib and seafood entrees. But the kitchen also offers small-plate selections that pair well with the bar’s expansive selection of craft cocktails, local wines and tasty brews.

Settling in at the Prosser House

John Gray settles in at his new home in Prosser

When I spoke to Gray (above) in early August, his enthusiasm for the Pacific Northwest was palpable. He was about to drive to Seattle with his son to take in a Mariners game. And he was looking forward to more opportunities to get to know the region better. About this time two years ago, he might have been saying similar things about South Florida. Back then, he had just returned to the United States from Dubai, where he had opened a small group of restaurants. After opening the first of three planned Miami-area restaurants in early 2020, the pandemic brought things to a halt. And, as he thought about what to do next, Gray, who grew up in San Juan Capistrano, California, became intrigued by the idea of moving to Smalltown, U.S.A.

After learning that the Jeremy’s space was up for sale, Gray says he was impressed by several of the other things he subsequently learned about Yakima Valley. The abundance of fresh local ingredients and a thriving wine scene were at the top of the list. Last August, he boarded a flight to Washington. By October, the Prosser House was open for business.

A bright future

Since taking over, Gray has made some changes to the configuration of the dining room and is creating an outdoor event space. The menu includes reasonably priced comfort foods, which helped make Jeremy’s a favorite. But Gray’s team brings a new approach. You can still get a pulled-pork sandwich, for example. But the pork is dry-rubbed and smoked in-house and slathered in house-made barbecue sauce.

“We kept some of these things, because we saw that this is a locals’ place,” Gray explains. “So, with the sandwiches and the lunch-style salads, we figured, ‘Let’s just make them with the best quality ingredients and attention as possible.’”

The chef also regularly adds creative specials that demonstrate his culinary range A couple of recent examples include a burrata-and–Prosser peach salad and barbacoa-and-cheese empanadas. He also recently hosted the first of the restaurant’s recurring cigar-and-whiskey nights on his reconfigured lawn. And he looks forward to hosting winemaker dinners in the future, too.

[Photos of The Prosser House and John Gray courtesy of the restaurant; all others by The Grape Northwest]