The Watchful Eye of Casper Fry

On a late-winter afternoon in Spokane’s South Perry District, I pull a stool up to the bar with Deb Green, restaurateur. I take in a few breaths, welcoming the tinge of warm smoke that perpetually flavors the air, a subtle touch from the kitchen’s specialized charcoal oven. 

In a wistful, late-winter sort of way, Green brings up market Thursdays, when she and her team can step out the door and talk with farmers they know, perhaps select some vegetables for an upcoming dinner special. The talk conjures up a glimpse of summer, which will come around again, though maybe not quite soon enough. Green’s son and business partner, Ben Poffenroth, appears and sets to work preparing cocktails. He is meticulous in his construction of a Milkmaid and an Old Fashioned. This is Casper Fry—the restaurant. 

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Casper Fry—the person—was a southern-born minister who spent most of his life here in the neighborhood. A hundred or so years back, he could be found preaching just across Perry Street where Liberty Park Baptist Church once stood. Green, who is Fry’s great granddaughter, speaks for a moment of his quiet, unambitious life. Family lore paints him as the caretaking sort, one whose hospitality extended to neighbors, meeting their needs. I look up, finding new kindness in a familiar image. Fry’s mustachioed visage has overlooked the dining area since the 2012 opening, painted as a simple block-print design on the exposed brick wall. Hearing a bit more about him, I can now animate the image. I imagine him walking north a half mile after church on a Sunday, greeting friends with a grin, watching his children play in Liberty Park, long before I-90 plowed its way through. But they didn’t smile for pictures back then. 

Green smiles plenty during our conversation, which swings from the goals of Casper Fry’s menu (inspired by the South, ingredients from nearby farm partners) to design choices during the build-out phases of Madeleine’s Cafe & Patisserie and Durkin’s Liquor Bar. She should smile; hard work has brought her team, which includes both her son, Ben Poffenroth, and her daughter, Megan VanStone, to a happy and busy place. The three distinct properties have placed the group and their co-workers among the celebrated darlings of Spokane’s burgeoning food and drink scene. There is something resonant in their approach: each place and its offerings celebrate the past as they help bring Spokane’s restaurant culture into the future. 

When I ask her about the experience of developing restaurants with her kids, she answers with a line I can tell she uses often. “We never thought this would be our life,” she says. She gives examples: the 90-hour work weeks, the late-night group texts with ideas for recipes or events, the cell-phone photos of southern and east coast menus during her son-in-law Aaron VanStone’s business trips. Their shared venture is a whirlwind, but it is infused with joy. 

We look up to see plates beginning to come out of the kitchen. It’s getting later in the afternoon, and this is sort of a big day: Chef Gabriel Rodriguez’s first Friday dinner service. He just joined Casper Fry’s team after a successful stint at Central Food in the Kendall Yards neighborhood. Green looks over the plated food: the Josper-grilled flat iron steak, the Low Country shrimp and grits, the pork belly with its signature fried egg, the classic fried chicken. Rodriguez is tasked with bringing fresh ideas to these popular standards. 

“He’s an excellent chef,” Green says, nodding toward the kitchen where Rodriguez is working. “And he’s a good leader. I like that.” 

Before I leave, we talk about Casper Fry being aware of its place in the neighborhood and the region. While it is a destination restaurant that draws downtown visitors and locals from the north side and Spokane Valley, Green emphasizes that, from the beginning, Casper’s must be an accessible night out for young people living in South Perry. “On a weekend night, I like to see a couple hundred people in here gathering around the table for a moderately priced meal, rather than eighty people who can afford to order a forty dollar steak.”

Green broadens her view of neighbors to include Inland Northwest farmers, evoking a sense of neighborly hospitality Casper himself would smile upon. 

“Partnering with farmers is another way of taking care of neighbors: helping other local businesses thrive. Plus, you’re just putting a fresher product on the plate.”

-Ross Carper