by Jerica Pender
Just 58 steps are all it takes to get from Cascadia Grill, a hip brasserie in downtown Olympia, to JuJu’s Iced Cream & Frozen Custard, a neo-vintage frozen treat shop. Both are owned by husband and wife team, Jef Dukes and Julie Guarino, restaurateurs who know a thing or two about great service, unique flavor profiles, and regional celebrations.
“Jef and I met working in Yellowstone National Park at The Old Faithful Inn as servers there,” Julie says. The year was 1999 and “at that point, he was living in Los Angeles and I was living in New York City, and literally, we met in the middle,” she recalls.
And though that season at Yellowstone ended when the weather cooled, Jef and Julie’s relationship began heating up. Jef joined Julie in the east where they worked together yet again, this time it was a fine dining setting in New York City where not only the food—but the way in which it was served—was paramount.
A few more stints in Yellowstone and a few more moves and restaurants later, a determined Jef and Julie proclaimed, “OK, the next restaurant we open is going to be our own.” Fortunately, for Thurston County diners, it was not just one—but two—in Olympia.
Although Jef and Julie are transplants here, they certainly have their fingers on the pulse of what brings not just the Cascadia region—but their restaurant too—to life.
Cascadia Grill’s decor is an all-out celebration of our bioregion; from hanging the Cascadia flag and displaying Bigfoot and chainsaw art memorabilia, to showcasing over 1,000 framed photographs of Pacific Northwest notables on the restaurant’s walls. There’s even hanging art displays of freeze dried mosses that Julie creates with her brother-in-law that are so popular with patrons, Julie says they regularly try to purchase them.
All of Cascadia Grill’s recipes are created by Jef, and the desserts are done by Julie. Not only can you get house-smoked trout, poutine with hand-cut fries, or an Olydelphia Cheesesteak sandwich, but Julie says theirs is “one of the best burgers in town.”
Jef is from southern California where perfect burgers reign supreme, and the Cascadia Burger is “an homage to the In-N-Out burger,” a fact that they’re not embarrassed to boast about, because in their opinions, In-N-Out makes the best burger.
You can even order a burger in an Impossible format, where a 100% plant-based burger delivers an authentic burger experience with no bull. Or beef, that is. In fact, Cascadia Grill offers an entire menu just for vegans and vegetarians with 16 creative dishes that show that their commitment to a wide range of diets is not just an afterthought.
And what is foremost on Jef and Julie’s minds is Cascadia’s commitment to service, where Julie says patrons receive a fine dining experience at a mid-range price. “We spend a really long time training and thinking about service,” Julie says, “and that’s something I think is not as commonly found here. We bring that to the table because of our backgrounds.”
JuJu’s Iced Cream and Frozen Custard
In March of 2020, Jef and Julie opened JuJu’s Iced Cream and Frozen Custard five doors west of Cascadia Grill. Named after Julie’s nickname, it was also her love of frozen custard as a midwesterner that spurred her and Jef to purchase a custard machine that Julie says “costs more than my car.”
Frozen custard is of the super-premium variety where cream and egg meld together in a way that is softer and creamier than traditional iced cream. It’s not soft serve though, and JuJu’s has that too, in a vegan, non-dairy offering that is said to be “so good, even carnivores will order it.”
You can find the Flavor of the Day posted on their Instagram, and the interior decor of the space looks like it fell directly from one of the tiles on the ‘Gram’ as well. Colorful umbrellas create a photo-worthy canopy to walk under, while large black and white squares on the floor round out the neo-vintage theme.
The opening of Juju’s suffered the most horrible timing possible, but even after two complete COVID-related shutdowns, it lives to put a smile on patron’s faces in the way that only frozen confections can.
Julie says it’s been hard, in the restaurant industry, to constantly pivot to source replacements for products (and replacements for staff), to deliver an experience where customers have no knowledge of when things are amiss.
“We want people to still feel taken care of and that they’ve received a good meal, despite everything that’s going on,” she says.
And although Cascadia Grill does a great job highlighting the timbers, mosses and character of our region, talking with Julie has proved that Thurston County restaurants are not out of the woods yet.