Coupeville's MusselFest features chowder cook-off

Rita Tomayko, who co-owns Mosquito Fleet Chili with her husband, Chris, is one of several entries in the mussel chowder contest, which is always a highlight of the annual Penn Cove MusselFest. - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Rita Tomayko, who co-owns Mosquito Fleet Chili with her husband, Chris, is one of several entries in the mussel chowder contest, which is always a highlight of the annual Penn Cove MusselFest.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

Penn Cove’s popular shellfish are the featured attraction of the first major festival of the year in historic Coupeville.

The Penn Cove MusselFest kicks off this March 5 to 7. Mussel chowder contest, a mussel eating contest, live music, a treasure hunt and tours of the Penn Cove Shellfish Farm are just some of the activities crammed into the weekend that organizers hope will attract more than 3,000 people.

“We’re hoping for better weather,” organizer Cindy Olson, owner of Aqua, said. Fortunately, a frigid weekend in 2009 that included a sprinkling of snow couldn’t chill people’s resolve to enjoy a fun weekend in Coupeville.

A dozen restaurants are competing to see who puts out Coupeville’s best mussel chowder. Last year, the venerable Oystercatcher won the contest but some new restaurants that have cropped up over the past year are looking to be competitive.

“Since we’re a chili house, we’re going to do it chili spiced,” said Rita Tomayko, co-owner of Mosquito Fleet Chili, which is celebrating its first anniversary in March. They opened up two weeks before last year’s mussel festival, but didn’t have the chance to participate in the contest.

Christopher’s on Whidbey, Toby’s Tavern, the Knead and Feed, The Cove, Miriam’s Espresso, the Tyee, Kim’s Cafe, the Captain Whidbey Inn and the Pizza Factory are all scheduled to participate.

“They’re all excited to see who could win this year,” Olson said.

While local chefs are busy wowing festival goers with their chowder, off-island chefs will be on hand showing delicious ways to prepare the popular mollusk. The mussel cooking demonstrations take place in the Coupeville Recreation Hall Saturday and Sunday. McCormick and Schmicks, Ivars, and the Hog Island Oyster Company are just some of the restuarants sending chefs to prepare mussels over the weekend.

The Penn Cove Shellfish Mussel and Beer Garden will be located in a giant tent across the street from the Coupeville Recreation Hall. Sponsored by Penn Cove Shellfish, Flyers Restaurant and Brewery, Sierra Nevada Brewery and Bear Flag wines, it features fresh-steamed mussels, beer and live music. The beer garden is open throughout the weekend.

The weekend-long festival kicks off Friday night with the Mussel Mingle, which takes place Friday, March 5 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Coupeville Recreation Hall. It features brats, live music, beer, wine, and of course, mussels. Tickets cost $20 and are available at the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce, bayleaf, and Aqua Gifts.

Visitors will have a chance to see how Whidbey’s popular shellfish are harvested. Tours out to Penn Cove Shellfish are available throughout the weekend.

Families will have a chance to participate in the Mussel Hussel Sunday March 7. The Mussel Hussel is a treasure hunt around town. Participants are given a map and clues and have 90 minutes to find answers. Registration begins at 1 p.m. and the Hussel starts are 2 p.m. Cost is $2 for individuals, $5 for groups of three or more and children under 8 are free.

The Penn Cove MusselFest provides a weekend worth of fun for people of all ages. It’s the first event of the year in Coupeville. The second oldest town in Washington features its heritage and its community throughout the year, whether it's the Coupeville Arts and Craft Festival in August, or the Penn Cove Water Festival that takes place in May.

For more information about the Penn Cove MusselFest, go to

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