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Rostra rating: 2
The Northern Lights Saloon is a North Fork institution. The Lights opened originally in 1976 but its structure dates to the early 20th century and is an authentic homestead cabin. The Saloon is co-located but not co-owned with the Polebridge Mercantile, another beloved institution. Their location at the gateway to Glacier National Park and about a quarter mile from the wild and scenic designated North Fork of the Flathead River, is a rustic idyll. And you do, actually, occasionally see the northern lights of an evening. When the beer is flowin’, the sky glowin’, and the music moanin’, even Californians understand why Montana is truly “the last best place.”
Like all long-standing institutions, however, The Northern Lights has waxed and waned depending on the strengths and weaknesses of its owners and staff. Over the years, the Lights has produced some fine chefs, the most recent is Tim Good, named 2017’s best chef in Whitefish by the Whitefish Pilot. Unfortunately, the law of culinary gravity is on graphic display with the current proprietors.
Here’s a photo gallery of the the former owners and their most excellent staff
The Saloon was actually in pretty serious comeback mode until 2015, when the four local owners got a well earned reward after some serious inherited legal problems as well as years of hard work generating first rate hospitality and damn good food. The current owner is not local, and while her one time sales business model may generate the requisite cash flow to stay open, the food and ambience of the Lights have suffered.
Team Mago has been hanging’ at the Northern Lights for the better part of two decades. We’ve seen it worse than it currently is and we did not stop going then, and we will keep going until our hover chairs run out of liquid helium. First off, because the Lights is defined as much by its clientele as by its owners at any given point in time. And, secondly, if history is any guide, the Saloon is a godamn gastronomic phoenix. It is toward the worthy goal of hastening such an upturn in its culinary fortunes that MagoGuide pens this review.
Despite the fact that they seem to be popular, we really do not like to write highly critical reviews — not only because we have to endure bad food and service on multiple occasions, but also because Team Mago would like to see everyone who tries to run a tavern or a restaurant succeed. There can never be enough good food or enough conviviality in this spiral arm of the galaxy, but a finite existence forces us to choose where we invest those most crucial of resources, time and taste buds. So in a spirit of constructive criticism, let us start with what the Lights currently gets right.
The four curated taps are the mainstay of the bar, which is a great place to while away a few hours after a long float or a hike in Glacier Park. The taps are rotated frequently with high quality local craft microbrews. Two recent faves include My Ruca pale ale (Draftworks, Missoula) and Centennial IPA (Flathead Brewing, Big Fork). The pipes are all in good shape, while beer is served in classic mason jars. Cocktails from the full bar are damn honest, if rather unimaginative. The wine is mediocre plonk at best, but the ten dollar corkage fee is 1) actually quite good for this neck of the off-the-grid woods, 2) used to be quite worth it when they knew how to cook prime rib (see below), and 3) it could be again.
The seared rainbow trout served with a fresh garden salad, potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and homemade bread was surprisingly good. The thick and boneless Idaho farmed trout filet was nicely pan fried, the salad everything you could ask for from Costco, the bottle dressing semi-flavorful, the oven roasted tater wedges competently prepared (be sure to get the chili cheese version), and the bread baked in the Merc’s bakery beats Wonderbread any day.
The beef and buffalo burgers are also really good. On two separate occasions they managed to cook them a perfect medium rare. Be sure to load these up with bacon and cheese, but steer clear of the chili as a topping (see below).
The Lights is the best music venue on the North Fork with a stage and a beer garden behind the restaurant. Smaller acts use the porch of the restaurant or set up amongst the picnic tables out front. The bands and single acts are usually well above average. Unfortunately, the quality of the music venue seems to reinforce the one time sales to tourists and hippies business model that is killing the cuisine at the Saloon.
Most of the rest of the menu is a crap shoot at best. This is due to the fact that the only thing consistent about the Lights’ kitchen is inconsistency. It is passing strange that hamburgers come out cooked to order more often than the rib eye or sirloin steaks, but the real shame is the current regime’s treatment of the uber meatage.
After ordering prime rib recently, I asked the departing waiter if he didn’t want to know how I would like it done. The youth replied “medium rare is basically what you get.” Well, first off it showed up just this side of mooin’ (vice medium) rare, and secondly do you really mean to tell me that there is no one in the kitchen capable of cooking a full prime rib so that it yields different internal temperatures depending on the position of the cut? This is not CIA-level culinary skills we are talking about. Do not serve prime rib if you do not know how to cook it, dude. It’s a sin.
But at least the prime rib was not totally desecrated. That dishonor belonged to elk meatloaf served with a huckleberry glaze and sauce, which in reality was a hockey puck of tortured farmed elk that tasted like it was mixed with saw dust — and heated commercial huckleberry jam is neither a glaze nor a sauce.
There are a lot of homemade claims on the menu — e.g., pies, salsa, and chili — but if it comes out of the same kitchen that tortures prime rib and immolates meatloaf, then what we really have here is not a venue differentiator but a good working definition of culinary insanity. The sides are universally forgettable (oh, and I do not consider extra dressing a side dish). Finally, I am not surprised that there is no bespoke claim concerning the quesadilla or burrito, which make one long for almost any hideous Tex Mex chain you would care to name, as does the insipid and watery chili.
The pizza sucks, totally. Now let’s be honest. The pizza at the Lights was never great, they simply do not have the infrastructure or the talent in the kitchen, but it used to be as good as, say, Dominoes. And that was good enough, because Friday night pizza at the Saloon was when the locals gathered to spit, whittle, tell lies, and drink beer as the stars came out on a coolish July evening.
These days, after an average two hour wait (for large parties even a three hour wait is common), voracious and angry-drunk patrons are presented with something that gives cardboard a good name. Worst. Pizza. Ever. Again some honesty, waits were always about an hour (unless you called ahead and then it was about a half hour wait), but they were not catastrophic and the former owners and the staff knew how to manage customer expectations.
Patti: Morgan, you’re going to seriously piss off some of our friends who have said repeatedly that they like the pizza.
Morgan: I am sorry about that, but this is how I honestly feel. Folks will just have to understand. Besides you don’t like it either.
Patti: But I did like the pizza when Johnny O was slinging the pies.
Morgan: We’re going to have to agree to disagree.
The problem is that the current proprietors have been unsuccessful in transferring a front of the house background to their young and inexperienced staff (selected mainly as a cost saving measure rather than for their food industry skill sets). The combustible combination of kitchen chaos and callow wait staff recently blew up when a waitress was reduced to tears by a local. Now that’s just not right, and Team Mago would like to apologize on behalf of the whole community for such boorish and inappropriate behavior. In our humble opinion, the perp got just what he deserved when he was banned for life from the Lights by the management. But unless the Saloon’s owner figures out how to expedite a slammed kitchen and inculcate a professional approach to customer expectations management amongst the wait staff, the Saloon will continue to devolve into an episode of Restaurant Impossible.
The bottom line is that without real professionals in the kitchen or the front of the house, the Saloon is well on its way to losing the vast majority of its local trade to Home Ranch Bottoms (see our review Home Ranch Bottoms: Get Lost, Eat Q, Drink Beer, Repeat). Although the absence of locals will probably not drive the Lights out of business, it will in effect limit its opening to about 10 weeks or less at the height of the summer season. This in turn will accentuate the death spiral of mediocre-to-bad food accompanied by purgatorial waits that forces increasing dependence on one time sales to tourists. However, the proprietors will soon find that flatlanders also have their fair share of assholes amongst the dining public and will remain ill-equipped to deal with them in a professional manner.
Unless things change on both sides of the pass, the Northern Lights will become increasingly dependent upon booze and music, with attendant crowd control issues as well as fire dangers, not to mention the fact that their surviving customer demographic is inclined to bring much cheaper alcohol from elsewhere and sneak it into the music venue.
Mago tip: Eat prior and elsewhere and then drink and listen to music at the Lights. This tradeoff will be good for clientele, the Lights owner, and staff. It will ease the pressure on the kitchen so that the flatlanders get their food before suffering from serious alcohol poisoning compounded by malnutrition, and it will let the locals continue to congregate at the Saloon without facing a gastronomic Faustian bargain. Be sure to buy your booze from the Lights to help them with cash flow and be nice to the harried wait staff, since none of the current problems are really their fault. Also, please tip the musicians.