Getting reacquainted with a familiar place

STORY & PHOTOS BY JUSTIN FRANZ

After two years of living in Whitefish, I thought I had experienced everything there is in this mountain town perched at the top of the Flathead Valley. But when you think you’ve seen it all, take another look; what you’ll find might surprise you.

That’s exactly what happened when I hit the town on a Friday evening.

Whitefish is arguably the center of the Flathead’s culinary scene, with award-winning restaurants and more watering holes than you can hit in one night. But it wasn’t always like this. Whitefish began as a railroad town in 1904, when the Great Northern Railway moved its main rail line to the West Coast from Kalispell to the foot of Big Mountain. The reason? Trains had fewer grades to climb on their way west.

But Whitefish didn’t remain a rough-and-tumble railroad town for long. In the 1930s and 1940s people started coming to ski Big Mountain and enjoy Whitefish Lake and, since then, tourism has been a primary economic driver. Ironically, tourism is what often keeps locals away from some of Whitefish’s more popular restaurants and bars during the summer – why wait in line when you can barbecue at home? But when the air chills, most of us reemerge and rediscover the town we call home, which is exactly what my girlfriend Ashley and I did a few weeks ago.

Knowing we would be indulging on all of the food and drink Whitefish has to offer, we figured we should at the very least do something active before dinner. A walk along the Whitefish River Trails fit the bill. Twisting and winding through town, the trail follows its namesake river. Another excellent option is one of the many hikes on The Whitefish Trail, just west of town near U.S. Highway 93. If you’re not inclined to take a hike, then head on down to City Beach on Whitefish Lake and watch the sunset.

Peeling off the river trail, Ashley and I headed downtown for a pre-dinner drink at the Red Room Basement Bar, located below the Latitude 48 Bistro. The Red Room has a great atmosphere to kick back and enjoy a fine drink. Ashley held on to summer with a watermelon-based drink called “So Fresh.” I decided to keep it local and got a Wheatsky Smash cocktail, made with local whiskey from the Glacier Distilling Company in Coram. Although I could have easily spent the entire night at the Red Room, we had a 9 p.m. reservation at Tupelo Grille. 

I had seen most of what the town has to offer, but somehow I had overlooked Tupelo; perhaps because it’s easy to overlook its tight location on Central Avenue. Established in 1995, Tupelo bills itself as a place with plenty of Cajun cuisine and Southern hospitality and both were plentiful on this Friday night. Ashley stayed close to her Montana roots and ordered an excellent grilled Rocky Mountain trout, whereas I branched out and ordered something the Zydeco Combo. The plate features samples of some of the restaurant’s best courses, including crab cake, fried catfish, grilled shrimp, dirty rice and jambalaya. Both dishes were enough to sink us into a food coma and, when it came time for dessert, we had to pass.

What’s great about Whitefish is there are plenty of options if Cajun isn’t your thing. Craving Sushi? Some of the best can be found at Wasabi Sushi Bar and Ginger Grill. If you’re looking for some home cooking, the Buffalo Cafe doesn’t disappoint. Or if you want something quick, try Second Street Pizza or Jersey Boy’s Pizzeria.

If you can still move after dinner and there is still plenty of time before last call, take in Whitefish’s lively nightlife. On this night, Ashley and I headed for the Great Northern Bar and Grill, a local institution, to dance and drink the night away. If you’re looking for where the locals hangout, head over the Great Northern Brewing Company, the Remington or The Palace. 

After a few drinks, we headed home, satisfied that we had reacquainted ourselves with Whitefish after a long summer “away.”