Whitefish husband-and-wife team showcase menu gleaned from years of travel

By Tristan Scott | Photography By Lido Vizzutti

Steve and Sandy Nogal didn’t begin their sprawling culinary journey in Whitefish, but when they settled here 12 years ago to open McGarry’s Roadhouse, they knew they’d found their station in life.

At first, their adopted community wasn’t sure what to make of the transplants, whose combined history in the hospitality industry had taken them across the country. Having spent the previous 14 years running an award-winning inn and restaurant off the Washington coast, on Whidbey Island, they grew enamored with Whitefish while visiting friends.

FOOD012915_McGarrys191

The bison sliders – on a pretzel bun with aged white cheddar, fried onion straws and sriracha remoulade.

“Everyone thought we fell off the turnip truck when we first moved here,” said Steve, also the restaurant’s head chef. “We were outsiders trying to open a restaurant in Whitefish, and there was a healthy amount of skepticism. But we fell in love with Whitefish and the ruggedness. It was powerful and we couldn’t stay away.”

The husband-and-wife team quickly made inroads with the resort community, and with Steve’s mastery of the kitchen and Sandy’s dance-at-the-door brand of hospitality, they’ve carved out an enduring niche in Whitefish, tending to their restaurant’s warm, cozy dining-room atmosphere as though it were their own home, the soft interior glow illuminated through the restaurant’s tall glass windows, which cast a lambent, inviting glow onto Wisconsin Avenue.

The mood they’ve cultivated is a commixture of the peregrinations that marked their early careers and the roots they’ve laid down in Whitefish – a fusion of the diversity of flavors inherent to the travel experience and the comfort of living at a measured pace in a small town that offers both the culture and the calm.

Indeed, the Nogals themselves personify the same complementary strains of hospitality that make the restaurant a success, Sandy’s conviviality and her hand-picked stable of friendly waitstaff, and Steve’s gruff but not discourteous deftness at dishing out a textured suite of revolving menu items.

The Nogals have been working alongside one another for 25 years, having worked in the hospitality industry since they were teenagers. Sandy worked in her father’s saloon, while Steve, a self-taught preservationist, cut his chops at his father’s hotel in Skokie, Illinois before striking out on a culinary odyssey that spanned some 60,000 miles. In 1989, they took over the inn keeping duties at the award-winning Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island, where the dynamic duo ran the show until their departure in 2003.

FOOD012915_McGarrys135

Chef and owner Steve Nogal preps two boneless filets of ruby trout at McGarry’s Roadhouse.

With the help of their friends and real-estate partners Carol and Richard Atkinson, whose late chocolate Lab Haley served as the restaurant’s longtime mascot, they opened the restaurant and named it in honor of Steve’s grandfather, James Thomas McGarry, and his grandmother, Dorothy, whose pictures hang in black-and-white relief on the restaurant’s walls.

“My grandfather is probably the most significant person in my life that I’ve ever met,” Steve said. “He taught me life lessons more than anyone else.”

From the beginning, the couple divided their responsibilities as they always have – Steve running the kitchen with characteristic brusque efficiency and innovation, and Sandy inviting guests through the doors as though they were attending a dinner party, escorting diners to their table and putting them instantly at ease.

“She’s the boss. She’s the No. 1,” Steve said of his wife. “Her warmth and hospitality far eclipses anything that I do. She’s the face and the heart of the business.”

Six years ago, Sandy took over bartending duties during the slow season and, when it came time, opted not to relinquish them. She remains the lone bartender, holding court behind the gleaming bar while effortlessly slinging drinks, including her legendary Irish coffee, teeming martinis and variety of fine wine and draught beer.

FOOD012915_McGarrys195

The Asian tostadas – three corn tortillas topped with Asian slaw and hoisin pulled pork.

“When I started bartending, this wonderful phenomenon happened where people started coming in because they wanted to see me. And, truthfully, I want to see them,” Sandy said. “I have a really good time and my guests do, too.”

The menu is constantly evolving, and  it recently featured hedgehog mushrooms sautéed and served over a polenta cake, pan-roasted ruby trout atop a bed of beluga lentils (they literally look like beluga caviar) with bacon lardon garnish and organic vinaigrette, bison sliders on pretzel buns with aged white cheddar, fried onion straws and sriracha remoulade, and Vietnamese spiders with shrimp meat, sweet potato, green onion, egg whites, garlic ginger and a red chili dipping sauce.

“The menu items are eclectic because they come from all the different places we have lived,” Steve said. “Travel is the key.”

The Nogals have also adhered to a strict farm-to-table philosophy, which hasn’t been difficult in Whitefish, where local produce, beef and pork are readily available. They buy their seafood through Flathead Fish and Seafood Co., which Steve, who for years worked at McCormick’s Fish House in Seattle, said is as fresh as it gets in the Northwest.

He also smokes his own meat, and whatever he can’t get in the Flathead Valley he procures from the Pacific Northwest.

“What I love about food is that it’s immediate. When you do it right, you get to see and be a part of it in the moment,” he said. “Everything we build is from the scratch up. People who come here are going to remember that the meal matched the mood, and they are going to remember Sandy’s passion and sensitivity to the guest’s experience.”

Learn more about McGarry’s Roadhouse in Whitefish at mcgarrysroadhouse.com.