A brief manual for the off-the-beaten-path seeker of roadside burgers and beer

Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
It’s spring and we’re ready to get outside, go exploring, take a road trip. No matter where we end up, we’re going to get hungry – and thirsty, obviously. In Montana, the highways are long and the roadside stops are few.

If you find yourself on a lonely stretch of highway in the Swan or Yaak, or in the expanse of timber between Kalispell and Eureka, or maybe just in Badrock Canyon or somewhere south of Kalispell, you may find yourself longing for a burger and a beer. This yearning is a powerful force of nature that must be answered, and fortunately you’ll have this handy little guide to show you the way to Destination Satiation.

Depending on your particular tastes, and the age of the children in your family, perhaps you generally seek pitstops that lack the rough edges of some of those listed here. But reputations, even if well-earned, can be deceiving. Ownership changes, generational shifts take over, priorities evolve, and edges get smoothed.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a pitstop on a spring highway can’t – and shouldn’t – be just rough enough to stay true to the spirit of its geography and clientele. The burgers still taste good, and the beer is always cold. And if you smooth the edges too much, they just get dull.

 

MARTIN CITY

Southfork Saloon

A sign at the entrance to Southfork Saloon clearly states, “Check Your Guns at the Bar.” But 22 years ago, one man didn’t get the memo.

The patron in question was wrapping up a hard day’s session with a bottle of Black Velvet when he got into a disagreement with a fellow whiskey enthusiast. One thing led to another and the man ended up firing his shotgun in the parking lot. When police arrived, more shots echoed into the night. Fortunately, the only casualty was the man’s pickup, which was riddled with bullet holes.

To this day, you can purchase a tee-shirt that declares, “I Survived the Martin City Shoot Out 1994 (at the Southfork Saloon).” A souvenir to pass down to the grandkids, perhaps.

Though it’s the most prominent example, the shootout isn’t the lone gun incident in the bar’s history. A previous owner pressed the muzzle of a shotgun to the floor, for reasons only clear to him, and blew open a hole. It’s still there. There are similar battle scars hiding behind posters and sports memorabilia on the walls.

Those tales, however, belie the bar’s current state. Though it can still get rowdy, the Southfork Saloon, under the ownership of Monty and Nonie Pruett since 2004, is more salt-of-the-earth than bullet hole-in-the-floor. But that doesn’t mean the Pruetts are running from their establishment’s history. They’re proud of its evolution, a sentiment that could be extended to the community as a whole.

Check your guns with the bartender at the Southfork Saloon.

Check your guns with the bartender at the Southfork Saloon.

The Southfork Saloon is the epicenter of the wildly popular Cabin Fever Days, and is the originator of the offbeat festival’s famous Barstool Ski Races. In fact, Monty won his division last year. The winning sled is hanging from the ceiling. There’s also an abundance of signed dollar bills dangling from the roof. Recently, a patron called to request that his dollar be removed or updated with his current girlfriend’s name. The bill couldn’t be located.

The Southfork Saloon was built in 1946 to accommodate crews clearing timber for the Hungry Horse Dam and subsequently for dam workers. Originally called the Hungry Horse Bar, it was the second of 13 taverns that lined a single street in Martin City during the 1950s. The first, Deer Lick Saloon, is still there, too.

Thirteen bars might sound like a lot until you consider that there were 26 brothels, a tidy 2-to-1 ratio. The madam of the brothels, described in lore under the euphemism of “Sunday school teacher,” was a central figure in town, a generous, community-minded woman who is still discussed with reverence today.

While the saloon’s busiest time of year is Cabin Fever Days, it also draws a loyal local following year round, as well as a current of tourists through summer. It has a spacious outdoor beer garden, fenced with beautiful vistas of Glacier National Park’s mountaintops, and it employs Pruett family members who are invested in maintaining a welcoming, down-home atmosphere. Bartenders know regulars like extended family. It would be hard to say whether Nonie or Monty is friendlier, so we’ll call it a tie. Monty can always fall back on his barstool title.

Stop in, but remember to follow the rules and etiquette suggestions, detailed on signs throughout the tavern: “Come Back With a Warrant,” “Hippies Use Side Door,” and, of course, “Check Your Guns at the Bar.”

 

YAAK

Dirty Shame Saloon

John Runkle, owner of the Dirty Shame Saloon along Yaak River Road.

John Runkle, owner of the Dirty Shame Saloon along Yaak River Road.

John Runkle doesn’t shoot balls off the pool table with a .357 magnum like a previous Dirty Shame Saloon owner did, nor does he drink much. Someone has to have a clear head when things get rowdy. Not to mention, at his age, sobriety might be his best weapon if he gets caught up in the mayhem.

“I’m a big guy, but I’m 54,” Runkle says. “My only advantage over a 25-year-old is that he’s drunk and I’m not.”

Runkle’s bar bills itself as the “World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon.” While it may not be the same kind of tourist draw as, say, Glacier National Park, it does attract a certain adventure seeker willing to make a trip to the remote northwest Montana community of Yaak. If you’re not arriving to hunt or visit family, you’re likely there for the Dirty Shame.

“It’s the draw in the Yaak,” Runkle says. “It’s the famous bar.”

In 2006, a teetotaling Episcopalian priest named Don Belcher and his wife bought the Dirty Shame from Rick Carsello. Runkle said the Belchers made changes, such as a two-beer maximum limit, that drove people away. The occupancy rate at Runkle’s nearby hunting getaway, Yaak River Lodge, fell in step with the diminished saloon crowds.

Then in 2011, Belcher pleaded guilty to molesting two young girls in Maryland. The Dirty Shame went into foreclosure, and Runkle purchased it in 2013 with his friend Ray Falzone, who he’d met 30 years earlier when they were both paratroopers for the 509th Airborne Battalion combat team.

After a brutal winter during which temperatures plummeted to 31 degrees below zero, Falzone decided he preferred the warm climates of Las Vegas and sold his share to Runkle.

“So now I own two-thirds of Yaak’s businesses,” Runkle says. “I’m a big fish in a mud puddle.”

His math isn’t fully accurate, but close enough. The only other business in Yaak proper is the Yaak River Tavern and Mercantile across the street. Runkle and the Yaak River Tavern’s owner are engaged in a land dispute that has reached the Montana Supreme Court.

Well, ain't that a dirty shame.

Well, ain’t that a dirty shame.

“We’re the only bars within 50 miles and we don’t speak,” he says. “It’s actually getting a little better. We’ve waved at each other a couple times. It might get to the point where we can talk to each other again.”

While the Dirty Shame attracts bikers and other travelers, much of its clientele consists of younger folks from Spokane, Missoula, Troy and Libby.

“The Dirty Shame has a reputation that you can go there and misbehave,” he says. “Which is partially true and partially not. It’s fine until you get one jackass who thinks he can go in there and start fights with everybody.”

The bar serves solid burgers and other bar fare, and Runkle has brought back the popular summer crawdad festival. He has also remodeled the saloon, although he was careful not to cover up bullet holes in the walls for the sake of posterity.

After casually mentioning both the bullet-hole-ridden décor and the bar’s history of pool balls getting shot off the table, Runkle grows quiet, suddenly aware of the distance between the Dirty Shame and the civilized world.

“I’m just so used to all of that stuff that I don’t even think about it,” he says. “But to say it out loud, it does sound pretty weird that all of that really happened.”

 

FERNDALE

Rocky Mountain Roadhouse

She's as tough as her regular patrons.

She’s as tough as her regular patrons.

The Rocky Mountain Roadhouse is as tough as its clientele, and if you want proof, just look to the flames. The bar has endured at least three significant fires, maybe more, but who’s counting?

One blaze regarded with particular fondness erupted from a wood stove in 1989. Bar staff grabbed the cash register as they fled outside, where they joined patrons in watching firefighters douse the flames. When the fire was out, staff returned inside with the cash register, followed by thirsty patrons, likely parched from the smoke. Everybody drank merrily as remnant water from the firefighters’ hoses dripped on their heads.

Sarah Emmert, the Roadhouse’s bookkeeper/bartender/manager, proudly points to a framed photo of the 1989 fire. Despite its near-encounters with an ashy death, the Roadhouse hums along as if nothing happened. Emmert thinks it’s just the natural order of things. Survival was expected because it was necessary.

“What else would we do around here if this bar was gone?” Emmert says.

Emmert, who rocks purple hair and assures people that she’s “much better behaved these days,” was leisurely chatting with a late-afternoon drinking crowd on a recent February day. Everybody seemed like an old friend, and one patron followed up her description of the bar as “rough around the edges” by saying, “That’s putting it lightly.” He’s proud of his home tavern and wanted to make sure its hard-living, hard-drinking reputation didn’t get sullied.

Dave Barton has owned the Roadhouse for 16 years, with Emmert presiding over day-to-day operations the last five years. In the past, and still in some circles today, the bar-restaurant has been informally called The Junction or The A-Frame. Located at the junction of Highways 83 and 209, at the turnoff to Ferndale, the Roadhouse also has two other nicknames, according to Emmert: “The Packers Roost of Bigfork” and “Redneck Cheers.”

“We’re definitely a biker bar,” she says.

Patrons shoot pool at the Rocky Mountain Roadhouse.

Patrons shoot pool at the Rocky Mountain Roadhouse.

Locals keep the establishment afloat during the offseason, while tourists flow in through the summer. In years past, the bar has held live music at a band shell out back, and it occasionally hosts music inside. It serves hearty bar fare and is most famous for a ribeye special every Thursday, when they cook 16-ounce bone-in ribeyes from Lower Valley Processing on a charcoal barbecue in the front parking lot off Highway 83. The feast comes with a salad, baked potato and toast.

But don’t let the biker bar and rough-around-the-edges references intimidate you. It’s a friendly, welcoming bar with patrons who all know each other but are eager to meet newcomers. Emmert will fill you in on any notable occurrences in the lives of her regulars, such as one guy who cut his hair off and is now suffering an “identity crisis.”

“He doesn’t know if he’s a hippy or a redneck,” Emmert says.

Whatever loyal patrons decide to call themselves, they know not to show up late. Emmert will be worried.

“If I don’t see the regulars, I start making calls,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Hey, are you doing okay?’ I can pretty much set my watch to who’s coming in at what time. We definitely have a colorful cast of characters.”

 

SOMERS

Del’s Bar

Pull up a barstool at Del's.

Pull up a barstool at Del’s.

Three generations of Bob Lincolns have run Del’s: Bob Sr., Bob and Bobby. If you believe that consistency and stability are important for a business, it’s hard to beat the reign of the Bobs. Lynn Caudill, an employee since 1985, knows this better than anybody.

“They’re really a good family to work for,” says Caudill, who has been manager for 25 years.
Del’s is tucked away in the heart of Somers, off Highway 93 on the north end of Flathead Lake. It’s not visible from the highway, but that doesn’t stop a steady stream of year-round patrons from finding it, as well as an onslaught of lake-loving tourists in the summer.

Fishermen should especially feel right at home here. There are posters of different types of fish, alongside mounted trophy lake trout, tributes to both the bar’s location near Flathead Lake and its former role as the host of the Mac Attack fishing derby.

“We still get a lot of fishermen,” Caudill says. “But we get all kinds of people from all over, a lot of working men, construction workers.”

While Caudill oversees the bar, Del’s has separate managers for the casino and kitchen. A fourth distinct area is found outside behind the building in a fenced area, with beautiful mountain views in the distance. This well-kempt beer garden includes a mini golf course and its own bar, though the bar isn’t open all the time. Golfers can get their drinks inside. But it does open for events, which are plentiful, with class reunions, weddings and other groups renting out the garden – band shell included – for parties.

The nine-hole mini golf course is considered “adult” to make clear that it’s a tavern sporting event, for legal-age adults, not families and kids. The sign above its entrance states, “Clothing Optional Beyond this Point.”

With a smartly laid-out floor plan combining booths and tables, along with large televisions on the walls, Del’s is a nice place to watch a game. Caudill described the atmosphere on Super Bowl Sunday as “crazy,” which is saying a lot for an establishment accustomed to hundreds of diners and drinkers daily in the summer. The bar has two pool tables, pinball and darts, as well as the “cheapest ½ gallons of liquor in the valley.”

It serves good food at reasonable prices: burgers, pizzas, sandwiches, salads and more. Popular dishes include Del’s Famous Pork Chop Sandwich and Shelby’s Secret Chicken, broasted fresh per order, meaning it takes up to 30 minutes but is worth your patience.

“It’s first come, first serve,” Caudill says. “In the summer, we have up to three hours waiting. People don’t care. They order pints and wait.”

Del Graves built the bar in 1954. Bob Lincoln Sr. bought it in 1970 and ran it until his son took over. The Lincoln family, which also owns Joe Blogz in Lakeside, added considerable square footage through the 70s. Bob Sr. passed away in 1996.

Bobby mainly runs the business today, though his father still pitches in. As good of owners as the Lincolns have been, patrons know who they have to answer to if they get a little squirelly.
“I’m kind of the mom around here,” Caudill says.

OLNEY

Stillwater Bar

Blue skies above the Stillwater Bar.

Blue skies above the Stillwater Bar.

From 1928 until its closure in 2000, the American Timber Company operated a sawmill on the shores of Lower Stillwater Lake near Olney. Ted Corne worked in the log yard for 25 of those years. After a hot day, like many employees, Corne would enjoy a cold beer or six at the Stillwater Bar, located on the south end of the lake from the sawmill.

Corne liked the beer so much, in fact, that he bought the bar in 1998. His wife, Val, initially ran it, but when the mill closed in 2000, Corne suddenly found himself alternating between both sides of the bar: the patron side, which he already knew well, and the management side, which he was learning. Call it double duty.

“I retired in 2000, but then I started with this place,” Corne, 70, says. “So I never really retired.”

The Stillwater Bar is easy to miss on U.S. Highway 93, where it’s tucked along a flat at the water’s edge below the road, roughly halfway between Eureka and Kalispell. If you’re not slowing down and looking for it, by the time you see the sign on top – “Stillwater Bar Food Gambling” – you’ve probably already missed the turn.

But it’s worth slowing down. Get a double bacon burger or an egg from the large tub of pickled eggs sitting behind the bar, or just grab a drink and head out onto the wraparound deck, which overlooks the lake. Much of the shoreline is state land, so you’ll see very little development, and no mansions or condos. But you’ll likely see wildlife.

“We’ve had bears walk through here, moose,” he says. “We get otters, ducks, geese. You can see most anything around here.”

Ted Corne, owner of Stillwater Bar.

Ted Corne, owner of Stillwater Bar.

Corne has a steady local clientele base, from Kalispell to Eureka, but he also gets tourists in the summer, assuming they don’t miss the turn. The lake attracts the usual crowd of swimmers, boaters and fishermen, and Canadians stop by regularly, though not as often as before the exchange ratio tipped out of their favor.

“Summer is great,” bartender Holli Wilson says. “This place gets insane.”

The bar has poker machines, a pool table and a stage that on rare occasions hosts live music. Lunchtime is often full of blue-collar workers, with whole construction crews sometimes coming in from nearby projects. Décor reflects the surrounding water culture: hanging above bottles of booze behind the bar is a 26-pound, 8-ounce northern pike caught out of Lower Stillwater Lake in 1980 by LeRoy Schwegel, Corne’s buddy.

The bathrooms are marked with signs for “Pointers” and “Setters.” Corne thinks it’s self-explanatory, but he’s had a few people ask which one they are.

Corne’s plainspoken demeanor influences his management: “We’ll ask around, try new things. If people like something, we’ll keep it.” Or, regarding his decision to keep everything in the bar intact from previous ownership: “We didn’t see any reason to change it because people like it.”

The common philosophical thread weaving through those statements is the customer. Corne wants his people to be happy. That’s why he throws an annual customer appreciation day, scheduled this year for May 21. The bar will cook up a whole pig and serve it for free.

“Customers like to come here and fish, or have a good time and enjoy a beverage of their choice,” he says. “We want them to keep coming. We appreciate them.”