The Belton Chalet is one of the oldest properties in West Glacier but a meal there is steeped in contemporary cuisine

Story by Andy Viano | Photography by Sally Finneran

Belton Chalet exists in a world of contradictions.

For more than 100 years, the wait staff has dressed in faux-Swiss milkmaid outfits and stepped out onto the wraparound deck to welcome the town’s newest arrivals via train with a hearty wave.

They still do that today, except when they go back to work, they’re slinging hip craft cocktails and pours from a sommelier-created wine list.

And for more than 100 years, the restaurant’s chefs have dreamed up meals in a dark, stone-walled nook hidden beneath the main building’s multiple dining areas.

The chef is still there today, except the current 32-year-old kitchen master’s menu features things like fiddlehead ferns and a miso garlic veloute, ingredients that require a quick Google from even the most fervent foodie.

Yes, the 108-year-old Belton Chalet is a living museum in many respects, right down to the slogan ‘Where the Way it Was Still Is,’ and members of the same family have owned the property since the late 1990s. But in the last two years, the entire year-round staff has turned over, and new this summer is the final piece: a Flathead Valley-bred chef with big-city credentials and a delicate task in front of him, in his words: “preserving history yet evolving at the same time.”

Belton Chalet in West Glacier.

About four years ago, on Mother’s Day, Earl James Reynolds and his family came to the Belton Chalet for a meal in the chalet’s Heritage Room, the first time the Whitefish native had ever dined at the West Glacier landmark.

“I actually specifically remember pondering to myself how cool it would be to be the chef of this place or a place like this,” he said. “It was a thought that I remembered having. The brunch was awesome, and it’s kind of funny that I’m here now.”

Reynolds is stepping into big shoes this summer as the Belton’s newest executive chef. He takes over for Melissa Mangold, who for 15 years put together acclaimed dinners and helped make the Belton the go-to fine-dining option within range of Glacier National Park’s West Entrance.

Matthew Tousignant first came to dine at the chalet nearly a decade ago while working at Xanterra-owned restaurants and bars inside the park’s boundaries (Xanterra Parks and Resorts is Glacier Park’s official concessionaire).

“I love good food and good wine, and in this area there is nothing out here that can come anywhere close to it,” he said. “My first day living here I came to the Belton … They have a reputation that cannot be beat.”

Tousignant was handed the responsibility to maintain that reputation two years ago when he was hired as the property’s general manager, and when Mangold told him she was leaving at the end of last season, he wasn’t excited, at least at first.

“I was like, ‘Oh no, oh no,’” Tousignant said. “But every day there’s a new chance.”

Unsurprisingly, Mangold’s absence created no shortage of interest in the executive chef position. Tousignant said he reviewed more than 80 serious applicants, and when it came time to make a decision, he brought six chefs in and set up a challenge familiar to even a casual reality TV viewer: He gave every finalist $100, access to the kitchen and storage areas, and a chance to dazzle a panel of judges, Tousignant included.

“I want you to create a menu that exudes Montana and your style,” he told the chefs. “And that’s it. You can show me as many courses as you like or as little as you like. Go!”

A specialty lamb dish at the Belton Chalet.

Reynolds created five courses for his audition, each one more elegant than the last. The one that really won over the panel was a duck confit that, of course, is on this year’s summer menu. It includes poached fennel, Flathead cherries, sweet onion cream, smoked cacao nibs and puffed rice.

The Still-Baxter family, which has owned the Belton Chalet for more than two decades, also owns a cherry orchard on Flathead Lake, and in asking for something that “exudes Montana,” Tousignant was particularly sold not just by the cherry’s inclusion but the way it was paired.

“(Reynolds) definitely pulled them out in the right way on the dish that sold us,” he said.

To Reynolds, a Whitefish native whose first kitchen job was at Pescado Blanco in Whitefish, blending cherries and huckleberries — two foods synonymous with Northwest Montana — with locally sourced ingredients and farm-fresh meat is about as Montana as it gets.

“I’m a market-driven type of person,” Reynolds explained. “You’ll see me at the farmer’s market, picking up produce, chatting with all the farmers. That’s where I get my inspiration. They’re my paintbrush.”

Reynolds had planned to be an oil painter growing up in Whitefish, but his experience at Pescado Blanco drew him to the intrinsic artistry of cooking and creating new recipes. He attended the Seattle Central Culinary Academy at age 22 and later worked at restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco, in the North Lake Tahoe area and on a commercial fishing vessel, where he prepped seafood fresh out of the ocean.

The executive chef job at the Belton Chalet is Reynolds’ first as the man in charge of a kitchen, but if Tousignant’s first impressions are any indicator, he has handled his first assignment brilliantly, vastly exceeding Tousignant’s goal of 65 percent locally sourced ingredients and utilizing 13 different local farms.

“I’m thrilled with the menu that he’s made,” Tousignant said. “There’s some elegance to all of these dishes, but his garnishes and the way he’s put things together … it’s quite a composition and I’m proud of his work.”

On top of the flair in the kitchen, Reynolds has also been able to capture something else absolutely vital to cooking food at the Belton, delivering on a line he offered during his interview.

“(Reynolds said): ‘I don’t want to work someplace people eat; I want to go someplace where people dine,’” Tousignant said.  “People don’t come to the oldest Glacier National Park dining operation to get a burger. They come here to sit in a 110-year-old room and enjoy the best glass of wine and the best steak they can possibly get.”

The Belton Chalet’s restaurant will be open through Oct. 6, with the tap room open at 3 p.m. and dining service beginning at 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.beltonchalet.com.

Belton Chalet Menu Highlights

General Manager Matthew Tousignant said Earl James Reynolds’ 2018 menu “has a high level of elegance and whimsicalness to it,” and here are a few of his favorites:

Starter

Arugula salad with watermelon, feta cheese, mint, cucumber, crispy kalamata olives and coriander vinaigrette. The unique combination of flavors, Tousignant says, is “going to be such a ‘wow.’”

Entrée

Bison meatloaf with broccolini, bacon lardons, brown-butter mashed potatoes and black garlic jus. Reynolds has put his own twist on a Belton Chalet classic, using lardons from locally raised whole pigs that will be utilized throughout the menu.

Dessert

Smoked crème brûlée with fir smoke, huckleberries and cream. Want locally sourced? The fir needles in this dessert are harvested from junipers hidden on the property.

West Glacier’s Tastiest Restaurants:

Eddie’s Café & Restaurant

1 Fish Creek Road, West Glacier | www.eddiescafegifts.com

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Eddie’s Café is a full-service restaurant located in Apgar Village, within the boundaries of Glacier National Park. And if you’re in a rush, Eddie’s ice cream shop offers outdoor walk-up service with breathtaking views of Lake McDonald.

Glacier Highland Restaurant

12555 U.S. Highway 2 E., West Glacier | www.glacierhighland.com

Large and varied breakfast, lunch and dinner menus greet diners at this family-style restaurant featuring all the classics.

Wandering Gringo Café

12135 U.S. Highway 2, West Glacier

A permanently parked food truck, the Wandering Gringo serves up tacos and giant burritos to be enjoyed at one of several covered tables. Look for the colorful sign on U.S. Highway 2 on the way into Glacier National Park to find this hidden gem.

Great Northern Railway Café

12127 U.S. Highway 2 E., West Glacier | www.greatnorthernresort.com/railway-cafe/

Dine inside an antique Great Northern Railway caboose for breakfast or lunch at this restaurant located at the Great Northern Resort. 

Sunflower Café and Catering

12070 U.S. Highway 2 E., West Glacier | www.sunflowercafemt.com

Tucked away near the Glacier Campground, the quaint Sunflower Café serves up tasty breakfast classics in the mornings and offers grab-and-go lunches and dinners for hikers looking to bring a meal with them on the trail.

Shakti Foods

11970 U.S. Highway 2 E., West Glacier | www.shaktifoods.net

Visit Glacier Guides and Montana Raft to sample locally sourced, organic fare to fuel your adventure. The menu includes açaí and nice cream bowls, breakfast favorites and a superfood smoothie.

La Casita

12000 U.S. Highway 2 E., West Glacier

Serving up tacos, burritos, quesadillas and more, La Casita has been doling out handmade Mexican favorites for the last several summers.