Essex inn offers elegant dining in a solitary setting
By Justin Franz ❇ Photography by Lido VizzuttiStroll into the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex and it’s clear that the railroad played a huge part in its development.
The inn’s big picture windows look into the old train yard, while historic menus line the wall of the aptly named Dining Car restaurant inside. Even the Great Northern Railway’s red and white mountain goat logo is etched in the floors of the lobby and basement bar. And the railroad influences don’t end there. The cramped corner kitchen is about the size of one found in a real dining car, much to the chagrin of the staff, led by executive chef Adam Sundin.
“It brings us a lot closer,” Sundin said, laughing as he prepared for the noon lunch hour.
Sundin, 36, has headed up the Izaak Walton’s kitchen since April 2014 and is bringing a new twist to the inn’s cuisine, hoping to attract not just vacationers staying there but locals who are passing through.
The Addison Miller Company built the Izaak Walton Inn in 1939 to house railroad workers. The long-term goal for the inn, and Essex itself, was to serve as a southern entrance point into Glacier National Park. Because of those lofty dreams, the Izaak Walton was built to much higher standards than the average railroad bunkhouse. However, the plans to establish another entrance into the park were scrapped with the onset of World War II. By the 1960s and 1970s, the owners of the inn found that Essex was becoming a popular destination for hikers, cross country skiers and railroad enthusiasts.
The Dining Car restaurant has long been a staple of the inn, but for years the majority of diners were guests at the inn. That has started to change with the arrival of Sundin, who prior to coming to Essex worked in Colorado, New Mexico and Minnesota.
Sundin said one of the best parts of his new job in Essex is that the owners, Brian and Mary Kelly, don’t force a menu on him and his staff.
“It’s great to be able to do what I want and it’s great to be supported that way. In some places the management provides you with a menu, but not here,” he said. “I get to put my personal twist on everything. I like to think of our menu and offerings as rustic elegance with big portions and big flavors for that Montana palate.”
The dinner menu, which features entrees that range from $20 to $30, has local favorites like elk shepherd’s pie, buffalo meatloaf and beef stroganoff. The lunch menu also caters to locals’ palates, including a Montana Cubano sandwich, with braised pork shoulder, ham, swiss and Moose Drool beer mustard, and a potato chip-crusted chicken sandwich.
“It’s a really cool sandwich and it’s sort of outside the box,” Sundin said. “But food should be fun.”
Just like any restaurant or inn in Northwest Montana, summer is the busiest time of year, and Sundin said he barely got a chance to take a break during his first season. Now that the summer tourists have left, Sundin said he has a chance to review his menu and make some adjustments. He’s also getting ready for a busy winter season. Once a month throughout the winter, the inn will host themed wine dinners. Each meal will include seven courses and have a theme. For example, to celebrate the inn’s 75th year, one of the dinners will feature a dish from each decade the Izaak Walton has been open.
Sundin said he’s especially excited about the winter season.
“(Having fewer customers) gives us a chance to pay a little more attention to every dish and every plate that goes out the door,” he said.
But General Manager Julia Garvey said even during the busiest days of the year, the food Sundin and his team plate is top notch. She said it has also helped to attract local customers.
Sundin said the excitement of moving to a new area hasn’t worn off, and he plans on heading up the Izaak Walton’s kitchen for years to come. One taste of his food will convince anyone that Sundin’s position is secure.
“The only reputation I have is the food I send out the door,” he said. “And I’m proud of what we’re sending out the door.”