Three decades after getting their start by feeding hungry aluminum workers and loggers, the Nite Owl and Back Room are proving they can thrive in any economy
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Lido VizzuttiS hortly after the restaurant’s opening in 1984, Back Room chef Bunny Belston looked into a vat of grease, then at a pile of pizza dough, and had a revelation.
“She said, ‘Why don’t we throw the dough in the fryer and see what happens,’” recalls Steve Marquesen, owner of the Back Room and Nite Owl restaurants in Columbia Falls.
What happened was a lovely lump of succulent fry bread, or at least a variant of that delightful Navajo delicacy. Thirty years later, after a few tweaks to the recipe, Belston’s experiment is a cornerstone of the Back Room’s menu, as ingrained into the barbecue joint’s culinary reputation as its ribs and chicken.
“A lot of people know about our fry bread,” Marquesen says.
Marquesen’s journey into the world of food, with all its gastronomic guesswork and pleasant surprises, began when he took over the Nite Owl in 1979, five years before the Back Room joined the diner under the same roof along U.S. Highway 2 between Fifth and Sixth Avenue West.
When he bought the Nite Owl, Columbia Falls Aluminum Company and Plum Creek Timber Company were humming on all cylinders, providing a reliably hungry labor force 24 hours a day thanks to shift work. Aluminum plant employees would get off at 11 p.m. and either head to the bar before eating or go straight to the Nite Owl. The diner would be busy until 2 a.m., and then staff might get an hour of down time before loggers started rolling in around 3, ready to gravy up for a sweaty stint in the timber.
“It was a different time,” Marquesen recalls. “There aren’t as many people out at 2 in the morning as there were back then.”
The portion of building that now houses the Back Room was the VFW bar at the time, allowing for a short commute between beer and meal. Before it became the VFW, it was the Rawhide, a dancing establishment of a certain ilk no longer found in the valley.
Marquesen unveiled the Back Room on Jan. 1, 1984. It started out serving chicken, steak, pizza and burgers before incorporating barbecue incrementally over a period of years, beginning with spare ribs, then country ribs, and so on.
Marquesen and his kitchen crew wouldn’t introduce a new addition to the barbecue repertoire until they felt they had mastered the one at hand. He would canvass the dining room in search of honest opinions, and staff would hone their recipes and cooking styles until the majority of palates approved.
The Back Room has come a long way since those earliest days of tossing ribs into a pizza oven. Today, it has two large smokers and a smaller one. It’s perennially voted the best barbecue restaurant in the Flathead Valley and has even garnered recognition from a food critic as the ninth-best in the nation. It’s as popular with locals as with Glacier-bound tourists.
The Nite Owl is no longer open 24 hours, but it still never misses a meal, kicking off the day at 5:30 a.m. and shutting down at 11 p.m. The Back Room caters to a dinner crowd from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. On a summer day, the two restaurants might combine to serve over 1,000 meals.
Marquesen now shares ownership with his son, Jay, and Jana Price, who earned her way to the top through a gritty work ethic that would make those late-night aluminum workers proud. Price started out in 1979 as an 18-year-old dishwasher, graduated to waiting tables, and then worked her way up through management until Marquesen sold her a portion of the company in the 1990s.
On any given evening, Price can be found scurrying between the kitchen and dining rooms, taking inventory, offering guidance to staff, and generally making sure the ship is sailing as smoothly as possible. Marquesen says she works just as hard now as she did on her first day of scrubbing dirty dishes 36 years ago.
“It’s been a nice deal for her and a great deal for us,” Marquesen says. “It’s just been a great partnership.”
These days, Marquesen tries to peel himself away from day-to-day operations more regularly, although he’s finding that old habits don’t die without a fight. At 72, he could pass for 52, with a full head of dark hair and a wiry figure toned by ski-filled winters. But he knows he’s testing his hair’s endurance limits by maintaining long work hours, and he’s slowly learning to cede more control to his son and Price.
Nevertheless, he won’t completely remove himself from the restaurants he cares for so dearly. After all these years, his enthusiasm remains unshakable. He still gets giddy talking shop, such as when he recently showed off gadgets in the Nite Owl-Back Room shared kitchen, a hive of activity that is as spacious as it is streamlined.
His sources of pride in the refurbished kitchen include, among many others, a separate chicken-processing area, complete with its own sink, to ensure no cross contamination; one walk-in cooler for meat and another for produce and condiments; an Alto-Shaam eco-smart refrigeration unit that quickly cools food to precise temperatures; a brawny multi-level pizza oven; and a giant dough mixer with a bowl large enough to be a child’s bathtub.
During summer, Marquesen employs up to 65 employees at his three businesses, including the Game Keeper Casino, which is located in the same building but is separated by walls so that it doesn’t encroach on the dining experience. Altogether, the two restaurants and casino encompass 9,500 square feet.
The peak-season employment figure includes everyone from year-round chefs to part-time high school kids. That number dips by about half to 35 in the winter, which still represents a strong employment base in post-aluminum Columbia Falls.
Even if the 24-hour diners are gone, Marquesen fights against the nostalgic impulse to long for those erstwhile industrial heydays. He chooses to focus on the present and future, both of which look pretty good for the busy Nite Owl and Back Room.
But he’ll allow himself to reminisce on occasion, and he’ll grin when he thinks about the refractive light of fortune, how it changes direction and shines down on people in unpredictable ways. He’ll remember how a woman named Bunny asked a simple question, and three decades later we’re still enjoying the answer.