Dishing Up Community At Montana's Diners

Diner fare

Every small Montana town has one: the iconic café that draws in locals in time-honored traditions serving as the community’s central gathering place. In Havre it is likely to be the Mediterranean Room. In Valier it is the Panther Café. Until he died a few years back, it was Bob’s Riverfront Café in Fort Benton. Even amid the glitz and glamor of Bozeman, Montana’s most expensive city with its high-end boutiques, art galleries and trendy gear shops on main street, there is still room for the Western Café. It is no beauty queen. But with customers outside awaiting their turn at a four-top or cramped counter seating it underscores the essential food outlet allure: good food at good prices accompanied by good service. 
Over in Glendive, GiGi’s Café makes the list. So does Shellie's Country Café in Helena, open 24 hours. Jordan has its Summit Corral. Even tiny Lima, Montana has Jan’s Café. And though there is not a tree anywhere nearby, Denton boasts its Shade Tree Café.
Then there is the Nite Owl and Backroom in Columbia Falls. Nite Owl is old-themed, built on a successful business model: hearty food at modest prices, comfortable seating without pretension and a downright wholesome atmosphere. In so many replicated ways, Nite Owl-type cafés have been feeding Montana folks all across the state as the local go-to food gathering place for conversation and companionship. The final measure of any town’s local eatery is not always centered on the number of meals served or deposits at the end of shifts. Sometimes it is just a warm place for pie and coffee on a cold winter day and an equally warm smile. A good laugh. 
A listening ear. There’s a Nite Owl in just about everybody’s town. It’s a deeply layered place. 
On the east side is the small but quintessential casino. In the back is, well, the “Back Room,” opened in 1984, catering to evening patrons with a yearning for barbeque menu items. In fact, the kitchen is designed with two serving lines, one for the Back Room and one for the Nite Owl. Then there is a lively take-out option popular with tourists and locals alike. But it is the Nite Owl dining room itself that forms the central core of the whole operation, the Mother Ship. On the walls behind the counter are the traditional plaques certifying sponsorship for the 4-H or the Legion baseball team or the coveted A+ certificate from the County Health Department. It was Steve Marquesen who, in 1979, bought the original Nite Owl, moved his family from Minnesota and set about to build and staff his new enterprise.
Breakfast is all day. 
Then the day crowd wanders in, drawn by the luncheon specials. The parking lot is dominated by pickup trucks. The counter customers usually lean toward older men--many widowers--in for, likely, their only hot meal of the day. 
There’s lots of beards and ball caps, Carhartt brown themes and flannel shirts in the come-as-you-are tradition in small towns. Their conversations are peppered with stories of hardware stores, hunting, trucks, hobby projects, fuel prices and, of course, weather and politics. At some of the four-tops, small knots of women discuss gardening, grandkids, aging, and old times gone by. On many days the Nite Owl resembles a senior citizen center dressed up as the town café. Across the room—if it is summertime—there will be tables full of tourists brimming with excitement about visiting Glacier National Park.
Summer does pump up the numbers. “We put on extra servers seasonally, mostly college or high school kids. We always have several returners eager for summer money,” says Jennifer as she casts her robin’s-egg blue eyes across the dining room. 
She and her husband, Jay, are co-owners and managers in the family-driven operation.
In the best tradition of essential service, the server staff banter heartily with each other and their guests in equal measures. They seem to know a little bit about all the regulars: their careers, kids, sports scores from the weekend’s games, latest health ailments, relatives coming to visit. It’s all good chatter. If someone seems lonely or despairing, they offer comforting words and a hearty cheer up. After a rousing win by the Columbia Falls Wildcats teams, the Owl might fill up with fans and parents digesting plays, players, and scores. By anybody’s business calculus it is a success in a commercial world that seldom favors restaurants.


The Nite Owl’s origin story follows a traditional community growth pattern: following the construction of Hungry Horse Dam in 1955, industrialists capitalized on cheap nearby electricity generated by the dam and formed the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, CFAC, and constructed the sprawling aluminum plant on the north edge of town. Upon completion, the plant covered over forty acres and was the largest building in Montana. They hired skilled, well-paid workers. Lots of them.
Then they helped fund a new high school and filled it up with plant workers’ kids. Meanwhile, across town, Plum Creek and Stoltze Lumber Company added deeply to an already entrenched wood products labor base. This inexorable growth led to the creation of a town deeply rooted in lunch-pail, blue-collar demographics.
The Nite Owl Restaurant catered neatly to this clientele and got its name from being open generous hours to accommodate the changing shifts at those industrial sites. The aluminum plant is gone now, an EPA cleanup site. 
Though Weyerhauser supplanted Plum Creek, logs are still being processed and shift workers still seek out the local restaurant. In the turn from industrial town to tourist town at the gateway to Glacier Park, other town eateries have sprung up, each one in a kind of symbiotic complement to each other.
Shari, twenty-seven-year veteran, is directing new customers to open tables as she scurries to fill water glasses. Behind her at the crowded counter and carrying precariously balanced plates of eggs, biscuits and gravy is Amber, who started as a teenager fifteen years ago. Meanwhile, Yvonne, who has been with the Owl thirteen years, snags another coffee pot from the warming burner as she whisks by in a move she has done thousands of times. 
The servers, even if blindfolded, know just where the ketchup bottles are, the location of the tea bags and the bussing bins in a hard-wired choreography. By heart and by memory they know just where the mugs and menus are without even having to glance to retrieve them. No move is wasted. Servers also operate the lone cash register with equal aplomb.

Diner waitress

Then there is Jana.
She started at the Owl when she was eighteen, when Steve Marquesen was desperate for a dishwasher. That was forty-four years ago. Since then, she has worked as a server, line cook, floor manager, personnel manager, and shift supervisor. She has hired and inspired generations of waiters and waitresses. Jana has done jobs from janitorial to inventory management, ordering everything from straws to steaks. “I was supposed to go to business school and be a secretary or something…” Her voice trails off, reflecting on her pathway to becoming one of the current owners and stockholder, as she casts a wistful look across a room full of customers. When it was a twenty-four-hour restaurant, “I even worked the rowdy late night bar crowd,” she recalls with a smile that would disarm the devil. Jana is a businesswoman who fashions her own terms—a woman of no half measures. “When I retire I’m gonna write a story about this place.” 
“Oh the stories,” she says as she folds her arms across her chest as if to hug herself. “Oh the stories.” In her almost mother-hen role, she and original co-owner Steve earned the respect of the townsfolk as quintessential restaurateurs. 
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the faceless but critical personnel in the real nerve center grab paper orders from the vintage spindle and process the selections with measured accuracy and speed. Amid the bustle, Cassie, who has been at the Owl for twenty-six years, plates another order… “Order up.” In unblinking loyalty, two and sometimes three generations of regulars now walk through the Nite Owl Café’s doors, hard-wired to the atmosphere and history. 
There is no mistaking its lore. 
It has its vibe. And the crowd shuffles in.

Diner fare

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