Our three-month stay in Whitefish aligned with the challenging time of COVID-19. Consequently, we weren’t comfortable dining in at restaurants and did try to limit our trips out in public. That said, we were still eager to try to support some of the local businesses. Luckily, nearly every shop in town offered curbside or carry-out services. By taking advantage of carryout options and restricting our strictly masked outings to off-peak hours, we were able to safely support some of northwest Montana’s coolest small businesses. Below, you’ll find a list of our favorites, both in Whitefish and outlying towns around the Flathead Valley. For a specific post detailing some of the local breweries, check out this post.
Aside: We’d like to give a quick thanks to all the local businesses for their efforts to ensure customer safety during the current pandemic, including mask requirements, hand sanitizing stations, curbside service, and appropriately distanced outdoor eating areas. We know it’s not an easy time right now, but we’re rooting for all you hard-working small businesses!
Fleur Bake Shop
Recommended to us by our AirBnb host’s daughter, Fleur exceeded all of our pastry expectations (well really, Stephan’s expectations). The owner is classically trained in French pastry, and runs a gorgeous little patisserie at the corner of First and Central in downtown Whitefish. If you visit, make sure you get there early, because many items tend to sell out quickly.
Stephan was so impressed with Fleur that I ended up popping in to grab him a new treat pretty much every time I went into town to go to the supermarket. Over the course of our visits, he sampled a good chunk of their menu: the signature cardamom orange morning bun, huckleberry cream cheese brioche, huckleberry bostock, chocolate orange croissant, lemon poppy seed croissant knot, huckleberry macarons, and their classic kouign-amann, a laminated Breton cake that holds the reputation as the ‘fattiest pastry in Europe.’
While he loved everything he sampled, his favorite was the lemony poppy seed croissant. He said their croissants were like eating air – some of the lightest and flakiest he’s ever had. Sanchez’s favorite seemed to be the huckleberry brioche, which narrowly edged out the buttery kouign-amann.
If I had one suggestion for the small bakeshop, it would be to offer a couple of vegan selections. While there was regularly a limited selection of gluten-free items, I never saw one vegan baked good on the ever-changing menu. That said, I guess there may not be much of a market for vegan baked goods in such a small town.
I discovered Loula’s when searching for a huckleberry pie for Stephan. With huckleberry season in full swing, I figured he should try as many huckleberry treats as I could get my hands on (a pattern you’ll note when perusing this list). With this small café placing eighth on USA Today’s 10 Best [Huckleberry Pies in Montana] List in 2018, I considered it a worthy option.
Loula’s is tucked away in the lower level of the historic Masonic temple building in downtown Whitefish. They’re open daily for breakfast and lunch, and my advice would be to get there early if you’re looking to get a table (but seriously, please wait for the pandemic to wane a bit). Every time we drove past, the place was absolutely jumping – good for them, though a bit disturbing to see during a pandemic… even though they were following public health guidelines.
I called in an order for carry-out, ultimately selecting slices of warm huckleberry/cherry and huckleberry/peach from their extensive list of scratch-made pies. Stephan avowed that both were outstanding, which is high praise coming from a true pie snob. Like many of us, no pie will ever quite live up to grandma’s, but Loula’s flaky pastries seemed to do Grandma Chase’s justice.
Montana Coffee Traders
Montana Coffee Traders has been a Whitefish staple since 1981. They are committed to selling socially responsible beans by offering certified fair-trade coffee selections, many of them organic.
Stephan was eager to sample some of their roasts, having drank the medium-roast Buffalo Blend for years. With his mother’s family hailing from upstate New York, his uncle established the tradition of mailing a shipment of Buffalo Blend every year at the start of football season. And while drinking the beans clearly hasn’t yet worked to secure the Bills a spot in the Superbowl, Stephan has religiously enjoyed his Sunday morning fall brew.
If you like a darker roast, Stephan was particularly fond of the Grizzly Blend he tried. As well as being a tasty cup of coffee, Montana Coffee Traders donates a portion of the profits to Vital Ground, a local nonprofit that is working to preserve grizzly habitat. He also enjoyed their Rising Wolf, another dark, signature blend he described as smooth and easy to drink. And while I am not a coffee drinker, I did enjoy my piping hot cup of their spiced mocha (made vegan with oat milk).
If you find yourself craving ice cream on a hot summer day, look no further than Sweet Peaks. The small ice cream shop churns out handmade ice creams and sorbets, and has a handful of locations across western Montana. Their flavors change regularly, with many flavors being seasonal, so there always seems to be a fun, new assortment to choose from.
Stephan and Sanchez really enjoyed their frozen treats. While Sanchez stuck to her usual vanilla bean, Stephan tried the Going-to-the-Sun Road (salted caramel with honeycomb), Campfire S’mores, Flathead Cherry Chocolate, Grizzly Tracks (caramel ice cream with chocolate chunks and cookie dough bits), and Huckleberry. His favorites? The Flathead Cherry Chocolate and Going-to-the-Sun Road. Unfortunately for me, the few times we visited they had no vegan options, so I was relegated to holding Sanchez’s kiddie cup while she licked furiously. While they do claim to make sorbets and dairy-free options, they don’t seem to be a regular part of the menu.
Whitefish Farmers’ Market
It’s not technically a business, but if you are in Whitefish in the summer, you’ve got to check out the farmers’ market. It runs on Tuesdays from 5 – 7:30 p.m. beside Depot Park, in the northern corner of downtown near the train station. For a small town, it’s a really great market with dozens of vendors offering fresh produce, meats and other handmade wares. There are even a handful of food trucks that line the perimeter of the small greenspace.
At our AirBnb host’s suggestion, our primary goal was to acquire one of the locally famous Dixon melons. Our hosts absolutely raved about the fruit, and said they’re pretty much the only watermelons they’ll eat.
Dixon Melons is a small, family-run farm that’s been growing various melon varieties for over thirty years. Harley and Joey Hettick started the farm with a mere dozen plants on an acre of land. Today they grow 1,000 tons of fruit a year on 20+ acres. Several years ago, following a series of health setbacks, the couple’s children and grandchildren took over the day-to-day business, but the melon game is still very much a family affair.
As soon as we arrived at the market, we headed for the Dixon Melons pickup truck, loaded down with red and yellow watermelons, cantaloupe, honeydew, Crenshaw and canary melons. Apparently, they really do have quite the reputation, because the line stretched along one whole side of the park just a few minutes after 5 p.m. When I finally reached the truck, I selected one of the small yellow watermelons. It cost $8, but it did turn out to be one of the juiciest, most flavorful melons we’ve ever eaten.
Other than the coveted melon, we snagged some fresh sweet corn and some porkchops from Farm to Market Pork for Stephan and Sanchez. While I stood in line for my melon, Stephan zealously scoped out the food trucks, ultimately splurging on a ginormous taco from the S & M Taco truck. He returned to the melon line beaming, eager to show off his ridiculously massive taco. It was called The Hammer – a flour tortilla with chorizo, beef, black and pinto beans, cheese, spicy pico, and chili lime garlic spice. Surprisingly, he said it was the best taco he’s ever had – and it certainly had to be the biggest.
(1) The best part of the farmers’ market is being able to support local families like the Hetticks. For more on their story, check out this 2019 news story: https://www.montanarightnow.com/all_abc_fox/montana-treasure-the-love-story-behind-dixon-melons/article_b14ece92-c85e-11e9-9bb4-e366e42e3e98.html. And for all you grunge fans out there, apparently Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam’s bassist, is a Dixon melon supporter, having grown up in the same hometown as Joey Hettick.
(2) While we were a bit concerned with being near any sort of gathering during COVID, the market did require masks and was equipped with multiple hand sanitizing stations. There was also enough space to be comfortably distanced from other market-goers.
River Trail Park
If you’re looking to enjoy the outdoors while you’re scoping out all that downtown Whitefish has to offer, we’d recommend a walk along the Whitefish River. In the heart of downtown, River Trail Park’s greenway begins just off of 5th Street, near the Whitefish River Inn.
The path follows the river for about three-quarters of a mile, passing through Baker and Riverside Parks and ultimately dead-ending next to Highway 93. At the north end of the river park, you’ll find the Skye Park Bridge, a footbridge for pedestrians and cyclists that spans the Whitefish River. Walking south through the greenspaces, the path skirts the willow-lined riverbank, and there’s even access to a public dock. It’s a beautiful little walk, and perfect if you’re looking for a scenic spot to enjoy an ice cream or coffee.
While we mainly ventured away from Whitefish for outdoor recreation, we did also find a few favorite places scattered around the greater Flathead Valley. Listed below are some of our top picks:
Uptown Hearth (Columbia Falls)
A microbakery and coffee bar in downtown Columbia Falls, Uptown Hearth was also recommended to us by our AirBnb host. Martha, who hailed from England, said she never enjoyed an American-style biscuit until having one from this small, scratch bakeshop. She went on to tell Stephan that the breakfast sandwich, served on the illustrious biscuit, was to die for. Challenge accepted.
One Saturday morning on our way up the North Fork, we stopped by Uptown Hearth so Stephan could try the ‘Egg-a-biscuit’ – a buttermilk biscuit heaped with herb-scrambled eggs, bacon, white cheddar, and chipotle aioli. We ordered from the small take-away window and sat on one of a handful of picnic tables in the outdoor courtyard. As Martha suggested, Stephan was instantly blown away. The sandwich lived up to the menu’s claim of being “piled high” (it was friggin’ huge), and Stephan said it was, in fact, the best breakfast sandwich he’s ever eaten. Needless to say, as much as we were limiting our public outings, we were back a few weeks later with Sanchez in tow so they could both enjoy the champion of breakfast biscuits.
Know before you go: Uptown Hearth is only open Wednesday to Sunday (7 am – 3 pm), so plan your visit accordingly. The café offers a small menu of made-to-order breakfast/brunch items, cold case items, coffees, and baked goods that change daily.
Lake Baked (Bigfork)
A tiny shop in the heart of Bigfork, Lake Baked was opened earlier this year by a mother-daughter team who had long dreamed of opening their own bakery. Their specialties include cinnamon buns, sweet and savory pies, and cookies and pastries. The menu also includes a selection of coffees and teas.
After finding the bakery online, I scoped out their social media page to see what was currently on their menu, and noticed that their latest creation was a huckleberry bun, appropriate as huck season was in full swing. We called ahead so Stephan could grab one of the buns for carryout, and learned that they also offered a vegan applesauce bun. Given how difficult it had been to find a vegan-friendly baked good in the area, I was shocked to find one at such a small place.
When we went to pick up our buns, we were similarly surprised to discover a massive outdoor space beside the diminutive bakery. There was a small stage where they offered outdoor music, a huge grassy area, and tables that were nicely spread out. Bonus: the garden area was dog friendly. We were pumped that we were able to sit outside with Sanchez for a few minutes and enjoy our tasty treats.
Overall, we found Lake Baked to be a great little shop and we wish them the best of luck going forward. I can’t imagine working tirelessly to open your dream business, only to have it coincide with the onset of a global pandemic. We’re cheering for you guys!
Glacier Distilling (Coram)
Glacier Distilling was founded by a group of friends in 2010. They began crafting small-batch whiskeys, and now offer a host of spirits made from locally-sourced ingredients such as Flathead cherries, wild huckleberries, Montana wormwood, and local spruce tips.
The tasting room can be found in a big, red barn along Highway 2, between Hungry Horse and West Glacier. There’s even a covered, outdoor seating area which makes the perfect place to try a flight or cocktail. For $5, you can create your own flight of four samples from any of the available spirits, with a maximum of two flights per person (per Montana law).
While we found some of the blends to be a little sweet, it was fun to try some of the unique concoctions. Stephan’s favorite was the Bad Rock, a cask-strength rye whiskey, while my top pick was their Trail of the Cedars absinthe. Having never tried absinthe before, I can’t really speak to its quality or authenticity (though it did win a silver medal at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits competition), but it was shockingly tasty with a slight licorice flavor from the anise and fennel.
The Polebridge Mercantile (Polebridge)
A bakery and general store with a rich history, The Polebridge Mercantile sits just off the North Fork, about 35 miles north of Columbia Falls and just south of the Polebridge Ranger Station (an access point to Glacier National Park and the Inside North Fork Rd).
‘The Merc’ was built in 1914 by Bill Adair, just a few years after Glacier was designated a national park. Originally a general store called Adair’s, Bill and his wife owned and operated the store until just after WWII. Although the Merc didn’t feature a bakery until 1994, today that’s its real claim to fame. The Merc’s most celebrated menu item is the huckleberry bear claw, a puffy, berry-laden pastry created by a third-generation baker who owned the mercantile for 15 years.
If you’re traveling around Glacier’s North Fork area, we’d definitely recommend a stop at The Merc. The huckleberry bear claw more than lived up to its esteemed reputation and, according to Stephan, was nearly surpassed by the huckleberry brownie. Given the apparent quality of their various baked goods, we recommend getting one of each while checking out all the history the building has to offer.
If you find yourself in Whitefish or the surrounding area, we hope you enjoy some of these recommendations. While we didn’t feel comfortable eating out in the time of COVID – and consequently have no real dinner/restaurant suggestions – we were happy we got to sample even a bit of the local fare. Whitefish has a super cute downtown rife with small eateries and coffee shops, though, so exploring the local food and drink scene is sure to be a good time (when the time is right).