Ironically, Holiday Inn said it well when they said “The best surprise is no surprise.”
Ironic because they said it well but didn’t make it through the Hampton, Days Inn (etc) proliferation. Holiday Inn didn’t mean that you didn’t want to be surprised with a warm chocolate chip cookie at the front desk, or unusually good service.
They meant that you don’t want to be surprised by a busted bed, a leaky sink, roaches and any number of other unpleasant things that you’ve probably encountered in a motel room. We’re talking expectations. You expect a clean bed with a good quality mattress, clean sheets, a decent pillow, a hot shower, a working toilet, and a room that doesn’t smell like the insides of a LSU football player’s cleats after 3 weeks of August two-a-days (practices twice a day).
So where does that fit into the fact that I took the boys to Shelby, MT this weekend for a swim meet? Well, there were several “instructional moments”, as Dan would call them, and I’ll cover them over the next few days.
Most of these moments revolved around setting expectations. Our first surprise of the weekend was about judging a place by appearances and location. Thankfully, someone had already set the expectations for us.
The U.S. Census says there were 5,337 (yes, five thousand and change) people in Toole County Montana as of the last census. That’s in a county of 1,911 square miles, ie: 2.8 people per square mile. Not a crowded place, even by Montana standards.
We’re in Dunkirk Montana, population two. No, I am not kidding- here’s the Google map of Dunkirk MT.
We’re on the western edge of Montana’s ag country. No mountains to stop the wind, just lots of fields for dirt farming. It’s not a fancy place. Good people, lots of land and no shortage of “Big Sky”.
The unincorporated town of Dunkirk is one of those classic “blink and you miss it kinds of places”. At 70mph, if you close your eyes and count to 2, you’ll miss the downtown (unless you swerve off the road when you close your eyes). It’s a grain elevator and across the street, the Frontier Bar and behind it, a house. That’s it.
The Frontier’s sign, and in fact, the entire front of the bar; is beat up and seriously weathered from long, cold, windy east side winters (In Montana, “east side” refers to the side of the Rockies you’re on) and hot, dry, windy summers. If you didn’t know the bar was open, you might not even stop.
Sometime Saturday afternoon, someone who grew up in nearby Shelby MT told us to drive 10 miles east to Dunkirk and go to the Frontier. They made a point of saying “Don’t let the appearance run you off.” We had no idea what they meant. Turns out that it meant that the front of the place made it look closed – as in “It hasn’t been open for years.” Without looking inside, you’d have no idea it was in business unless there were cars parked out front. When you step inside, it’s a different world. To be sure, it looks like most other bars in small Montana towns…bar, stools, video poker, a few pinball games, a little dance floor area and the like, but with one exception…it’s clean.
I don’t mean just clean, but noticeably, amazingly clean.
No aroma of smoke. The pool table is so clean, it looks like you could eat off of it. There are some long tables over at the side – with white tablecloths and place setting. Turns out that’s group seating and there is a group coming in later. Part of the bar is carpeted. The floor and carpeted areas are spotless.
I walk over to the bar and the bartender asks if he can help us. I tell him we’re here for dinner. Then he says it….
In a town with a population of 2, in an almost 2000 square mile county with a population of 5337, he says “Do you have a reservation?”
I laugh a bit, and assume he’s kidding, but it’s clear that he’s dead serious. Thankfully, he thinks he can fit our group of 7 into the group seating area, and we are seated.
The waitress hands us a menu listing of prime steaks, elaborate pastas (Salmon and artichoke something or another), fresh shellfish / seafood (oysters on the halfshell, mussels, wild salmon and lobster) and so on. Today’s special is prime rib, regular or blackened. The “small” is 16-18 ounces, the large is 22-24. She warns us not to order too much appetizer-wise because the entrees are large, noting that “no one leaves here hungry”, and casually mentioning that the blue cheese dressing and warm bread at our table are made right here at the Frontier.
Our food arrives and as we were warned, the servings are substantial and the food is excellent.
After an hour, we’re still a bit surprised at this little nugget in the middle of rural Montana. The bar business has picked up, yet our formal table seats the loudest group in the place. A family group of 15 or so locals shares the group seating area with us.
On the drive back to the camping area, discussion revolves around how we could have missed this place, and how great the food was.
The next day, I find out the real scoop: the chef at the Frontier Bar in little tiny Dunkirk MT just happened to go to culinary school.
Any other bar in a tiny little town would typically be smoky and dirty. The bartender would be serving deep fried corn dogs and frozen battered mushrooms, and the bonus would be pre-formed frozen burgers cooked on a griddle that might have been cooking for Elvis. That kind of bar might have struggled to make ends meet. This bar was different. Someone, somewhere decided that the slight edge was great food in an environment clean and well-mannered enough to take your kids to for a meal.
I suggest that you leave room for the homemade lemon meringue pie.