4-nights here recently---some observations on the grub. For those not familiar: Essex is on the southern border of Glacier National Park off Highway 2 between East Glacier & West Glacier. The motto of the hotel is "surrounded by a million acres of wilderness" and it's no exaggeration. So it helps if the food is good. Sadly things have changed here of late (have been visiting some many times over the past 8-9 years).
I recall in the "old days" hearty breakfasts of thick Montana bacon falling off the plates in greasy plentitude, along with fried eggs, sausages, pancakes and all sorts of a la carte delights. For some reason the chef has gotten "religion" of late. Instead of stoking up the guests for a day of sightseeing with lots of bacon grease he seems to be veering towards the "lite"er side of eats. (Not, a happy direction imho.) The breakfast buffet during my stay was missing a vital ingredient of any American breakfast:---MEAT!! Bacon could be procured a la carte with appropriate bribes. Waitress to me: "I could ask him, but I don't want to put the chef in a bad mood." Eggs are still cooked to order if you cant hack the scrambled variety. But again, it's not done with much good grace or alacrity.
The view of the national forest peaks and the Great Northern (BNSF) railway partly make up for it. Oh and the other thing was my wife later ordered a pot of coffee to go to take out onto the porch mid-morning and received a lecture about "now be sure to bring the pot back" as though she was some sort of suspicious character likely to vamoose with the plastic pot, rather than a loyal-over-the-years hotel guest.
A limited menu but I enjoyed a nice enchilada while there. Again there's an annoying pickiness in having to choose "*either* soup *or* chips" as though one might not like both. I would urge them to show more "largesse" on these type of things. Realistically would it truly cost much more to have the pleasure of saying "Soup *and* chips come with that . . . in true American style.
Their BBQ pork sandwich is nice. Their buffalo stew (and by the way, these menus change so this may only be true of this summer 2002) in a bread bowl was OK but no standout. Chicken & dumplings my wife enjoyed.
I think this is where they do the best job. The pace is better (at lunch expect a long wait for your soup & sandwich which, if you don't ask otherwise, is served at the same time . . . would it not make more sense to bring the soup *then* the sandwich? That way you do not spend 25 minutes gnawing at the table with nothing to nibble on at all), and service better too. The top of the line item is steak marinated in bloody Mary mix. I ordered it rare and it came perfectly cooked. There are nightly specials and salmon is often featured and well done. Onion marmalade and local huckleberries also make frequent appearances. Their house salad is refreshing with "crunchy bits" of grains added and an outstanding onioney vinaigrette dressing. They have some nice artichoke with aioli appetizers nicely done, although created quite differently depending on which of the two chefs (Head or #2) is at the helm. Wines are fairly reasonably priced. However I would steer away from ordering the local Montana wines which are more expensive than others on the list and . . . just not that good.
You can get mixed drinks but better to bring them in from the bar downstairs yourself as they are not 100% geared for it.
Service is spotty. My usual method on a prolonged stay is to overtip at first and see if my (not too exacting at all) needs are more assiduously catered to. This theorem had only limited success on this visit although one waitress was exceptionally good even without any extra incentive. It is nice to also have international students waiting here but of course that often can lead to misunderstanding and less than 100% results. Many come with almost no knowledge of English but adapt remarkably quickly. Again if you can roll with the spottiness, so much the better. Most of them are well-meaning and good kids.
Overall I think this is a wonderful hotel, far from the beaten track and well worth visiting. The owners are supremely nice and hard working people about whom I cannot say enough good things. Where else can you expect to watch a grizzly bear on the hillside across from your bedroom!! Yes, it is that pristine & remote. I may be overly hard on their food because I go there to simply relax at the hotel and not romp about the National Park all day. I think their chef is gifted, but may at times be taking his health-food (healthful-food) zeal to extremes given that most people on vacation are looking to go a little overboard on eats. For example on the lunch menu was something called "grilled greens" I just wondered if ANYONE had ever ordered that(?) My other suggestion would be for "nibblies" of some description on the tables to alleviate what can be longish waits for anything to show up at busy times.
At its best the restaurant here combines superb scenery, train-watching, people-watching, and a superb sense of relaxed well-being. Of their desserts I rated the mud pie. A huge indulgent OTT delight. Enjoy it on the swings on the porches "but be sure and bring the coffee cups back!"
Check out the IWA by all means. And in Michelin tradition "encourager le chef" to bring home the bacon.
Thanks for reading.
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