The gateway to some of Glacier National Park’s most spectacular trails and climbing routes, the Swiftcurrent area of Many Glacier provides a launching point for ambitious departures and a base for beleaguered returns.
It’s a nexus where hikers and climbers can exchange beta before an epic day in the mountains, and a dusky oasis upon their homecoming.
No matter what end of the spectrum park visitors fall on, they now have an outpost to slake their craving for adventure and carb-up on classic Americana with ‘Nell’s at Swiftcurrent. The upshot of Xanterra Parks and Resorts’ transformative remodel of the old restaurant at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, ‘Nell’s pays tribute to George Bird Grinnell, a historian and conservationist whose efforts were instrumental in establishing the park.
The physical design of ‘Nell’s is as intentional as the philosophy propping up its menu, which can best be described as classic Americana, but draws from local resources.
The reuben sandwich, for example, is as classic as they come. But at ‘Nell’s, the sandwich features grass-fed beef from B Bar Ranch in Bozeman, sauerkraut from the Birch Creek Hutterite Colony in Valier, rye bread from Wheat Montana, cheese from Lifeline Farm in Victor, and house-made thousand island dressing.
“It’s just a reuben, but every element of it is sourced locally,” said Jeremiah Hook, food and beverage manager for Xanterra. “Our reuben is kind of the perfect microcosm for the entire menu.”
Conceptually, ‘Nell’s subscribes to the finer points of a classic diner. Breakfast is served all day. It features a breakfast and lunch counter and serves up a variety of burgers, sandwiches and French fries.
But there’s a twist. Its focus on sustainability and healthy lifestyle sets it apart from the classic diner. It has no deep fryer, and all of the fries are cooked in a combi-oven without oil.
Customers can order an emu burger with a nutritious side salad, including kale and quinoa salad or beets.
“The menu items are not fancy, they are not fussy, but we are focused on buying local and our customers are going to see that in the quality of the product,” Hook said.
The vision for ‘Nell’s is equal parts Hook, who created the concept for the new interior, and James Chapman, the executive chef for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, who divined the menu.
Both Hook and Chapman were committed to the classic-diner theme, and were eager to marry that to sustainability.
When Xanterra took over as the concessionaire for the park in 2014, Chapman and Hook made a push not only for sustainability in the company’s food and drinks, but in its brick-and-mortar offerings as well.
Under the new contract, Xanterra was expected to “refresh” the old restaurant, and while Hook and Chapman had a grand vision for what they wanted to do to the space, they were also chafing under the constraints of a budget.
Their solution was sweat equity and ingenuity.
At ‘Nell’s, Hook and two seasonal employees sanded down the old oak floor themselves, staining it to give the antiqued look of weathered barn wood. They wanted the tabletops to feature to-scale National Geographic maps of Glacier National Park, but custom tables are high-ticket items.
“When we were coming together for this project, we knew we needed to do it with a budget in mind, so we were able to put our heads together and fulfill our vision without breaking the bank,” Hook said.
He contacted National Geographic and obtained vector images of the maps, then had Meissenberg Design Foundry use large-format printers to emblaze the image on wooden tabletops. They used the metal bases from the old restaurant’s tables, sanded and powder-coated them, and the result are classic-looking diner tables with to-scale trail maps of the park on top.
“The map exercise was something we wanted to do from the start,” Hook said. “Our guests not only interact with each other, they interact with the map. They make plans and share memories.”
The main bar was built using baseboards from the newly refurbished Lake McDonald Lodge, and the counters are built using old wall paneling from the guest rooms.
The centerpiece of the restaurant is a nine-top booth situated around a table that features a to-scale topographic relief model of the entire park, etched into a three-inch block of cedar with a 3D-carving machine.
“It took about 11 hours to plot the points and 25 hours to carve this,” Hook said. “It’s become the cornerstone of the restaurant and a real talking point for our guests.”
After opening to the public June 14, Hook said he’s already seeing his and Chapman’s vision animated as hungry hikers converge not just to eat, but also for enjoyment.
“It’s so cool to see a hiker come in at 7 o’clock in the evening, tired and hungry, and order a stack of huckleberry pancakes and a nice cold local beer,” Hook said. “I think before it was a place that people came just to eat. Now they’re coming for the experience.”