Eddies Cafe: a Montana Original
Posted on 08 March 2003
August 28, 2008
by Dave Reese
It's after the breakfast rush and before the lunch crowd, and only a few tables are occupied at Eddie's Cafe.
Sitting in booths along the walls, couples and families gaze out through large windows at Lake McDonald and Glacier National Park. Outside, on the single dead-end street of Apgar, tourists stroll about at a leisurely pace, that slow walk of people enjoying every step of their vacation.
Inside Eddie's Cafe, the clatter of dishes and silverware being taken off echoes above the din of a baby crying and its parent trying to soothe her.
As lunchtime approaches, a steady stream of customers begins to enter the front door. By noon there's not an empty table in the place.
In the kitchen, Eddie's Cafe owners Donna and Jerry Larson wear white aprons as they stand over two long stainless steel grills, flipping burgers and patty melts. Onions sizzle as they splash on the grill.
For 32 years the Larsons have been running Eddie's Cafe in this tiny town whose main street dead ends at beautiful Lake McDonald. But after years of slinging burgers, breading trout and flipping pancakes, the Larsons are ready to hang up their aprons and spatulas. With their two children not likely to carry on the operation, the Larsons say they're going to sell the restaurant after this year.
The Larsons are ready to get out and enjoy Glacier National Park, something they've had little chance to do in the hustle and bustle of running their own business in the brief season of Glacier National Park.
"It's a short, fast season," says Donna, wiping her hands off on her apron. "You have to make it while you can. This is not a slow little restaurant."
The years have been kind to the Larsons, who in their 60s look a decade younger. "I'm ready to go hike Glacier Park," says Donna, 60. "I'd like to do that while I'm young."
Donna figures they'll put the restaurant on the market this winter, perhaps ending their family's tenure as one of Glacier National Park's favorite little diners.
Jerry Larson grew up in Great Falls, and they bought the cafe from Donna's father, Eddie Brewster, in 1972. "I'm 65 and still flippin' pancakes," Jerry Larson says with a smile.
Except for Lake McDonald glistening nearby and mountain peaks poking above the cottonwood trees, this diner could be anywhere in America.
Here, the menu is simple but hearty. You'll find rainbow trout the most exotic item on the menu, alongside the traditional fare of burgers, steaks and sandwiches. At one time the restaurant was Outside Magazine's choice for best place to eat in Glacier National Park.
Desserts, the pride of the restaurant, have been featured in gourmet magazines. The Bear Claw Pie is a tantalizing treat of chocolate ice cream sandwiched between an Oreo cookie crust and topped with fluffy icing and almond slivers.
Donna Larson grew up in Apgar, attending elementary school through sixth grade at the Apgar School, which is just down the street and is operated as a gift shop now.
She remembers in her childhood when the streets would be flooded in the winter so they could ice skate, or when they would shovel the snow on Lake McDonald to make a place for bonfires. "I can't think of a better place to grow up," Donna says.
The Larsons now spend winters in Arizona, but many times during their years in Apgar they would have to be up at 2 a.m. just to get the road plowed by morning.
Eddie's Cafe has always been place where young people gained their first experience in the working world.
Tanya Fox started working at Eddie's when she was 12 years old, and has been working there for 10 years as a waitress. Kathy Bell, a teacher at a community college, first worked there when she was 15, but now comes back in the summers just for the fun of working in a fast-paced environment.
It seems like a fun place to work: The customers are always cheerful and the wait staff gets to hear some interesting stories. Many of the workers now come from places like Russia, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Even Hollywood made a stop here, filming part of Beethoven II in Apgar and Eddie's.
Melanie Byrd, a former teacher in Kalispell, is in her third summer working at Eddie's. An petite, energetic waitress who can carry a tray of glasses almost as big as a car hood, Byrd floats through the crowded restaurant, taking orders and serving food with a smile.
She enjoys the repartee with the customers who come from all over the world. Byrd provides her Top Three Funniest Questions asked by tourists:
1. What time of year do the deer turn into elk?
2. When do the huckleberries turn into blueberries?
3. Is there a McDonald's on Logan Pass?
Back in the kitchen, Donna Larson removes her apron to tend to the business side of things. In a small office at the back of the restaurant, invoices and postcards are tacked on every inch of open space.
A page torn from a desktop calendar, one of those things that offers sage wisdom on American life, stands out from the rest of bills and notes. It reads "never start a restaurant." Written in a dark marker underneath the axiom, someone has scrawled the words "NEVER."
After three decades running Eddie's, Donna Larson is looking forward to the time when she can stroll along Lake McDonald and not have to worry about going back to the kitchen to prep for the breakfast shift. "There are so many moods to that lake," she says.
She wonders what it's going to feel like when they close the restaurant down at the end of the summer, if someone else will take it over.
When that last piece of Bear Claw pie is served, when the windows are boarded up and the grills turned off at the end of this summer, that's when it might hit her their time is done at Eddie's.
"It's going to be hard," Donna says over the busy chatter of lunchtime customers. "That's why I have to keep busy — so I don't think about it."
About Eddie's Cafe:
Apgar is located one mile inside the western entrance to Glacier National Park, on the shore of Lake McDonald.
Horace Brewster, his wife, Clemence, and son, Eddie, arrived in Apgar in 1910 from Hays, Mont., where Horace was foreman of the Circle C Ranch. As the ranch boss, Brewster gave a young ranch hand his first job. That man was Charlie Russell, who later had a summer home at Lake McDonald.
Horace Brewster was the first official ranger in Glacier National Park.
Eddie Brewster purchased the property in 1946 from Bill Mackin. It was originally a grocery store, but the Brewsters added on to it, making room for a restaurant with only seven stools and two booths. Eddie opened the cafe in 1945 and ran it until 1972, when Donna and Jerry Larson took over the restaurant. The Larsons added a dormitory out back for their summer employees.
The Brewster family has maintained a long tradition of working in Glacier National Park. Donna's brother, Neil Brewster, works for the park.
In less than eight years, it will be 100 straight years of the Brewster family's involvement with the park.