An Enduring Legacy at Moose’s Saloon

After nearly 60 years, a celebrated Kalispell restaurant still offers its signature scratch-made pizzas, frosted beer mugs and sawdust-littered floors

By Tristan Scott
Wallis Bianchi, owner of Moose's Saloon, pictured on Feb. 4, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

It takes less time for the sawdust to settle at Moose’s Saloon these days. It’s less raucous than when owner Wallis Bianchi first started working at the bar and restaurant 45 years ago, when her father, former owner David “Moose” Miller, relegated the 13-year-old girl to the safety of the kitchen, arming his daughter with a toothbrush to scrub it spotless.

“They wouldn’t let me out,” Bianchi says with a chuckle. “It was too wild out there. But I kept the kitchen clean.”

Even if Moose’s isn’t as rowdy as it once was – perhaps a sign of the times – not much else has changed.

Bianchi still spends most of her time in the kitchen, preparing the saloon’s signature scratch-made pizzas and sandwiches, but now she’s free to wander out and mingle amid the sawdust-and-peanut-shell-strewn barroom floors, greeting a loyal clientele drawn to Moose’s enduring charm.

On any given day, those customers might include statesmen and blue-collar workers mingling in concert in a saloon that is, and has always been, the ultimate social equalizer.

One evening, Tiger Woods popped in for a pizza.

“You never know who you might see here,” Bianchi said. “Dad always wanted it to appeal to all ages and economic groups.”

That was Moose Miller’s intent when he opened the saloon in 1957, following a stellar college football career in the military, and then playing for the Montana Grizzlies. While at the University of Montana in Missoula he met his wife Shirley, whose father owned the downtown Kalispell bar that would become Moose’s – the building was originally a barbershop, and the family’s home. When Shirley’s father died, the couple decided to return to Kalispell to take over.

In a 48-hour tour de force, Miller and a few friends remodeled the bar into a wild-west themed saloon, with old paintings of burlesque dancers, sepia-toned photographs, and mounted animals adorning the walls.

Moose’s was born.

Throughout its nearly six decades, Moose’s has evolved, overcoming changes and challenges along the way. The biggest setback was Miller’s death in 1999, when he lost his battle with cancer.

Bianchi intercepted the torch, and has kept her father’s dream and memory burning bright.

“You have to keep with the times, but you have to preserve the heart and soul,” Bianchi said. “And we’ve done that.”

Most customers enter the Kalispell saloon through the rear entrance, but a pair of wild-west themed swinging doors greets anyone who strolls in off Main Street. Once their eyes adjust to the dimly lit saloon, they must negotiate a crowded barroom and navigate the piles of peanuts and sawdust that litter the floor. Red-tinged glass mutes the scarce light fixtures that adorn the mostly windowless walls, and the names and initials carved into the bar’s timber beams and booths script the comings-and-goings of untold Moose’s customers.

“I’m going to have to rebuild the booths because they’ve been carved through,” Bianchi said.

Moose’s debuted its singular pizza style after Miller purchased the recipes from a now-defunct pizza joint. He also procured the mothballed restaurant’s pizza chef, whose namesake lives on in the kitchen, which is dubbed “Barney’s Corner.”

Bianchi said the key to the pizza is their crust, made from a homemade dough that uses very little yeast and requires an extended period of fermentation.

“That’s where the flavor comes from,” she said. “There’s nothing like it.”

In addition to the dough, Moose’s has been offering the same sauce and sausage since the beginning, procuring their meats from Lower Valley Processing south of Kalispell.

The cooks used to grate the cheese by hand, but the pizza became so popular Bianchi was forced to purchase shredded cheese. The beer is served in frosted, challis-style mugs that Miller introduced, and which have become a fixture at the saloon – even though they’re expensive to replace, and are highly coveted, Bianchi insists that the beer is served in no other vessel.

The annals of Moose’s wouldn’t be complete if they weren’t riddled with antics, including a lengthy catalog of hi-jinx and pranks, the tales of which abound.

One evening, a regular customer tossed an M-80 firecracker into the cooler where the mugs were frosting, shattering the entire inventory. When he approached Miller the following day, hat-in-hand to apologize and offer to pay for the losses, the saloon owner explained that he wouldn’t accept his money – but he would get him back.

Miller never exacted his revenge, and the customer still tells Bianchi he’s waiting to pay his penance.

Then there was the bachelor party. By night’s end, the groom-to-be was hanging by his belt from a pair of hay hooks mounted on the rafters.

Bianchi fondly recalls her father allowing her out of the kitchen as a teenager to watch a Canadian woman tap-dance atop the bar, barefoot and with beer bottle caps protruding out from between her toes, clickity-clacking throughout the saloon.

“We are unique, so that draws people to us,” she said.

Bianchi said she’s taken care to honor her dad’s legacy by maintaining the saloon’s rustic charm, and she’s especially proud that she’s still serving what she calls “real food” – everything homemade and affordable.

A bowl of soup or salad is $3.40, and the larger menu items are fairly priced.

“People don’t like their bars to change. Moose’s has always evolved, but we’re lucky we’ve been able to preserve our tradition,” she said. “I love my job. And I love being in that kitchen.”

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