Pat Carloss won’t come right out and say it, but Columbia Falls has been begging for this.
Swarms of locals descended on the new Gunsight Bar and Grill during its opening weekend, June 7-9, taking in the handiwork that Carloss and his army of contractors have done to breathe life into the Nucleus Avenue bar that was most recently known as the Bandit. And while the Bandit sometimes attracted crowds that lived up to its name, the Gunsight is a pristine, affordable, family-friendly restaurant and bar unlike any other spot in fast-growing Columbia Falls.
“My sense, from the moment we started, was that people couldn’t wait to see the change, to see it rehabbed,” Carloss said while sitting at one of the newly installed high-top tables next to the newly installed sidewalk-facing windows. “There’s a kind of fondness for the space … It was a very popular place.”
To give the Bandit a facelift, Carloss dipped deep into his reserves of experience from opening and operating a number of other local restaurants, and dipped deeper than expected into his pockets. The interior of the building, both he and Director of Operations Paul Abu-Taleb said, was essentially torn to the ground and rebuilt. Elements of the building’s structure remain, along with a center portion of the main bar, but the rest has been completely overhauled, including a large outdoor patio and green space with perfectly manicured landscaping, an outdoor stage and a single-piece, 32-foot Douglas fir bar created custom by RBM Lumber.
Carloss said he had not spent much, if any, time inside the Bandit before some Columbia Falls community leaders approached him about taking on the project. That was in late September last year, not long after developer Mick Ruis had first bought the building from its prior owner and shut the Bandit’s doors.
“I didn’t know it well at all, but you could pretty much base your judgment off of the visible signs,” Carloss said. “It was rundown, period; but good bones.”
For Carloss and Abu-Taleb, Gunsight also represents a serious shift in style from the other two restaurants under their leadership — Whitefish’s upscale Tupelo Grille and Abruzzo Italian Kitchen.
“It’s a nice departure from what we typically do,” Carloss said. “We still want good service, but to be casual and free-flowing is kind of nice.”
Gunsight is wide open on the inside, with a couple of pool tables and a small gaming area providing the only breaks from booth and table seating throughout, along with the indoor and outdoor bars. An entirely new kitchen area was built as part of the remodel, and food is sold at a counter near the back patio, meaning long reservation lists and the headaches of table food service are not a problem at Gunsight, although cocktail servers do roam the bar area. The menu is casual and evolving, right now featuring a handful of sandwiches and burgers with a trio of salads and mix of appetizers.
“Options, that’s the big thing — we want options,” Abu-Taleb said. “The idea being that you can kind of hit every palate, and we did want to keep the price point approachable.”
Columbia Falls, in part because of its proximity to Glacier National Park, has seen significant development and a number of new businesses open in recent years to cater to an influx of tourists. And while Gunsight expects to attract a fair number of out-of-towners, Abu-Taleb believes their core clientele must be locals, the same way he says the other restaurants have taken hold in tourist-heavy Whitefish.
“If it ends up being a hometown bar, that would be ideal,” he said. “It takes time, and I think we need to be a place that is kind of the de facto choice, whether you’re having a family outing or getting together with buddies after work or on the weekend, it’s just where you want to go.”
Gunsight Bar and Grill is now open at 624 Nucleus Ave. in Columbia Falls, with food service from 4 to 10 p.m. seven days a week. The bar may remain open as late as 2 a.m.
Elsewhere in the Flathead Valley, two other established food and drink spots are getting a companion.
In Lakeside, Steve and Bettina Patyk have opened Beargrass Bistro in the same building as their thriving breakfast and lunch stop, Farmhouse. Beargrass has the look of an upscale eatery while still catering to fresh-off-the-water boaters or sweaty hikers looking for a bite to eat. CeCe Andersson, formerly the executive chef at Tupelo Grille, has created a menu that features locally sourced meats and produce used in everything from pork tenderloin schnitzel to beer-braised boneless short ribs and Waygu meatloaf.
“It’s upscale food at casual dining,” Bettina Patyk said. “I don’t feel like you have to go to a pub to wear shorts and get pub food. We wanted a place where you could dress up or you could wear shorts and the food is going to be fantastic. That’s hard to find and that’s what we want.”
Meanwhile, in the shadow of Glacier National Park, Coram’s newest entrant into the market is Josephine’s Bar and Kitchen, a cozy spot with indoor and outdoor seating located next to Glacier Distilling. Executive chef Erin Grimes honed her craft at the Belton Chalet, among other local restaurants, and has put together a menu with sharable small plates and sandwiches ready to be picked up at the counter. And, of course, a full craft cocktail list using liquors from Josephine’s neighbors at Glacier Distilling is available.
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