Behind the signature red shutters, charming wooden shingles and chalet-inspired façade of the Bigfork Inn, latest owners Francois Zanni and Christopher Languein are all about traditions: keeping the old and starting the new. In fact, the well-known restaurant’s name has been changed to Traditions at the Bigfork Inn.
As a fourth-generation restaurateur, Zanni’s resume is packed full of eatery experience, starting from the age of 12. After moving to Lakeside from California years ago, Zanni helped run a number of local restaurants, such as The Docks, the Blacktail Mountain Ski Area Bar and Grille and The North Bay Grille. He then left for Helena to run Silver Star Steak Company, where he met Languein, who worked as a manager there.
Now, after four years, Zanni is back in the valley and has added two more culinary institutions to his repertoire.
“I had always said I was never going to buy a restaurant again,” Zanni said.
But the chance to own a portion of the Bigfork Inn was too good to turn down. So, together with Languein, the pair breathed new life into the longstanding icon. The goal was to keep with tradition by maintaining the building’s historic charm and reputation while also carving out a fresh vision for the future.
Languein, part owner and general manager of the inn, arrived in Bigfork first, during June of last year. It didn’t take the Oregon native long to fall in love with the Flathead Valley.
“I saw the area, I saw the building, and I was sold,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a cooler place to work.”
He spent the winter running the inn, asking and learning what patrons were looking for in the restaurant before making any significant changes. Zanni returned to the Flathead in April, and together they started the updates.
Most of the aesthetic changes have been in the details. The walls are now lined with vibrant new art by local artists; the tables are topped with crisp, jet-black tablecloths and adorned with fresh glass and silverware. Outside, flower boxes overflowing with colorful blooms now accent the wood-paned windows.
One significant change is the name.
“A lot of people still think the Bigfork Inn is a hotel, an inn,” Zanni said. That is not the case. The handful of rooms there have not been used since the 70s, according to Zanni. “So I wanted to give the restaurant itself a name, to show that there was a change and give it something fresh and new.” And so the name Traditions at the Bigfork Inn was born.
With the new name came a new menu that boasts traditional European items that Zanni felt the clientele would appreciate. Crispy half duck a l’orange, medallions of filet mignon bourguignonne and Zanni’s baked French onion soup are just a few classic dishes to be found at Traditions.
“I wanted to bring culinary traditions from Europe,” said Zanni, who grew up near the French Alps. “I’m bringing back recipes that we used to serve 20-30 years ago in our French restaurants, and people today are excited to see them back because nobody does them anymore.”
The elevated food served at Traditions is designed to add more high-end eats to Bigfork in the hopes of drawing locals and tourists alike into the area.
“I find there is a need on this side of the valley for nicer restaurants,” Zanni said. “Our plan with this place is to bring people down to Bigfork. It’s such a beautiful community and cute village.”
Zanni and Languein also brought music back to the venue. The dancefloor, quiet for almost five years before the duo took over, is now filled with dancing diners five nights a week.
Owning and operating businesses in the Flathead Valley comes with a unique set of challenges, one being the slow winter season. After cultivating a close, family-like staff at Traditions, the cutback from serving dinner seven to four nights a week during the winter, and its impact on employees’ schedules, was cause for concern to Zanni and Languein.
So when the owners of the building that most recently housed the 406 Bar and Grill called Zanni and offered him a chance to open a new restaurant, he agreed. The ability to keep hardworking, talented staff members employed full-time year-round between the two establishments was the driving force behind that decision.
“The main reason to do it is for the staff,” Zanni said. “Here I have this great staff, and I’m thinking, ‘What do I do with all these people in September?’”
Zanni and Languein were also intrigued by the possibility of enhancing downtown Kalispell.
“I’m excited to be able to create something with Chris that we can really be able to support the community between both staff and clientele,” Zanni said. “The last thing I need is another restaurant. But it’s really for everybody. It’s to create something fun for everyone.”
The concept behind a second venture by Languein and Zanni at the former 406 Bar and Grill in Kalispell is to add a fresh twist to an old staple, as well as address the need for places with full bar and food menus.
“We want to fill that need with somewhere with an accessible price point,” said Languein, who is taking the lead in running 1st Avenue Taphouse. “We want to create something in Kalispell that is fun, exciting and more personable.”
The space, located on the corner of First Avenue West and Second Street West, was previously home to a string of bar and grill establishments that all leaned to the higher end. But Zanni and Languein are going in an entirely different direction at 1st Avenue Taphouse.
“We are bringing a casual, less-expensive feel of a tap house,” Languein said. “Which is what I believe the younger generation of Kalispell is looking for.”
The restaurant features a fast-casual menu and a new order-at-the-counter system. The menu features high-quality but simple items such as fish and chips, burgers and other classic pub fare served alongside a choice of 36 tap beers, 12 tap wines and a full bar.
“I want to focus on Montana and Northwest craft beer,” Languein said. “And we’ll have some great wines on tap.”
With no servers in sight, customers are in charge of ordering both food and drinks and taking a seat wherever they would like. Guests can also enjoy live music on a new stage in the remodeled dining room, take a seat in the familiar but spruced up bar area, or warm up by a sleek, 8-foot outdoor firepit designed to sit and eat around.
“It’s going to be fun,” Languein said of the tap house. “It’s going to be a kick.”
After managing the North Bay Grille, an upscale bar and restaurant once housed in the same building, Zanni knows the challenges of the location. The restaurant, he said, is too big of a site for a high-end restaurant to stay full year round.
“To get that dining room full on a seven-nights-a-week basis was difficult,” he said.
The self-serve concept of the tap house calls for fewer employees. This allows the restaurant to be open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. without jacking up food prices during the slow season.
“We wanted to find a way of doing it so we can keep affordable prices for our customers,” Zanni said.
Zanni and Languein are doing it to please the community and are looking forward to the flexible nature of the 1st Avenue Taphouse.
“It’s a work in progress, driven by clientele,” Languein said. “It’s a matter of what people want. We are keeping our options open.”
As for the name, 1st Avenue Taphouse, Zanni said the owners wanted to stick to the theme of bringing back traditions.
“We figured we would bring back the old name,” he said, explaining that an old bar in the same location was called First Avenue West. “We are bringing traditions back to the valley everywhere we go.”
Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the fall edition for free on newsstands across the valley, or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.