Life on Flathead Lake in summertime is, ideally, at its core about the same simplicity of experience that draws humans toward bodies of water all across America in the months of June, July and August. The air is warm, the sun is shining, and the water is cool. What more is there to think about?
That basic interplay between relaxing heat and refreshing cold is, in some ways, like the blending of contrasting flavors —sweet and salty, for example — that creates such a mesmerizing effect in certain foods, compelling us toward another bite, another taste, another savory moment.
At the southern tip of Flathead Lake where the water stretches into Polson Bay, just across Highway 93, there is a kind of temple to the most satisfying contrasts of simple, summer life that can be found along northwest Montana’s waterways, and it’s here that those with hungry stomachs looking for a bite can find a legendary local cheeseburger that will answer their prayers — and then some.
Richwine’s Burgerville is a rectangular building, barely two stories tall, with white walls and blue trim. There are at least three different signs visible from the road that declare it to be “Burgerville,” including one with the classic Coca-Cola logo below it, one that lights up the night in yellow lettering on a backdrop of red, and another with a white backdrop and black text that announces its offerings of beef, chicken, and fish, in simple, labeled illustrations sandwiched between the words “Richwines” and “Burgerville.” In front of the main building is a small metal tower topped with a windmill, and affixed to either side are cutouts of a waving, smiling cow painted into a blue police uniform.
The multitude of signs, charming in their cluttered but organized arrangement, are the hallmark of beloved community restaurants and watering holes that tend to have a way of accruing bits and pieces of their own history, and then wearing that history proudly on their walls.
And there’s no doubt that Burgerville is a point of pride for owner Marcia Richwine Moen, whose family, the Richwines, have been putting their signature burgers into hungry hands for the last 62 years. Moen herself just turned 62.
Moen’s parents, Enoch and Lucy, took over Burgerville in 1962. The four Richwine children quickly became involved learning the ins-and-outs of running the burger stand. The effect is that Burgerville itself is a sort of monument to the Richwine family.
“I try to keep it as original as Mom and Dad had it, because as far as I’m concerned it’s still theirs. It’s just my job to operate it,” Moen said.
Moen, who was a district manager for H&R Block in Missoula, took over operation of the family business in 2010. It had been passed down to her brother Shane who ran it for 20 years, but in 2009 Moen stepped in as her older brother struggled with cancer that proved to be fatal.
Her goal was to keep the restaurant in the family — and in operation — for her mother. Lucy Richwine kept coming in until she passed away from cancer in 2015, helping here and there where she could, and sometimes visiting with the familiar faces that belong to Burgerville’s regular customers.
Burgerville’s reputation was cultivated in Polson, but a nationally syndicated review in 1980 spread word far and wide about the superior burgers that could be found there, which reviewer Dick Growald posited might have been the best in the west.
As Moen recalled in the 2017 documentary, “Burgers, Fries, and Family Ties,” by local filmmaker David King, after the review began to circulate, business exploded, and in some cases people went so far as to ask for her father’s autograph.
Bullburgers? Yes, bull meat is part of the Richwine’s Burgerville secret burger recipe. And, like the keeper of any good secret recipe, Moen will say that if she tells it to you, she’d have to kill you. But some aspects of the recipe, like the use of bull meat, are well-known. Typically, burger joints source their ground beef from cow meat, but Burgerville goes for leaner bull meat. It’s ground in-house — there’s a small building toward the back of the Burgerville premises equipped with a freezer and other materials for processing meat. One of the first rituals to prepare for an upcoming summer season at Burgerville is to begin grinding the meat for burger patties.
Despite using a leaner beef source in bull meat, the thinnish Burgerville patties possess a fatty, buttery richness. That effect is achieved because during the grinding process when fat, meted out according to a golden ratio that is part of the secret recipe, is incorporated into the lean bull meat, which Moen says keeps its original size and shape on the griddle better than cow meat would. It certainly helps that the burgers are made to order, meaning they arrive in customer’s hands hot and fresh off the griddle.
“People will say, ‘Wow, the taste of this.’ And all we use for seasoning is salt and pepper,” Moen said.
The cheeseburgers are customizable, but on a standard basis come with American cheese, ketchup, mustard, relish, lettuce, onion and pickle, and are speared through the top bun with a signature garnish called a “doohinkie,” which is composed of small, cubed cuts of carrot, celery and radish on a toothpick. That doohinkie, despite its goofy name, is serious business for many of Burgerville’s regular customers, who notice if it’s forgotten.
The most popular item on the Burgerville menu is the Royal Burger, which takes its name from Royal Morrison, a former owner of Burgerville decades ago, and is comprised of the standard Richwine’s cheeseburger ingredients, but comes with fries. It’s $8.50 for a single patty, $10.90 for a double, which equates to a third-pound burger, and $13.30 for a triple-patty half-pound cheeseburger. Extra patties can be added on in perpetuity for $2.50 each, and years back one ambitious eater decided no less than 13 patties would do for his burger.
The other specialty burger on the menu is the Bernie Burger, named after Moen’s late brother, Shane, who was known to friends as “Bernie Burger.” The Bernie Burger doesn’t stray too far from the standard cheeseburger, except for one choice addition — a 2 oz. slice of ham, crisped up lightly on the griddle. The Bernie Burger is $6.65 with just a single patty. And there’s the added benefit of paying tribute to Shane, not only by ordering his namesake burger, but also because a portion of every Bernie Burger sale goes to either the American Cancer Society or in a donation made toward the end of the season to a local family battling cancer.
There’s plenty else to explore on the Richwine’s menu, including various seafood dinners, hot dogs, corn dogs, chicken burgers, fish sandwiches, steak sandwiches, and more.
There are also fountain drinks, malts, floats, and, of course, like any good classic burger stand, there are ice-cream centric desserts galore, including a $4.50 hot fudge sundae, a $3.25 small dip cone, and ice cream by the quart for $7, or the half-gallon for $13.
Shakes come in chocolate, vanilla, and a range of other flavors, including that most iconic of Montana berries, huckleberry. Huckleberry shakes are made with real huckleberries which are blended into the ice cream upon order. For something more solid, there’s a huckleberry sundae, and for something a little more refreshing, there’s a frozen huckleberry lemonade.
While Burgerville is a community institution, Moen announced in April that she was putting it up for sale, through the realtor brokerage Engels and Volkers, where it’s listed for $1.6 million. Moen has said that she wants to find a buyer who will keep the business going, and that she plans to continue running Burgerville until she can find the right person to accept the torch.
“As much as I love this place, and am so emotionally attached to it, and I would love to operate it until the day I die, my body is tired,” Moen said. “I’m looking forward to my retirement years to be able to spend time with family.”