Mike Scallen is a man of stories.
He’s got the stories of his own life, of which there are many, and the stories that he collects as the patron saint of The Columbia, an old bar that graces Nucleus Avenue in Columbia Falls just south of Smith’s.
In that city’s continuing quest to find post-industrial relevance, The Columbia has an identity that fits well into both the past and future of the heart of downtown. It is something any city hoping to attract and keep new residents needs: a solid dive bar where anyone is welcome and the bartender knows everyone’s name.
It is also a glimpse into the proud past of a place trying to move on without letting go, a sort of museum of oral history that doubles as the de facto community watering hole, where Pabst Blue Ribbon flows almost endlessly from bottles, pints and cans. There is a paper “out of order” sign taped on a shelf full of cigarettes behind the bar, so they are prepared just in case something breaks.
Scallen is the bartender there five nights a week, and balances those two duties with transcendent skill. Enter through the heavy steel door at essentially any time of any night, and all the heads in the bar swivel to see who just walked in.
It doesn’t take long for people to get to know a new face, but Scallen will be the first to remember a name. Before the first drink is finished, he’ll tell you to come back on Sunday or Monday night, when he allows his own past to leak into the present and cooks a free meal for everyone in the bar.
On a recent Monday evening it was blackberry hoisin chicken tacos with chipotle slaw and fresh radishes. He starts around 6:30 or 7 p.m., but keeps serving until he runs out.
“It’s all about layers of flavor,” Scallen said. “Wolfgang used to give me hell about that.”
Scallen, who was born in Minnesota but has lived all over, spent years working as a chef throughout the Mountain West and up and down the Pacific Coast.
Scallen has been working at the Columbia for about four years. His other past gigs include stints at mainstays like the Summit House at Whitefish Mountain Resort and the Great Northern Bar in Whitefish, but he cut his teeth at culinary school in Portland, Oregon and spent time working with well-known chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck in his restaurants.
He’s been cooking since he was a teenager. His mother used to own Mrs. Spoonover’s ice cream shop in Whitefish, and his parents still live up the canyon. He went to college for a while at the University of Utah, where he sated his culinary interests by home brewing.
“I mostly studied history, and beer,” Scallen said of his college years.
He soon dropped out to go to culinary school. There he met his wife, who was studying to be a pastry chef. She still helps him prep the food for his Sunday and Monday night meals, and they spend off days checking out the Flathead Valley culinary scene.
A lot of his friends are chefs at other area restaurants, and they stop in to talk shop with Scallen regularly.
“He’s a great mentor and a friend,” said Mike Macijunas, who works as a chef at Hop’s Downtown Grill in Kalispell. Macijunas has known Scallen for years and recently stopped by for a quick drink and to poll Scallen on where to find the best sushi in the valley.
Many of the conversations that happen at the bar are simple. People talk about the weather, their drink of choice, or lament the way the world appears to be orienting itself.
Then it will take a wrenching turn to something far deeper. Race or religion bubbles to the surface, and a raucous crowd rarely pulls punches, even verbal ones. Scallen is an expert diffuser, but also a curator of engaging discourse who quotes Charles Bukowski and knows all the best spots within 100 miles to get a given type of cuisine.
He frequently pulls someone down to the end of the bar, where he posts up and acts as friend and counselor to those who come back again and again not to drink, but to experience fellowship and community in a town with few other natural gathering places during the long winters.
Scallen has skills far beyond bartending, but he says he likes working at the Columbia because a lot of his friends come, people that more often than not he chooses to hang out with even when he isn’t at work.
“[Charles] Bukowski said find what you love and let it kill you,” Scallen said. “I know everybody. Most of my best friends are here.”
Those feelings are reciprocated by the people on the other side of the bar. Jerry Benzien lives across the bridge but has been coming here, he says, since around 1972. He says Scallen is by far the best chef to pass through the doors and among the best bartenders he’s experienced in nearly a half century of drinking, though that has little to do with his ability to mix cocktails.
“It’s more family than just a bar to go to. I know probably three-quarters of the people that come here and it’s all because of what happens back there,” Benzien said, pointing to Scallen behind the bar.
In a world that otherwise feels increasingly confusing, divided and where old social mores are dying quickly, the walls that hold the Columbia together give Scallen a space to provide a refuge for people that need it and a great place to hang out for everyone else.
Scallen uses stories, along with his food, to bring everyone together. He’s willing to share his own, but he’s a superb listener. When he hears similar stories from different people at a bar, he uses them to connect folks in an organic way. Men and women that lived in the Flathead Valley of old and continue to try to forge their lives in what it has become sit alongside people that recently made Columbia Falls their home, and they find similar interests. On Sundays and Mondays, they do it over a plate of food that is often arguably the best plate in town.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 of firstname.lastname@example.org.