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  • You can probably tell a lot about a steakhouse by its front door. That’s what I think upon arriving at the sturdy, broad-beamed wooden door at the entrance to Wolf Lodge Inn outside Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. This is a door whose rusticity is real, not Disneyfied, a door whose satisfying creak speaks to the decades it has been welcoming guests into the confines of this restaurant. Wolf Lodge began as an outpost in the wilderness in the days before I-90 was built practically hugging its parking lot. People call what it was then a convenience store, but that’s too casual a title for the catch-all gathering place described to me. Its current owners bought it in the 1970s and, since then, they’ve been serving steaks grilled over a wood fire in an open pit right on the edge of the dining room.

    I sit at the bar, my preference as a solo traveler as eager for local lore as red meat. I’m greeted by Shawn, the bartender, wearing a sweatshirt with a stripe of cammo down the shoulders. Shawn’s a Montanan by birth, an elk and bear hunter (“whatever will stock the freezer,” he says), who used to work in manufacturing until that left this part of rural Idaho. “I’m a country boy,” he tells me, who’d rather bartend for his living here than move to the city. Shawn provides accompaniment to my dinner by telling me stories of the world surrounding Wolf Lodge, stories he doles out between pouring beers and shots of whiskey. Those shots prompt one story about the recent acquisition of Wolf Lodge’s liquor license. Apparently, they’re hard to get in this area, as the number available is limited by population size, and those with one already can sell it for tens of thousands of dollars. Wolf Lodge, flush with customers for years, wasn’t about to pay that. However, they found out that if you can prove you’ve been open for 75 years in Idaho, you can get yourself a liquor license for cheap. It’s as if the authorities deemed the grandfather restaurants of the region due their booze in their old age. Proving how old Wolf Lodge Inn was, however, turned out to be pretty tricky, Shawn says. It seems paying taxes for decades doesn’t cut it as proof of longevity. Sean found himself in a local history museum, trying to dig up antiquated mentions of Wolf Lodge from its early days in the 1930s. He was having no luck until an archivist mentioned a stack of old phone books in a back room. There, Shawn found volumes from the late 1920s through the 1960s, and Wolf Lodge was in nearly all of them. Voila, shots of whiskey available with your steak. The liquor license cost only a couple hundred bucks and a stack of old phone books.

    That story leads to one of another similar roadhouse, a former brothel turned bar further down the road into the mountains. The Snake Pit, this one is called. The owners died recently and their son, a preacher who was not fond of drinking but wanted to hold onto the property nonetheless, only opens the place for four hours once a week in order to hold onto his liquor license. Noon to 4 p.m. on a weekend day, you can drink at the Snake Pit. That’s it.

    The ribeye I ordered has arrived now, 16 ounces of well-marbled steak. It’s got a peppery browned crust and rosy pink meat within. I soak up the juices with some of my baked potato (this is Idaho, after all) while Shawn continues on the tour of local hideaways. His favorite, he says, has closed recently, inspiring daydreams of buying it himself. It’s called the Cascade Inn, a tiny place surrounded by state forest land, accessible only by snow mobile in the winter time. On Wednesdays, they used to have a giant spaghetti feed. People would go to work on a Wednesday morning with their snowmobile already on a trailer hitched to their pickup, ready to jet to the Cascade as soon as 5 p.m. rolled around. “The sauce was canned tomato sauce, but it didn’t seem to matter,” Shawn says. He tells me he’d love to buy the place, but there’s the small problem of hauling in food and drink. Snowmobiles aren’t very efficient delivery vehicles. The guy who’s owned it for the past few years also groomed the snowmobile trails. He used to load his groomer up with supplies before heading up to the restaurant.

    The conversation turns to hunting (bear meat is greasy on its own, but makes a fine sausage) and that inspires Shawn to rhapsodize, as much as a plain-spoken Montanan does, about huckleberries. They look like blueberries but have a tartness that is uniquely theirs. If you’re lucky and the weather’s right, you’ll get two rounds of them a year, one mid-summer, the other in September. Shawn goes picking and eats as much as he puts up. A gallon will net you around forty-five dollars—they’re that beloved and hard to find—but he freezes his for himself. “In fact, I’ve got some in the freezer here,” he says, and disappears for a time, showing back up with a little cup of frozen berries. Once they’ve thawed, I’m treated to my first huckleberry, six months out of season. It’s a more mellow tart than a cranberry, with a blueberry’s juiciness. I could eat a gallon of them. Shawn says he does.

    And then, with belly rounded by finishing all 16 ounces of meat, I head out into the night, admiring again the wide wooden door as I leave. The Idaho that’s within, I think, is one as full of stories as it is steaks.
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