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Back on the lake: Once a mainstay on Lake Coeur d’Alene, the Lodge at Carlin Bay rebounds with new menu and energy

The setting couldn’t be more picturesque – on the lake, with pine-covered hills rising beyond the water line in the distance.

Guests dine out here, on the docks, boating in from their summer cabins or day on the lake. The back deck and main dining room both overlook the water, too. But, this time of year, why sit inside?

This is quintessential Inland Northwest summer dining.

There are the views, of course. Then, there are the dishes. Coconut shrimp with coconut sauce instead of breading. Black cod, salmon, scallops. A pork chop brined for 24 hours and served with honey-garlic sweet-and-sour sauce. Peppered steak with chimichurri. Gourmet burgers. Tuna poke with pickled watermelon rind. The Carlin Signature Salad with green grapes, roasted almonds, bacon, apple and grape vinaigrette.

“I come from a fine dining background, and I wanted to stick to my fine dining background,” chef and co-owner Chason Walsh said. “But we’re on the lake so we have to have lake food. That’s where your burgers and your pretzel bites come in.”

New owners have transformed the old Carlin Bay Resort into the new Lodge at Carlin Bay, giving the longtime lake dive not only a new name but fresh coat of paint and completely new menu. The old watering hole is now a casually elegant establishment where boaters, locals and summer visitors alike should be able to find something to please their palates.

And the changes aren’t over yet.

Spokane’s Walsh family, including the executive chef, are hoping to tear down the old building and replace it with a modern lakeshore lodge as well as a series of glass-walled cabins, heated pool, new gas station and convenience store. Meantime, plans for the place – a set of architectural renderings propped up by easels – are on display in the restaurant’s main dining area.

The space is light, bright and airy. The decor, clean and simple. But, until two years ago, these walls were adorned with animal heads. And, despite windows overlooking the water, “it was dark,” Walsh said.

Still, he and his family – his three sisters and their parents – have fond memories of visiting the place, boating in after a long day on the water for a bite to eat. “We grew up going here,” he said.

When they heard the property was for sale, they were interested but skeptical. “The reviews were bad,” said Walsh, who visited the resort at the end of August 2016. “It was pretty disappointing.”

The place “was in pretty poor shape. It was definitely run-down.”

But, “it’s a beautiful spot.” And, all in all, his family’s first visit back in awhile was “pretty nostalgic.”

Nostalgia is one of the reasons the Walsh family ended up buying the business on the eastern shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene, between Coeur d’Alene and Harrison. They also saw potential. They felt, Walsh said, that they had something to offer not only visitors who come here in summer, year after year, building memories – people like his own family – but also the folks who live in these parts year-round.

In fact, he said, the goal is to eventually be open year-round. “We want to make it a destination location.”

Meantime, the Lodge at Carlin Bay is entering its second summer season under new ownership. Walsh, president of the Lodge at Carlin Bay as well as a co-owner and the executive chef, has been overseeing operations with general manager Dena Mulkin, who grew up in Post Falls and has worked in hospitality “on and off’ since she was a teen.

Business here is “definitely controlled by the weather,” said Mulkin, noting most guests boat in and weekends are busiest, especially at lunch and dinner. “It’ll be quiet in the morning, and then suddenly you look up and you can just see the boats coming at us.”

Mulkin spent the five years before coming to work at Carlin as a food and beverage manager for a couple of national parks, including Yellowstone. She was interested in returning to this region. But, in early 2017, she almost didn’t show up for her job interview.

“This place had a terrible reputation,” she said. “It had a dive-bar atmosphere. Taxidermy everywhere. Dollar bills on the walls. I almost turned around 2 miles down the road because of the reviews.”

Online reviews on sites such as Yelp, which don’t require people who post to provide last names, complained of rude service, long waits, high prices and poor food quality.

“We rent a house right next to this place annually, and every year we decide to give it another try – only to be disappointed again,” Alyssa S. wrote on Yelp on Aug. 2, 2016, calling her server “the rudest.”

A year earlier, on Aug. 15, 2015, Chad O. posted: “Hope it sells soon to someone that understands the restaurant business.”

The Walsh family owns and operates the Wake Up Call, a local coffee business with multiple Spokane locations. They bought the 5-acre waterfront property in mid-November 2016, becoming “like the fifth or sixth owner from what I understand,” Walsh said.

He had long dreamed of opening a restaurant of his own. And his family was in the process of building a lake house just down the road from Carlin Bay. Despite some its drawbacks, he said, “it seemed like a good fit,” especially once they got to work.

Before opening for the season last summer, the animal heads came down. So did the dollar bills. New paint went up. The “purple-y stained carpet” was pulled out and new flooring as well as new light fixtures were installed. New tables and chairs were ordered. Everything, Walsh said, received a “deep clean.”

Walsh grew up in the Spokane area, graduating from Gonzaga Preparatory School in 2003, then working for a couple of years at Wake Up Call. “I was Wake Up Call’s first barista,” he said. “I was also Wake Up Call’s worst barista.”

He and his girlfriend, Rachel, a 2005 West Valley High School graduate, headed to Las Vegas for culinary school, graduating together in 2011 from Le Cordon Bleu. They married in 2012.

Walsh worked at Jose Andres’ exclusive, eight-seat restaurant at the Cosmopolitan for about a year as well as the renown chef’s China Poblano restaurant at the same hotel for about three and a half years. He also completed short-term stages, or work experiences, at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole.

Then, he and his wife reached a turning point: continue their culinary careers in Vegas or start a family. “And,” Walsh said, “we wanted to start a family.”

They moved back to Spokane in November 2014 to be closer to their families as they began to grow their own. Today, they have two children, ages 2 1/2 and not quite 1 1/2. The younger was born, Walsh said, “six days before we opened.”

The way he understands it, the resort “started out as a little post office, then a gas station, then a gas station and convenience store.” Sometime in the ’70s, Walsh believes, the restaurant, bar and house were added. And there was a he plan to turn the place into a bed-and-breakfast. “That never happened,” Walsh said.

“We just have bits and pieces of the history,” he said, noting he “found some plans in the attic of the house, and they were, at some point, going to call it the Fur Trapper. They were going for a woodsy feel.”

He and his family are going for a rustic and approachable but also elegant atmosphere. That pertains to the decor as well as the menu, which offers fine Pacific Northwest fare with Asian, Latin, Mediterranean and other influences.

The best-seller – “by far,” Mulkin said – is the coconut shrimp which features six pan-seared shrimp in a coconut sauce with amaretto, toasted coconut and green onion. It’s still rich and creamy, but much lighter than the more common deep-fried and heavily breaded version.

Burgers also sell well, and the chef’s favorite is the Gem Burger, in honor of Idaho’s nickname, the Gem State. It comes on a potato bun with Idaho fry sauce, a combination of mayonnaise and tomato paste – “some people do ketchup,” Walsh said – as well as a potato cake that’s “kind of like a big tater tot.”

New this year is the $56 Bay Burger, which feeds four, includes 2 pounds of beef and comes with a steak knife stuck in the middle. The burger stretches 7 inches wide and is dressed with cheddar and pepper jack cheeses, bacon, pulled pork, chipotle aioli and more. It’s the most expensive menu item. Most dishes land in the $10 to $20 range.

“It’s a head-turner, for sure,” Walsh said. “It’s meant to be shared.” But, “you do what you want with it.” No one’s eaten the entire thing by themselves – at least, Walsh said, “not yet.”

In all, there are a half-dozen burgers as well as other lunch items such as a chicken Caesar wrap, shredded pork nachos, fish and chips, a few sandwiches, smoked prime rib sliders and a Kalua pork plate. Look for other “lake food,” too, like wings, clams and calamari as well as poutine, spring rolls and smoked salmon deviled eggs. Salads include Caesar, Cobb, quinoa, wedge and rice noodle.

At dinner, there’s a double-cut pork chop, smoked prime rib, sirloin strip steak, hanger steak and roasted chicken along with an assortment of seafood and pasta.

Dessert includes house-made doughnuts with maple-rum-caramel and chocolate sauces, lemon drop cheesecake with candied zest, strawberries with house-made creme fraiche, an ice cream sampler with three flavors, chocolate cake and mango sticky rice. It features coconut rice cream, fresh mangoes and strawberry. It’s something you don’t see on menus too often around these parts. And, Walsh said, his version is “killer.”

For breakfast on the weekends, there are a couple of three-egg omelets as well as waffles, pancakes, French toast, biscuits and gravy, steak and eggs, chicken-fried steak and a country Benedict with two eggs, a sausage patty, biscuit, sausage gravy and hash browns.

The late-night menu features eight items for $7 or $10: pretzel bites, steak fingers, popcorn chicken, fried pickles, loaded fries, chili-cheese tater tots, fish and chips, and a cheeseburger and fries.

Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options are available. And, “we take a lot of pride in that,” Walsh said.

In fact, “I’m proud of every dish that we have. I don’t think we have a weak dish on the menu.”

Between the docks, deck and dining room, there’s room for 186 people.

Specialty wine dinners seat 40 and give Walsh and chef Alec Tompkins, who previously worked at Beverly’s at the Coeur d’Alene Resort as well as Satay Bistro in Coeur d’Alene, an opportunity to show off their skills and creativity. Last summer, Walsh said, “We sold out every single one.”

There’s live music on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. The Lodge at Carlin Bay is also hosting cigar nights, featuring cigars paired with different spirits.

The regular cocktail menu includes the Carlin Bay Colada with raspberry and coconut puree, rum, pineapple juice and whipped cream. Or, opt for the Walsh Rooftop Refresher with lemon juice, cucumber vodka and a splash of lemon-lime soda. There’s a huckleberry mule on the drink menu, too, along with blueberry tea and coffee nudge for cooler nights on the lake.

Word has slowly been getting out – about the new ownership, new menu, new look and future plans. Online reviews, once so bad they were almost laughable, have been taking on a positive tone, even prompting one Yelper to update a previous post.

On June 6, 2016, Tony R. wrote in all caps with multiple exclamation points: “ZERO STARS!!! ABSOLUTELY AWFUL!! Not going back until there are new owners!!” Just more than a year later, on July 14, 2017, he announced, “Carlin Bay is back!!!”

And more recently, on June 4, Karen K. called the Lodge at Carlin Bay “an unexpected treasure,” noting, “The food was exceptional. … We went back to our boat after lunch, but decided to stay close and enjoy dinner there, too!”

Still, Walsh said, “Our biggest challenge by far is getting people here.”

Carlin Bay is a 23-mile drive from Coeur d’Alene, and 10 miles north of Harrison. If you drive rather than boat in, a series of winding lakeside roads takes you there.

Walsh makes the drive almost daily, commuting from Spokane. Like last year, he plans to close for the season Sept. 10.

“We wanted to get back on the lake,” he said. “We wanted to bring Carlin Bay back to what it was: little kids running around, families enjoying meals.”

Someday, too, they want to display some of those old dollar bills, the ones that used to hang on the walls. Walsh said his family saved them, hoping to incorporate them as an homage to the history of the place once they rebuild.