DONNIE SEXTON The last best records
An early winter blast with three days of snow left me needing a brief escape to part with my snow shovel. An overnight stay in Great Falls with a bit of shopping and dinner was the ticket. I hadn’t been to the legendary Sip ‘n Dip Lounge in a couple of years, so my husband and I decided to book a room at the O’Haire Motor Inn, dine at the on-site Clark and Lewie’s Pub & Grill and have a drink or two cocktails at the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge on the motel’s second floor.
The O’Haire Motor Inn was built in 1962 by Shelby brothers Ed and Bill O’Haire. The current owner and manager is Sandra Thares of Great Falls who has been at the helm of this historic property since December 1994. While studying at Billings, Sandra worked in the hospitality and food/beverage service industries. With some practical experience under her belt, she moved back to Great Falls in 1992 to run the O’Haire with her stepfather, Melvin Mantzey, who bought the business in 1968.
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Sip’n Dip originally started out as an art deco bar, with two windows looking into the motel’s swimming pool. As tiki bars became a national trend, Sip ‘n Dip followed suit and became Montana’s only tiki bar. Today, the lounge makes it easy to dream of escaping to a tropical paradise with its tiki wood carvings, tropical art, a puffer fish hanging from the ceiling, glass floats in nets, and accents of bamboo and dried grass. The bonus is that you can enjoy an amazing meal in the presence of mermaids.
We had the chance to visit Sandra so I asked how the mermaids started.
“My mom and I were sitting in the bar having a cocktail or two right after Christmas in 1996 when she dismissed the idea of a mermaid appearing in the pool on New Year’s Eve,” she said. “After lots of laughs we discussed it with the staff. We’ve all wondered where we’d find a mermaid. Someone suggested that we could use a mannequin. My housekeeper volunteered and said she could swim and be ready, so we wrapped her in a green plastic tablecloth that we taped together and she was the attraction of the big night.”
It was the birth of the Sip ‘n Dip mermaids that put this lounge on the national map. Initially, the mermaids only performed on New Year’s Eve, but the popularity of this spectacle grew, where today the mermaids perform every night, seven days a week.
In 2003, GQ Magazine named the Sip ‘n Dip the #1 bar in the world worth flying to. The rest is history as the bar’s popularity has skyrocketed. Politicians, celebrities and visitors from all over the world have entered the Sip ‘n Dip, and some have made it into the pool with the mermaids. Daryl Hannah wiggled into a mermaid tail and jumped in after the bar closed for the night. Speaking of mermaid tails, Sandra sews them by hand and keeps a sewing machine in her office.
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By the time Sandra took over, the restaurant at the O’Haire had been leased a number of times to other establishments, which had been hit-and-miss with the quality of the food. In 2002, Sandra and Donnie Johnson, who had extensive restaurant experience, decided to bring the restaurant in-house. The name, Clark and Lewie’s Pub & Grill, came easily considering that the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial would begin in 2003. The menu is well rounded, from breakfast to dinner.
Adorable and easygoing Sandra invited us for dinner. We walked down from the lounge, which filled up quickly and was a bit noisy, to the restaurant where we were able to chat in a more subdued environment. Donnie was in and out of the kitchen busy preparing a catered event. He noticed me looking at a world famous shrimp cocktail sign on a chalkboard and said, “You want to know why it’s world famous, right?” To which I replied, “Yes.” He blurted out, “Because my boss Sandra did.” wrote,” he then burst out laughing, along with two servers standing nearby. Of course I had to try the shrimp cocktail, colorfully layered in a parfait glass with bits of shrimp on the bottom, followed by a mix of celery and lettuce, cocktail sauce and rimmed with four large shrimp. In a word – delicious! My husband chose the prime rib while I chose another starter, “Black and Bleu” Steak Bites, for my main. Sandra ordered a bucket of steamed mussels in butter sauce to share. She also ordered a fresh spinach and berry salad with a honey and balsamic dressing, reminiscent of a refreshing spring bouquet on this cold night. Donnie insisted we try his new holiday dessert, a bowl of cinnamon apple pie enrobed in whipped cream with cinnamon candies. While claiming to be too full, I put half of this sweet and savory treat away.
The menu features a variety of burgers including a braised pork belly burger and a prime rib burger. The menu features smoked salmon salad, taco salad, tangerine chicken salad, and a Montana salad with grilled steak.
I spied a heaping plate of nachos and the waitress told me it was only half an order. Clark and Lewie’s also offers fish tacos, chimichangas, and enchiladas. Signature appetizers such as ribeye, BBQ ribs, walleye and fried chicken steak would no doubt have seemed like paradise to intrepid explorers to sit down to such a meal. Beer, wine and tropical cocktails are available. Concoctions like Blue Hawaiian, Mermaid Kiss, Marvelous Mai Tai and Tropical Tiki Dream create visions of island life. Anything on the menu can be served in the bar. In summer there is also a terrace available for dining. Every first and third Sunday, Clark and Lewie’s offers an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring mermaids and a merman in the pool. “MER-mosas” are also featured.
After dinner, I peeked into the lounge and it was packed, standing room only, with Joel Corda, the weekend’s musician, belting out tunes on his guitar. The beauty of staying at the O’Haire is when you get carried away with the sip ‘n dip, all you have to do is find your way back to your room when you’re a little tipsy or, in our case, gorged on overindulging in well-prepared ones and delicious food.
The O’Haire is currently undergoing a “renovation” which will involve making cosmetic changes to bring the inn back to how it originally looked when it first opened. Sandra pointed out that all aspects of the deal will remain open during retrovation. The exterior changes should be completed in December, while new carpets and linens in the rooms will be changed in early 2023. The name is changed to O’Haire Inn.
The restaurant has an enormous amount of catering. Between now and Christmas they have between one and three catered events a day. Sandra seems to juggle the chores of running a motel, restaurant and bar with extraordinary grace and plenty of humor considering how busy she is. “I wear black lounge pants at home. So if I have to come down in the middle of the night, all I have to do is throw on a sweatshirt,” she says with her infectious smile. “We’re not fancy, but we’re fun. We can deliver that 100%.” I get it. Just talking to her was a hoot!
Driving home through a few flurries, I was determined not to let the snow get me down this season after my refreshing “tropical island” escape in Great Falls.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, is a freelance travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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