Montana’s Best Restaurants–in a historic building

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I take pride in my effort to travel the state of Montana and listen to its residents to learn about its history and its special places.  And I take great pride in creating this WordPress site where I can share my findings with you.  But back here in the south, few ask me about Montana history–most want to know where to go to eat and drink when they encounter the Big Sky Country.  So to get into the holiday spirit(s) and have a good cheer (just wish there was some place in Tennessee to get Tom and Jerry mix), I will offer my favorite Montana restaurants–but only those in historic buildings.

I have already spoken about many favorites, such as the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe (above) and the Oxford Bar and Double Front Cafe in Missoula, the M&M Bar and Cafe in Butte, the Izaak Walton in Essex, and especially Chico Hot Springs in Pray.  If you have only one stop in Montana, make it Chico–I always do.

The Izaak Walton is the only “new” restaurant in the bunch, the rest being mainstays of my field work in 1984-85.  But they are only the tip of the iceberg–and I am not talking salads either.

Nope I am talking beef and booze, be in at the Wagon Wheel in Drummond (above), or the much more fancy digs of the Montana Club in Helena.  Whatever you do in Montana, you don’t want to miss the beef. It would be a Dirty Shame if you did (thank you, Yaak!, below)

There are the classic supper club steakhouses of central Montana such as Eddie’s Supper Club, a stone’s throw from the gates of Malstrom Air Force Base, and Borrie’s, nestled in the Black Eagle neighborhood, both in Great Falls.

Throughout rural Montana, it is the classic cafe, always good for breakfast but really superb for pie.  And you don’t want to miss Montana pie, be it from Glen’s in Florence on the western end of the state to the Wagon Wheel Cafe in Choteau to the Dell Cafe (in an old school house) in the southwest corner to the Madison Valley’s Ennis Cafe to the Eat Cafe in White Sulphur Springs (right in the middle of the state). Indeed my favorite pie stop was once the small cafe at the Dude Rancher Lodge in Billings–but I understand that place has changed in recent years.

What has really been great to experience over the last 30 years is the number of “fine” dining places to come about.  In Helena, back in the early 1980s, it was On Broadway, still going strong today.

masonic-hall-helenaBozeman has boomed with many new chef-driven restaurants but of the downtown establishments my favorite for good fresh, creative food remains the Co-Op Downtown nestled within the Gallatin Block, a historic building, tastefully renovated, in the downtown historic district.

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In Billings, it is Walker’s Grill–a rather newcomer on the stage but now a staple of downtown life in Billings, and a big part of its re-vitalization in the 19980s, just as its neighbor to the east, the Rex Hotel restaurant, was the first really successful adaptive reuse project on Montana Avenue, the city’s old railroad corridor.

Another railroad era hotel that has gone through various restorations before meeting a happy conclusion is the magnificent Grand Union Hotel and its bar/ restaurant in Fort Benton.  Here is a place worth a long drive–for there is so much to see and explore in this mid-19th century Montana place.

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I have already ranged across a good part of the state–what about the eastern third, that vast landscape north and east of Billings.  Winnett on Montana Highway 200 has a great local bar/ steakhouse (below) while for an endless abundance of eastern Montana fare img_0252head to Miles City, which is the place to go if you wonder, still, “where’s the beef” and a city that is the proud home of the famous Montana Bar.

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Oh yes, let’s go way up north to the state’s northeast corner and take in the Fort Peck Hotel and its equally good lounge and restaurant.  Here is a New Deal era building, set

img_8109within New Deal landscape that forever changed the look of this region in the 1930s.  Locals and tourists mix together–because the hotel is the only place to go, unless you want to backtrack to Glasgow and check out Sam’s Supper Club on U.S. Highway 2, and its equally neat 1960s roadside look.

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Ready to go–hope so.  At least everyone is now in the holiday mood for the feasting to come.  Happy holidays, and thanks for checking out my explorations into historic Montana.

Chico Hot Springs

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During my historic preservation plan travels across Montana in 1984-1985, the old hot springs hotel shown above–Chico Hot Springs near the Yellowstone River in the Paradise Valley of Park County–was a certain destination.  My colleague at the state historic preservation office, Lon Johnson, encouraged me to stop–not only did the place have the best food in the region it also was cheap lodging, for one of the old single rooms without bath upstairs. the first visit hooked me–and ever since Chico Hot Springs has always been my number one stop when planning any of my return visits to Big Sky Country.

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Chico Hot Springs in 1988.

Chico was among my top recommendations for a future listing in the National Register of Historic Places–and it was finally listed in the National Register in 1998–almost at the time of the 100th anniversary of the hotel.  Locals had taken advantage of the natural hot spring as soon as miners began to flood Emigrant Gulch in the 1860s.  But there was little development, largely because Hunter’s Hot Springs, near Springdale to the northeast in Park County, was already established as the region’s premier resort.  Not until 1900 was the springs’ commercial potential developed.  That was when Percy Matheson Knowles and William Knowles built the Colonial Revival-styled hotel–but a loose colonial feel to the exterior with a much more rustic style interior.  At the time of my first visits in the early 1980s, the place had gained some fame, not only for its scenes in the cult western movie Rancho Deluxe but as a genuine place of history and relaxation on the northern gateway into Yellowstone National Park.

With fame and increased visitation came changes–new wings with much more modern amenities, additional fancy cabins, even a spa. Once there had been the restaurant, the

pool, and the horse rides for entertainment.  Chico was a stop over, or a good night out.  Now it was a destination in its own right. But the changes, for me, have meant little–I still go there for the welcome and comfort of the lobby, the good food and drink, a chance

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to sit in the pool or out on the porch, and to think about old hot springs hotels like this place–where travelers had stopped for over 100 years, to take in the waters, have a drink, and relish the wildness of the west.  Chico since the early 1980s is not quite so wild–except in the winter months when many tourists are gone, and the place reverts back to the locals for a few months.  But to my mind, anytime is a good time to stop and stay awhile.