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.

Livingston: seeing the obvious but missing the big picture

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In my work on the state historic preservation plan in 1983-1994, I was excited about the new insight I could bring to the state’s landscape–the impact of the transcontinental railroads and the transportation and settlement corridors that they established in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Railroads were of course not a new theme then–books abounded on the railroad barons and the romance of the rails.  But as a built environment–that was new, reflecting current scholarship from John Hudson, John Stilgoe, and Roger Grant.  So whenever I hit a major railroad division point–like Livingston–I only saw the rails and what happened around them.

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That was certainly easy enough to do coming into Livingston from the west on old U.S. 10.  The railroad tracks were directly to the north, as well older elements of the town’s roadside architecture, like the exquisite Art Deco-styled radio station, KPRK, now closed for broadcasting (the station’s signal comes from Bozeman) but listed in the National Register. William Fox, a Missoula architect, designed this jewel in 1946.

Park Co Livingston art decoContinuing west you soon encounter post-World War II service stations and motels, some updated, some much like they were, on the outskirts of town and then, boom, you are in the heart of Livingston, facing the commanding presence of the Northern Pacific depot complex with warehouses–some now converted to new uses–coming first and then

Park Co Livingston 3massive passenger station itself. Opened in 1902, the passenger station was an architectural marvel for the new state, designed by Reed and Stem, who would continue on to great fame as the architects of Grand Central Station in New York City.  The station, interestingly, is not Classical Revival in style–certainly the choice of most architects for their grand gateways along the nation’s rail line–but a more restrained interpretation of Renaissance Revival style, completed in red brick.

Park Co Livingston NP depot 12The building is not particularly inviting for locals coming from the business district to the depot–that was not its primary audience.  Rather the grand entrance is track side, where passengers headed to Yellowstone National Park could depart for food, fun, frivolity, whatever they needed before the journey into the wildness of Yellowstone.

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Park Co Livingston NP depot 9Travelers were welcome to use the grand covered walkways to enter the depot proper, or to take a side visit to the railroad’s cafe, Martin’s as I

Park Co Livingston NP depot 7knew it back in the day, a place that rarely slept and always had good pie. The cafe changed its orientation from the railroad to the road as automobile travelers on U.S. 10 began to dominate the tourist market.  Now it has been restored as a local brew pub.

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The interior of the passenger station once held large public spaces for travelers and then more intimate spaces themed to either men or women.

Upstairs were spaces for offices, company lodging, and other company business.  The station was the railroad’s urban outpost was what was then still the Montana frontier–its statement of taste and sophistication still reverberates today even as the depot no longer serves passengers (except for occasion excursion trains Amtrak doesn’t run here anymore) and serves as a railroad and Park County museum.

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Thirty years ago, the overwhelming imprint of the Northern Pacific on the surrounding built environment was all I could see.  At one corner was one of the first local historic preservation projects, an adaptive reuse effort to create the Livingston Bar and Grille (once popular with the valley’s Hollywood crowd).

Park Co Livingston bar and grilleDirectly facing the center of the passenger station was the mammoth Murray Hotel–a flea bag operation in the 1980s but now recently restored as a hipster place to be, especially its signature bar.

My throwback place back in the 1980s, however, was Gil’s.  It was next to the Murray and the place to get the cheesy souvenirs you equate with western travel in the second half of the 20th century.

MT 2007 Park County Livingston 3Imagine my pleasant surprise last year when I found that Gil’s still existed but now had been converted into a decidedly up-scale establishment, far removed from the 1980s.

Park Co Livingston Gil'sI don’t know if I have encountered a more fundamentally changed place–cheap trinkets gone, let the wood-fired pizzas come on.

Park Co Livingston main st blocksI was not so blinded in 1984 by the concept of the “metropolitan corridor” that I ignored the distinctive Victorian storefronts of Livingston–how could I since they all, in a way, fed into the tracks.  But when I got to the end of that distinctive business district and watched the town, in my

MT 2007 Park County Livingstonmind, fade into the Rockies, I had captured the obvious but had missed the bigger picture–that’s the next story.