The cinnamon roll French toast at the Western Café is a sweet, sticky treat that when slathered in butter and washed down with coffee, takes on rich undertones of home.
It’s the kind of rare-find entrée upon which other restaurants might build a cult following. But it is not restaurateur Susan Sebena’s recipe for success. That recipe, the one that’s kept the griddle hot at Bozeman’s oldest restaurant for more than 70 years years, is equal parts nostalgia, conversation, community and, of course, food.
“I think it’s the quality of the food. It’s the friendliness, the atmosphere,” Sebena said. “I try to keep the old feel, and I think that’s why people come. The come to me and say, Oh thank God you didn’t make it into just a coffee shop. There’s so many of those going up.’”
A trendy coffee shop, the Western is not. Sebena bought the Western in 2008 and billed it as “The Last Best Café.” Rather than modernize its knotty-pine interior, she enhanced it, returning the ceiling to a coffered style that harkens back to the 1940s and decorating with wildlife art and cowboy artifacts. In one dining area hang photographs of downtown Bozeman back 100 years. The Western Café seems just a block outside the photographer’s frame in many of the images, perhaps too simple to be included in the same shot as the art deco Baxter Hotel on the other end of the strip.
The 400 block of east Main Street, which the café anchors, has always been a denim jacket and work glove kind of place. There’s a single-chair barbershop next door offering $12 haircuts and a cabinet shop west of that. For decades the Western’s next nearest neighbors were a gas station, lumberyard and paint store. The Western’s block never experienced the foot traffic that drives the bars and art galleries to its west until the Montana Ale Works, a trendy bar and restaurant, opened to the east. Now passersby look through the windows of the café daily.
What makes the Western work, said celebrity chef Jay Bentley who owns a steak restaurant two blocks down the street, is that customers searching for an experience get what they came for.
“Bozeman is a combination of old money, new money, tech people and agriculture. It’s a great place to live and it draws a lot of different people who are willing to pay for an experience,” Bentleys aid. “And like it is at the Western, it all boils down to the same principle: You give people what they want.”
The Western may be one of the few establishments on Main Street that doesn’t offer customers WiFi. Sebena prefers that patrons engage each other rather than stare into the white-blue glow of their smartphones. There are usually a couple of copies of The Billings Gazette or Bozeman Chronicle to be split into sections and shared.
Sebena has been known to seat strangers together during a lunch rush rather than leave them waiting at the front door. The vinyl upholstered swivel stools at the lunch counter are usually occupied and always turned inward as customers interact.
It isn’t uncommon to see customers walk through the front door and speak with 10 people on the way to their table. This the way the restaurateur prefers the Western, a menu of small-town American favorites served up with familiarity and friendship, a warm slice of what Bozeman used to be.
Sebena likes to point out that a lot of what foodies are after the Western has been quietly serving for years. The pancakes are dotted with Montana huckleberries hand picked by a local man during peak season. At this restaurant, which at one time cut its own meat and still spends hours preparing its chicken-fried steak, food is bought locally whenever possible.
The saucer-sized cinnamon rolls are baked fresh every morning and served hot from the oven, just as they have been for 40 years. Before buying the Western in 2008, Sebena made sure that Annie Robinson, the restaurant’s cook of 30 years was willing to stay.
“She’s so skilled, every thing she does, she does from scratch,” Sebena said. “She doesn’t know the exact recipes. She’s just so used to doing it that way,” which seems to work best for a café marketing memories.