From downtown Billings to a hole in the wall on the Hi-Line, Montana has some great restaurants.
Take a road trip with us and check some of them out.
Tucked back into the trees off I-90 at the Rock Creek exit 20 miles east of Missoula is a piece of Montana history that has stood the test of time.
BOZEMAN — From the name to the logo to owners Emma Woods and Ross Franklin, and of course, to the food, I found genuine welcome and ease at Whistle Pig Korean in Bozeman, much like going to a good friend’s home. I blame Chef Bill Baskin, Gallatin College’s culinary arts director, for introducing me to this cafe, formerly the Chickpea Cafe. “You have to try their bibimbap,” he told me over the phone before my trip over from Billings to join him here for lunch.
RED LODGE — The charming main street of Red Lodge has something for everyone. Broadway Avenue is easily walkable, with colorful boutiques, art galleries, western chic décor, antique shops, an epic candy store, a fantastic clay center featuring regional artists, the historic Pollard Hotel where Buffalo Bill Cody occasionally hung out, eateries with typical Montana fare of burgers and steaks — and now the delightful Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern.
I think it’s safe to say we all wish we had that friend — you know, that friend who's a chef. Every time you’d host a dinner party, your chef friend would be the first on the guest list, and you would secretly hope they brought some amazing dish(es) to share. Or maybe, you’d get invited to their house for a dinner party, and you’d get to bask in all the tasty glory of their culinary finesse.
My husband took me to Montana’s rustic utopia this weekend. Our motor carriage transported us from Billings over rivers, through pine forests and alongside mountains. In five hours we arrived at The Ranch at Rock Creek, an all-inclusive guest ranch outside of Philipsburg. Written directions were provided after we secured our reservations, but for my own assurance, I activated my phone’s GPS.
At the break of dawn, when life is emerging in Billings, Jan Boogman turns on the lights at Caramel Cookie Waffles. He begins the day making the caramel cookie stroopwafels he and his wife, Judy have been selling for the last 30 years.
The allure of Southwestern desert landscapes calls on my camera obsession each spring. The route I take to these southern excursions from my home in Whitefish is almost always Interstate 15 with a self-imposed pit stop at Exit 23. Being an aficionado of all things breakfast, I think sometimes I travel this stretch of lonely interstate just as an excuse to visit one of my all-time favorite eating establishments in Montana. Yesterday's Calf-A in tiny Dell has been serving up inexpensive, home-style cooking goodness since 1978 in a distinctive refurbished schoolhouse.
Jimmy Buffet was wrong when he said Ringling was “a dyin’ little town.” In fact, the Ringling Bar has become a go-to place not only for local ranchers, but for Montanans from as far away as Billings who have a craving for one of the best steaks in Big Sky Country, washed down with a cold one.
Dandelion greens, rosehips and sage. These ingredients take us home to Montana, under the Big Sky. Through an indigenous lens, Chef Sean Sherman is refocusing American cuisine. In his James Beard Foundation Award-winning book in the American Cookbook category, "The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen" co-authored with Beth Dooley, he is educating cooks to use food growing in their own surroundings.
Carter’s Brewery in Billings is in the running for the most innovative and adventurous brewery in the state. Though it’s nearly impossible to choose favorites among Montana’s 50-plus breweries — many of which are so good I selfishly hope word doesn’t get out so I can still get a seat at the bar — Carter’s manages to stand out from the crowd.
Nothing kicks off spring in Big Sky country like a road trip to eastern Montana. Back in the day — before marriage and kids — I wouldn’t think of missing a Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. Nowadays, during the third full weekend of May, instead of waking up and having bacon and eggs at the Range Riders Breakfast or enjoying a cheeseburger grilled to perfection at the Kiwanis BBQ in Riverside Park, I find myself on the sidelines of a soccer field in Bozeman, Helena or some other southwestern Montana town, cheering on my middle schoolers and wishing I was raising a glass while trailing Custer & the Seventh Calvary Drum and Bugle Corps as it winds its way through downtown Miles City.
While standing in a small pine forest off West Main Street in Bozeman, soft wet snow pelted down from the skies as winter edged into spring. I shivered as I entered through the yellow glass paneled door of Saffron Table. Once inside, upon first breath my head filled with savory aromas of cumin, ginger, and turmeric. The smell of spices jolted a refocus of my expectations.
Flipping through a recent issue of the Big Timber Pioneer, I noticed an ad for BBQ Night at Bill’s Place — a remote diner and catering business near Melville that occupies the former Big Sky Corner lunch counter and grocery store between Big Timber and Harlowton.
Festive vibes of Friday resounded at Lilac. On this night, Suzi Reitz and I celebrated our friend Sharon Forman’s birthday. Chatter and conversation surrounded us, amplifying our mood.
It’s a long and expensive plane ride to India or Tanzania. But if you want a taste of either country through their cuisine, look no further than Saibeen’s Kitchen in downtown Great Falls.
One of my favorite things about traveling is discovering unexpected treasures. I love driving down a small town’s main drag — in this case, Central Avenue in Sidney — and stumbling upon an eatery so hip and eclectic it would more likely be sandwiched between a swanky art gallery and a juice bar in Brooklyn or Portland than standing amid the hardware stores and insurance agencies of an eastern Montana prairie town.
I have great admiration for soft-spoken Lauren Oscilowski. While I’m no authority on gin and vodka, I’m immediately taken with her vodka, for the simple reason I know she has poured her best craftsmanship (and if you can bottle up love), into each batch of her spirits.
It’s 5 a.m., dark and very cold (-5), yet I’ve dragged my butt out of bed to rendezvous with Rocky Connell at Park Avenue Bakery in Helena. He greets me with a chuckle and says “you’re late.” Connell, who has been at the bakery since November 2017, starts his day at 3:30 a.m.
Visiting The Sweet Palace in downtown Philipsburg during summer months is a given. If I make the trip to the picturesque former mining town of just under 1,000 residents between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you can bet I’m stopping in for a Grizzly Paw (a 2 1/2-inch “paw” of hand-made vanilla caramel dipped in either milk or semi-sweet chocolate with split cashew “claws” and almond crunch and white chocolate “grizzle” swirled on top).
I craved comfort. As I turned the corner off Broadway in downtown Billings, kitty corner from the Northern Hotel, the wind pierced into my core. I pulled my coat closer and continued onto First Avenue North toward Rockets Gourmet Wraps & Sodas.
Few restaurants in Montana truly embrace the ambiance of the Old West, but the Horn and Cantle dining room at Lone Mountain Ranch has hit the mark.
After years of traveling, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really care for the bed and breakfast stay. I always feel a bit confined, as though I must tiptoe around another person’s space. The exception, without a doubt, is the Hidden Moose Lodge, tucked into the forested hillside just at the outskirts of Whitefish. The lodge is so inviting and popular that USA Today has named it "The Best Ski Hotel in North America" for the past two years.
On a crisp, long-shadowed Saturday morning, my husband and I jogged to Veronika’s Pastry Shop in historic downtown Billings. A train rumbled west as we traversed onto Montana Avenue. Inside the small bakery, marked by images of France’s Eiffel Tower and Russia’s Basil Cathedral on the front windows, half a dozen people huddled in line.
“Wisdom, Montana?” a friend snorts, wrinkling her nose when I tell her where we spent New Year’s Eve again. “Isn’t that tiny, remote town always making headlines for being the coldest spot in the nation? Why on earth would you want to spend your holiday there?”
I have an addiction to cake batter. This addiction started when I was a kid and my mom let me lick the beaters when she finished mixing up a cake. The only thing better than batter is eating a cupcake still warm from the oven. So it was no wonder that my eye went straight to the chocolate cupcakes at Cory Block Bakery. Between the plump, decadent cupcakes and the seductive smell of fresh bread, I already was quite fond of Cory Block Bakery when I first stepped into the building.
There are 135 juicy reasons to detour off I-90 into Drummond, and head straight to Parkers’ Restaurant. I had heard of this place with an outrageous number of hamburgers on the menu and was anxious to check it out for myself. I was not disappointed.
My friend Val Jeffries took me to SEVA Kitchen for lunch to celebrate my 60th birthday. At this time-marked stage in life, globally inspired cuisine only adds flavor and spice to my maturing palate.
My friend Sharon Forman and I drove 60 miles from Billings to Red Lodge the other night to have dinner at Ox Pasture, a restaurant featuring local produce and protein. Longtime residents of Montana warned me when I first moved here from California, nearly 18 years ago. They said Montanans are known to drive good distances for a night out.
I have come to believe that beyond Montana’s wealth of remarkable landscapes, it's the locals that make this state shine.
SULA — The Bitterroot Valley is stunning almost any time of the year, but right now, as the trees and shrubs light up the landscape with reds, yellows and golds, it is especially magnificent. It’s worth a drive from Missoula through Hamilton, Darby and Sula — even into Salmon, Idaho — just to enjoy this gorgeous fall display.
Whitefish is an energetic community that lives large and attracts a sizable number of visitors who are keen on outdoor adventure. With a destination ski area a few miles from town, Glacier National Park less than a 30-minute drive, hiking and biking trails galore, fishing in abundance, who wouldn’t want to go there? Add to this picture a bounty of eateries, bars and various businesses that rent out equipment for playing outdoors.
The community of Anaconda scored big when Heather and Keith Collins moved to the area. This innovative and energetic couple opened O'bella! in July 2017 in what was originally the KFC building on the east end of town. Their made-from-scratch Italian fare and pizza is in a word — scrumptious!
A quick look at the weather forecast the next week shows the usual mix of winter fare — some snow, a little sun, lots of clouds and warmish temperatures in the 30s. That’s January for you.
During my sister and her husband’s visit to Billings, I wanted to show them some beef. At lunchtime I herded them to The Burger Dive in downtown Billings.
HOT SPRINGS — It’s Saturday, and David Jamison — known locally as “Cotton” — has stopped in for lunch at the Camas Organic Market and Bakery. He’s a regular.
A stop at the Buckhorn Bar in Augusta for lunch or dinner will get you a whole lot more than tasty vittles. Whatever you order, your meal comes with a nice helping of fellowship, especially if this is your first visit to the Buckhorn. Rest assured, by the time you leave most everyone in the bar will know your story and what brought you to Augusta. It’s not about being nosy. It’s just the nature of how small towns in Montana roll — reaching out to welcome you into their world.
Bistro Enzo celebrated a birthday a few months ago. The restaurant has served up food in the Mediterranean-style building in the West End of Billings for 20 years. According to James Honaker, owner and executive chef, the unofficial date of the restaurant’s opening was Nov. 11, 1998. I went to the restaurant with my husband, and good friends Bill and Suzanne Smoot on the anniversary night. It was business as usual and I was not surprised, as Chef Honaker has always deflected attention.