By Seabring Davis
Montana is far from the cutting-edge restaurant scenes of New York, San Francisco or Paris. Yet just 80 miles north of Yellowstone National Park there is an unlikely banana belt of food and wine in an otherwise arid culinary climate. Linked by the Yellowstone River, four of Montana’s best eateries dot the landscape in Paradise Valley, Livingston and Big Timber.
It’s no coincidence that the Yellowstone is what links these fine restaurants. The famous fly-fishing opportunities and beauty of these waters attract fishers, writers, artists and celebrities as well as tourists. But the area has also become a haven for some of the state’s food pioneers, a handful of people who came here to stay during the 1970s and decided to bring their tastes in food with them.
Chico Hot Springs Resort, Paradise Valley
You could say that Montana’s restaurant scene began at Chico Hot Springs Resort when people began raving about the food there over 100 years ago. It started with a bowl of strawberries during the height of the Montana gold rush when Bill and Percie Knowles opened a modest boarding house near a natural hot spring. They catered to fortune-seeking miners who had grown weary of campfire meals and washing their clothes in the creek; the pair promised a slice of luxury amidst a rugged way of life. They offered a clean bed, a hot bath and fresh strawberries with every meal.
In time, they learned that folks will travel far for a good soak and a fine meal.
That’s still true today, thanks to Mike and Eve Art, who bought Chico in 1972. Their idea was to offer a menu exceptional enough to draw foodies from far and wide. Thus, they created a Montana icon—a place where people return year after year for the beef Wellington as much as for the soothing outdoor pools or the cozy atmosphere of the historic hotel.
“When we were just getting started I had to drive 200 miles to get fresh fish, but it was worth it just to offer something different,” recalls Mike Art with a smile.
Over the decades, the melding of modern culinary styles has improved upon Chico’s comfort-food roots. But Chico’s chef, Chris Clark, still relies on fresh ingredients from the year-round greenhouse and garden, as well as on local offerings of the area—Montana beef and lamb, farm-raised fowl, wild game and regional trout. Signature dishes on the menu reflect the traditional hearty tastes: rosemary rack of lamb, Grand Marnier roasted duckling, smoked trout. But there is also an element of refinement that has been integrated to bring out the richness of those basic foods: a pork loin chop stuffed with sun-dried cherry, walnut and cornbread stuffing; grilled venison served with a merlot vin rouge; pine nut-crusted halibut finished with a fresh fruit salsa and port wine butter sauce; baked brie served over Lingonberry and hollandaise sauces. An unparalleled wine list, which has garnered Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” for the past three years, balances the restaurant’s rich food. The result is a menu that is uniquely Montana—as appealing to a local rancher as to a Hollywood celebrity.
Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grill, Livingston
“When I came here 30 years ago there was nothing I would really call a restaurant,” claims Russell Chatham, renown landscape artist and owner of the Livingston Bar and Grill. “There were places you could go to find the biggest steak you’d ever seen and mounds of potatoes, but really good food and a glass of great wine were out of the question.”
In 1996 Chatham combined his passion for food and wine with his painting in the form of an elegant, upscale restaurant. With his stunning lithographs, which depict the sunsets, snowstorms and hayfields of Montana, showcased throughout the restaurant’s two dining rooms, the atmosphere is captivating, warm and luxurious. His dream was to open a place that would appeal to local gourmet palettes, offering cuisine with European influences—fresh seafood, rich sauces and classic preparations of duck confit, Poisson, and seviche. Chatham also prides himself on an unusual wine list, hand-selected from his own cellar.
Chatham is most often seen ambling through the dining room in baggy painter’s clothes, sipping a glass of Bordeaux or Spanish wine, stopping to greet customers during dinner. Behind the scenes is Chef Yuri Richards, who has made the artist’s dream a working reality.
“Prepare to be pleasantly surprised,” says Richards, who is inspired by old school French cuisine. He explains: “Our food is simple and fresh; we use the best ingredients available and we don’t muddy things up with a lot of fru fru.”
Martin’s Cafe, Livingston
Though upscale cuisine is the dominant trend here, Livingston offers a great blend of old and new. Martin’s Café, the town’s old-time, classic restaurant, serves a memorable biscuits and gravy, a mean chicken fried steak and offers an $8.99 prime rib night. Opened in the 1940s, this local favorite has stayed true to its American diner beginning. The vintage green Formica counter has faded from the scrape of a thousand old timers’ coffee mugs. On the wall behind the counter the fishing report lists conditions on area rivers.
At Martin's they don't serve espresso and the waitresses still call their customers "honey." You won’t find gourmet frills here, but you can choose from a daily selection of 10 different fresh baked pies. Breakfast is served all day and the rotating neon sign in the parking lot proclaims, “Just good food.”
Originally an all-night diner, Martin’s once catered to railroad workers, truckers and the after-the-saloon-closes crowd. Located next to Livingston's historic depot, the building is so close to the railroad tracks that the walls shake when trains pass through town. These days the restaurant is more of a family place, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner all week until 9 p.m.
“People appreciate good homemade food,” says Phalle Colvin, who owns the restaurant with her husband Joe, “They come in hungry and we feed them, it’s as simple as that.”
The Grand Hotel, Big Timber
There aren’t many restaurants where cattlemen, cowboys, sheepherders and miners will vacillate between the calamari tempura or the honey roasted duck breast with raspberry chipolte sauce.
“It’s contemporary Montana cuisine with some international touches—a little fusion, a little traditional,” explains owner Larry Edwards.
Edwards bought and renovated the landmark Grand Hotel 11 years ago and transformed the 1890 building from a dilapidated weekend roadhouse into a luxurious bed and breakfast. There are two sides to The Grand: the formal dining room; and the casual bar with an easy menu featuring burgers and sandwiches. Most regulars eat in both places and appreciate the diversity in their small town. Frequented by summer travelers and out-of-state hunters as much as locals, The Grand anchors this tiny town on the edge of the Crazy Mountains. It’s a gathering place where people can savor a great meal, cozy up to a drink at the bar and get the skinny on local gossip.
A self-taught chef, Edwards has a knack for blending decadent flavors without adding an extra layer that will overpower the natural taste of the food. Along with his head chef, Amy Smith, Edwards’ menu gives a respectful nod to Montana’s wild game as well as to Big Timber-raised lamb and beef. With a passion for eating and drinking, Edwards has a commitment to serving food that will keep customers returning night after night and year after year. It seems to be working. His wine list has been given the Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” and notable regulars like Tom Brokaw, Brent Mussberger and famous Italian winemaker Lodovico Antinori keep coming back to The Grand.