No conversation about Montana history is finished without talking about Carl Rowan (1909 – 1996). Mr. Rowan was the owner and chief cook and bottle washer of Gamer’s Café in the city of Butte from 1944 until 1993, when he finally retired and sold the restaurant.
Over that stretch of time Mr. Rowan likely met every person in Butte, and, for that matter, a huge swath of the citizens of Montana and points beyond. Guests entering Gamer’s Café were always greeted by the man himself, even before an order was placed. You can meet a ton of people over a lifetime, a few are memorable, most are not. Mr. Rowan falls in the former.
On a typical morning at the restaurant in the early 1990s, Carl took your order and served the meal. This was out of necessity since Carl was the only person on duty to take care of customers. By this time, Carl was 83 years old. But nothing slowed him down. He was on the job every day.
During his later years at Gamer’s, business was often slow on many days. Why? It is hard to say. On the plus side, with so few customers around, Carl always had lots of time to chat with customers. The Chief of the local division of the Montana Highway Patrol came in regularly. He likely knew that Carl’s days in the restaurant business were coming to an end. Anyway, the two men, one middle-aged, and Carl, now old, bonded. Other customers shared a close relationship with Carl, as well.
This was Carl, a friend of everyone. Noticing his big smile and cheerful disposition, customers could tell Mr. Rowan thrived on relationships. Not the fleeting kind but always enduring and so human and genuine.
Some may suggest that Mr. Rowan was a little on the eccentric side. More likely, Carl’s behavior can be understood as a reflection of his zeal for showmanship. Take for example, a common business practice in his restaurant. After Carl presented a customer with the check, the customer, if a regular, knew the next step in the process to complete the transaction. With Carl at some distance away behind the counter, the customer was expected to march to the cash register on the far end of the counter, open the cash drawer, make the correct change, and deposit the amount due. An honor system such as this could only survive in Carl Rowan’s world, Butte.
Carl likely heard a zillion stories from locals over his many years in the restaurant business. On one day, in the winter of 1992, a not so regular dropped in to share with Carl a photograph taken near the end of WWII in Italy. The elderly man from Butte, a veteran, was in Italy in 1945 and saw what had happened in the chaos in northern Italy at the end of the war. A photo no one would ever show to children for sure.
Every story has an element of mystery. Butte-Silver Bow had around 33,000 residents in the early 1990s. Yet, few showed up to dine at Gamer’s Café at least on weekday mornings during the fall and winter months. Why did Carl stay so long in Butte? He had talent and charisma that would have taken him far in other larger cities? Still, Carl stayed and was undaunted and satisfied. He enjoyed his job and above all he loved every customer who entered the front door of Gamer’s.
Nowhere is it recorded how many people showed up for Mr. Rowan’s funeral on a crisp fall morning in late October of 1996. Looking back on that day, if they did not go, they missed an opportunity to say a final farewell to a man who gave so much of himself to so many. Butte can be proud to claim Mr. Carl Rowan as a favorite son.
Chocolate candies, malts, and milk shakes are as good as motherhood and apple pie some may suggest. Combine this with special ambience and an old-time atmosphere, complete with booths and counter stools, and you have the Parrot Confectionery on Last Chance Gulch in downtown Helena, Montana.
The Parrot makes over 100 kinds of home-made, hand-dipped chocolates and caramels. Want a bowl of chili, they have it. This place will stir old memories and, as if on a time machine, take you be back to the 1950s and 1960s. The Parrot is way cool, Do NOT miss the Parrot during you next stay in Helena. MTbest™
Being a large city, Billings offers many great dining options. Bistecca at the Granary has the best food and atmosphere in Billings. The Granary’s bar is special and a delightful place to have a seat even if you only order a Coke. The Granary is open for lunch and evening dining and located in a quiet neighborhood on Poly Drive.
The City Vineyard is on Grand Avenue in far west Billings. This place is exceptional. Don’t miss! Sandwiches, salads and soups, desserts, and more. Try the “create your own meat and cheese board.” Great selection of Montana craft beers and wines are served.
City Vineyard sells a very large selection of quality wines. Deer Creek Field Medal cheese from Wisconsin and other treats found here too. Next door and adjoining City Vineyard is the City Brew Coffee shop. This is a very, very nice coffee shop. MTbest™
Harper and Madison is another top eatery in Billings. Pastries, desserts, sandwiches, salads, and locally roasted coffee are on the menu. Great breakfast menu. This restaurant is very popular with locals and is located near the hospital-Billings Clinic area north of downtown area. The setting is in a local neighborhood. Open Tuesday thru Friday (7:00 am – 2:00 pm), and Saturday (7:00 am thru 1:00 pm. casual surroundings. Great Harvest Bread is always another good choice.
Bratwursts, schnitzels, apple strudel and many tasty German foods are on the menu at Oktoberfest German Restaurant on Grand Avenue in west Billings. The food is authentic German. The restaurant’s owner is from Stuttgart. MTbest™
For an extra nice atmosphere and good prices dine at Jake’s restaurant downtown. For yummy seafood and ribs, try Montana’s Rib & Chop House on Majestic Lane in the far west end of Billings. Don’t miss McCormick Café’s sandwiches and fresh-baked goods. McCormick Cafe is on Montana Avenue downtown.
Meatloaf sandwiches just like you mom used to make are on the menu at The Fieldhouse restaurant in downtown Billing on Montana Avenue. The Fieldhouse has many other delicious foods too: Burrata (Benton’s ham, crouton, flathead cherry, sage); Lamb Bolognese (with orecchiette pasta, herbs, pecorino, shaved fennel salad); and many more savory temptations.
The 406 Kitchen & Taproom has a great location on north 27th Street, not far from downtown, the airport, and area colleges. On the menu Famous 406 nachos, halibut sandwich, are many more tasty delights. The atmosphere at 406 Kitchen & Taproom is very average but the kitchen has good hours of service.
The Burger Dive in downtown Billings is a favorite for a quick bite in casual surroundings. Great Harvest Bread is always another good choice.
To find dining in Bozeman, head for Main Street. Western Café on east Main Street is a favorite of locals. It’s easy to understand why. A Western Breakfast Sandwich (large biscuit, egg, cheese, ham and sausage OR bacon) cost all of $6.50. Management at The Nova Cafe claims to serve “the best breakfast in town.” Too boastful? Well go and find out. Starbucks coffee is served on west Main Street.
Don’t miss the Baxter Hotel. This establishment features Ted’s Montana Grille and the Bacchus Pub. As you leave the Baxter Hotel pick up some fine chocolates and other gourmet treats at the La Châatelaine Chocolat Co.
Plonk Wine Bozeman on east Main Street has, what else, a great selection of premium wines. Top shelf red is a bottle of 2014 Mommessin Monopole Grand Cru Clos de Tart, Morey St-Denis, only $495. More budget friendly is a 2016 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, $42. Cocktails served too. Plonk serves tasty cuisine, often prepared from products sourced from local farms and ranches. Beef tartare and pan roasted chick breast are favorites on the menu. A special ambience makes Plonk Wine a most satisfying experience.
Blackbird Kitchen is a Bozeman dining place on everyone’s list of top restaurants. You know the cuisine great when management advertise “happy local organic wood fired casual dining.” On the menu: goat shank, beef sirloin, spaghetti and meatballs, and a large selection of delicious pizzas. Find a super wine list here. If your taste is birra, order Kloster-Andechs Weissbier Heil or Propolis Brewing Spruce.
bisl offers another fine dining experience in Bozeman. As with Plonk Wine locally sourced ingredients are used when possible. Montana Short Rib and Scallop run about $31. Enjoy your meal with wine or beer, carefully selected from local, national, and international sources. bisl is on east Main Street.
Italian cuisine is the regular fare at Blacksmith Italian restaurant. The Open Range is another restaurant with great reviews. Dining at the Bay Bar & Grille is convenient while shopping at the Gallatin Valley Mall. Other good dining options are: Squire House, Urban Kitchen, South 9th Bistro, and Seven Sushi.
Missoula restaurants and bars are tops. Most of the best restaurants and bars are concentrated along a five-block section of Higgins Avenue, a major north-south artery though the downtown area. The Shack Cafe is a good choice for breakfast, lunch and evening dining. For fresh pastries, breads, and desserts, don’t miss Bernice’s Bakery.
The Iron Horse Brew Pub sells every beverage imaginable, plus has good food, especially sandwiches. The Iron Horse Brew Pub rocks even on weekdays. Tasty sandwiches and veggies are served at Worden’s Market and Deli. Tamarack Brewing (downtown) is a popular sports pub with a low-key, dining experience on the upper level.
The Pearl Café is open for upscale dining. Try the “Boneless trout with Dungeness crab,” cost a mere $29. The menu at Caffe Dolce lists house-made pasta, pizza, salmon, lamb burger and more. Wines are from Italy, France, and Spain. Red Bird at 111 N. Higgins offers upscale dining. Scotty’s Table has tasty delights, local meat, produce, and grains for an exceptional dining experience.
Plonk Wine Missoula on Higgins Avenue has, what else, a great selection of premium wines. Top shelf red is a bottle of 2009 Domaine Clerget Echezeaux Burgundy, only $320. More budget friendly is a 2013 Tangent Grenache Blanc, Edna Valley, $32. Cocktails served too. Plonk serves tasty cuisine, often prepared from products sourced from local farms and ranches. Alaskan halibut, $32. and grilled local bone-in park chops, $25., are favorites on the menu. A special ambience makes Plonk Wine a most satisfying experience.
Great Falls has many good dining spots. Tops is the Celtic Cowboy in the Hotel Arvon in downtown Great Falls. The Celtic Cowboy is a pub and restaurant. On the Menu for breakfast try “Scotch Eggs” for $9 or Irish Porridge (Irish oatmeal) $6. For lunch try their Celtic Burger (ground bison or elk, with cheese, tomato, and slaw) $15. A favorite for dinner is Irish Whiskey Glazed Salmon, $24.
On the pub side, the Celtic Cowboy offers about 35 craft beers made in Montana. Go for a craft beer or to dine, the Celtic Cowboy is an amazing place. MTbest™
Dante’s Creative Cuisine has a nice atmosphere and, according to management, offers “casual [dining] elegance in the heart of Great Falls, Montana. Perfect steaks and prime rib, delicious seafood entrees, southwestern specialties and delectable desserts make us hard to resist!” On the menu, Manicotti Italiano, $18.95, Chicken Milano, $19.95, Charbroiled Salmon, $28.95, and Grilled Ribeye, $29.95. A great selection of wine, beer, and spirits here, too.
Wheat Montana Bakery and Deli makes delightful sweet baked goods, soups and salads, and sandwiches. Made from the best Montana ingredients. Great Harvest Bread is always a good choice. JB’s Restaurant is a family dining restaurant near major shopping areas and the city’s main mall.
Restaurants are plentiful in Helena. Those who like superior Italian cuisine and good wine dine at Lucca’s on Last Chance Gulch. Exceptional service here.
For other upscale dining, try The Wassweiler Dinner House & Pub. Pan Seared Salmon with creamy goat cheese couscous, tomato, mushroom, sweet corn, spinach, and lemon caper beurre blanc is on the menu at $34. Drive a short distance west of Helena on U.S. Highway 12 to arrive at the Wassweiler.
For a good wine selection and splendid cuisine, many dine at On Broadway near the downtown. The Brewhouse Pub & Grille in the Great Northern Town Center, a few blocks north of the downtown area, is very popular.
The Parrot Confectionery, located downtown on Last Chance Gulch, opened in 1922 and serves famous chili, malts, and milk shakes. Best of all you can try over 100 kinds of home-made, hand-dipped chocolates and caramels. This place has an old-time atmosphere, sort of like out of the 1950s. A neat spot if you have a sweet tooth.
Try Steve’s Café for the best breakfast. For tasty coffee, tea, baked treats, and lunch in Helena try Hub Coffee on Last Chance Gulch downtown. Great Harvest Bread is always a good choice. The Grub-Stake, a few miles north of Helena on I-15, is an interesting hang out for locals.
For upscale dining in Kalispell, try Jagz Fine Dining. A full pound center cut ribeye, char-grilled and topped with bourbon onion sauce goes for $32.95. The Desoto Grill is wildly popular too. The Desoto Grill serves BBQ, sandwiches, desserts, and beer. A smoked chicken sandwich, $12.25. Banana pudding, $4.75. Yum!
The Montana Club restaurant is in the downtown area just off Main Street. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For this reason, the Montana Club is a good choice. Sometimes it’s hard to find a restaurant that serves breakfast.
The Carbon County Steakhouse on Main Street has a wonderful dining atmosphere and cuisine is first-rate. A large wine selection is served. This is upscale dining Red Lodge, so don’t look at prices on the menu.
Locals and visitors enjoy tasty cuisine at the Carbon Fork Restaurant in downtown Red Lodge. Try their Huckleberry ice cream for dessert, so good. There’s a lot to love at the Carbon Fork. Foster & Logan’s Pub & Grill on Main Street is another spot to have a good meal. A special at Foster and Logan’s is a Folo’s Dog, a 1/4 pound all beef hot dog with extras for only $7.95. Bogart’s serves a variety of Mexican food.
For a tradition pub atmosphere, go to the Snag Bar. A beer at the Snag goes for $3.00, a burger $8.00. A pool table and a few video gaming machine attract some visitors to the Snag Bar.
The Rock Creek Resort (1-800-667-1119) is located a few miles south of Red Lodge on U.S. Highway 212. The nearby Old Piney Dell Restaurant and Bar is a favorite dining spot for locals. The restaurant has a very rustic setting, along the banks of Rock Creek.
Popular wisdom says, if you want to eat at good cafes with best prices go where the locals go. Even while travelers and tourists occasionally want to seek out fine dining in new cities, at times just a great meal is all that’s wanted. A few good cafes in Montana come to mind: In Helena, Steve’s Cafe; in Bozeman, Western Cafe; in Missoula, Burns Street Bistro; and in Billings, Stella’s Kitchen & Bakery
Price comparisons are interesting. For example bacon, eggs, and biscuit/toast cost:
Steve’s Cafe, Helena: $7.95
Western Cafe, Bozeman: $6.50
Burns Street Bistro, Missoula: $9.00
Stella’s Kitchen & Bakery, Billings: $9.65
Tourists are usually unfamiliar with local communities, so finding the best cafes can be elusive. Hey you can always pay more. The Shack Restaurant in Missoula quoted $13.00. Asking a local on the street corner or a clerk in a store often points the way. Another clue is to watch where local policemen dine. As a tourist, you don’t want to turn this search into a science. But money saved on dining can leave more cash for other fun things.
*data from phone interviews March, 2, 2019 or from online menu
Montana Farmers’ markets sell mainly to locals, but travelers and tourists can find some very good fresh fruits and vegetables at these places too. Farmers’ markets are located in most major Montana cities.
Think of food from local Farmers’ markets as an alternative to dining out for three meals a day. Sure Montana has many great restaurants, but travelers and tourists can save money and get great nutrition at the same time when buying food at farmers’ markets. That you help independent farmers make a little extra money is nice as well.