By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1994 Gourmet Magazine
Butte, Montana, isn’t chic and it isn’t pretty. Some people think of it as plumb ugly, “uncontested as Montana’s most unattractive city,” one state guidebook says, referring to its ore dumps and mine spoils, and to the forsaken hills stripped bare except for the gallows frames of mines—remains of more prosperous times. Butte is a contrast to the Edenic landscape that has attracted people to Montana since the Crow Indians arrived early in the seventeenth century, but it does have its own kind of brutish allure. Its uptown section is a meaty relic of boom days when the underground wealth seemed endless, altered in recent decades only in the way the old brick buildings’ once radiant painted signs have faded in the sun and dust has settled in some abandoned storefront windows. The last of the old-time brothels closed in 1982, but this vintage western cityscape has never suffered the dishonor of planned renewal or bland gentrification. You’ll find none of the celebrities who have made the Gallatin and Paradise valleys in the southernmost part of the state into a scene (i.e., Whoopi, Jane and Ted); and few summer interlopers dilute its steadfast High Plains character.
When it comes time to eat, Butte has plenty to offer: Wild West Americana—on a bun, with the works—and meals that taste of life a century ago, when immigrants came to work the copper mines and smelteries of the mile-high, mile-deep city. San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle might be the West’s culinary darlings, but Butte, Montana, is its diamond in the rough. In the very, very rough.
Banqueting in Butte isn’t the Big Sky state’s only culinary lure. Besides the supreme dining pleasure of a panful of buttered rainbow trout cooking over a campfire by the upper Beaverhead River, Montana also boasts Kalispell, where cafés wage war for pie supremacy; Ennis, where Jay and Karen Bentley’s Continental Divide restaurant is the connoisseur’s mecca; and Great Falls, where Eddie’s is revered for its archetypical supper club ambiance (gold flecks in the red vinyl upholstery) and blue-ribbon beefsteaks. Montana is huge, and the memorable places are far apart, but their scarcity makes them all the more noteworthy. So before we mine Butte’s treasures, here are a few bright spots around the state for the little black books of adventurous eaters.
STELLA’S KITCHEN AND BAKERY, Billings. A “small” cinnamon roll, made with whole-wheat flour, is a stout spiral packed with raisins and cinnamon sugar, its speckled wheaty dough warm and tender, glistening on top with sugar frosting. A “large” one nearly fills the nine-inch pie tin in which it is presented. Caramel rolls are similar, but made with white flour and enveloped in sticky, mahogany-colored glaze. “Monster cakes” —twelve-inch flapjacks—come with what Stella Ziegler calls “floatum syrup,” a homemade maple and vanilla blend designed to coat the cakes rather than make them soggy. The monster cakes were put on the menu, Stella says, when “I had a cook who simply could not make a small pancake. So we gave up, made larger cakes, and raised the price.” You have your choice of buttermilk, wheat, apple and cinnamon, blueberry, or blueberry wheat; one costs $1.75, four are $4, and, if you eat them all, you get a free cinnamon roll. Also not to be missed is the sourdough bread, made from a hundred-year-old starter. Actually, this is Stella’s second sourdough culture. The first, itself very old and from Reno, Nevada, was lost when an inexperienced kitchen helper took a whiff of the fermenting stuff in the ten-gallon bucket and emptied it down a drain.
THE WINCHESTER CAFE in the Murray Hotel, Livingston. Hip Montana has gravitated to the Murray Hotel for decades. It is charmingly decrepit; its lobby and dining room are hung with Parks Reece cowboy-surrealist art (a cowboy on a buffalo riding a trout); and its bar has long been the place where local ranchers, literary lights, and highway wanderers have gathered to socialize, philosophize, and raise hell. The cafe’s dining room, located off the lobby, is civilized and polite: a flowery rug on the floor, a wine list that fills two sides of a piece of parchment paper limp from handling, and a plastic-sheathed menu that offers turkey Oscar, shrimp “scampi,” and pasta. The trout is everything it ought to be in angler’s paradise—chunky-fleshed, sweet and moist, and gilded with maitre d’hôtel butter. One special, rack of lamb, came under a rich sauce made from local huckleberries.
THE RANCH KITCHEN, Corwin Springs. We arrived at this rustic, family-style restaurant about three in the afternoon. Only one other couple was eating. Ethereal background music reminded us of what a serious masseuse might play. “Ooooo, it’s good,” volunteered the white-haired tourist lady at the table as we passed, pointing to a half-devoured serving of coconut cake with orange-peach sauce. “We’re from Iowa,” her husband added, spooning up tapioca pudding. “Best meal this side of Yellow-stone.” It is good food—sandwiches on tweedy whole-grain bread or fruit-sweetened sweet rolls; hearty soups; pastas; stir-fries; and elegantly crusted pies. Such nutritionally enlightened fare is rare in restaurants in this part of the world, the sign of an unusual culinary consciousness. Only if you stop next door at the Cinnabar General Store and browse through the book section is it apparent that The Ranch Kitchen does indeed have a different slant on life. Like everything for miles around in Paradise Valley, it is owned and operated by Elizabeth Claire Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant, a religion that obviously believes in eating well right up until the apocalypse.
The WESTERN CAFE in Bozeman. This cowboy hash house has been operated for the last twenty years by Dick and Alice Mierva, who inherited its prized recipe for cinnamon rolls from the former owner. Dick is proud to say he hasn’t changed a thing. “How long has it been since you’ve seen knotty pine this nice?” he gloats, pointing to his walls. One summer morning, every customer in the crowded cafe was wearing jeans; some had cowboy hats, others wore the farmer’s favorite: billed “Cat” hats. The large Formica tables were occupied by locals and sportsmen holding coffee klatches to discuss weather, fishing, politics, and last night’s scores. The counter was packed, too, its surface worn bare at uniform intervals on either side of each stool, where customers have rested their elbows for years. Those knotty-pine walls have become a bonanza of roadside cafe hokum: a buck’s head with sunglasses, cap, scarf, and pipe; many stuffed fish; the proverbial mounted jackalope; a sign saying “Cows May Come and Cows May Go, But the Bull in Here Goes on Forever”; and another one announcing “T-Bone: $2.95, With Meat $8.” Also, there’s a picture of Michael Keaton (a regular) and hundreds of business cards thumbtacked to the wall. Other than the good cinnamon rolls, the thing to eat here is pie. In a state where pies are the pride of every town cafe, the Western’s are out-standing. Timed by baker Annie Robinson to be carried hot from the kitchen at the end of the lunch hour are magnificent meringues, dense fruit pies, and custard. The custard pie, when it is still slightly warm at one o’clock, is eggy, aromatic, jiggling precariously, and oh-so-sweet.
Now, for the best of Butte. The place to go is uptown, the historic district to the north, where timeworn brick and stone buildings still bear long-ago advertisements for smokes, fireproof hotel rooms, a saddlery, and a dining room called The Bronx. Several signs in the neighborhood herald pork chop sandwiches, a local specialty since the 1920s. Pork chop sandwiches are now sold in many Montana restaurants, but the cognoscenti’s source is a hole-in-the-wall on West Mercury called PORK CHOP JOHN’S, where it is said the pork chop sandwich was invented. Although minuscule, John’s is easy to spot by its sign—three smiling humanoid chops named Wholesome, Healthful, and Delicious. The sandwiches are patties of ground pork, breaded and fried to a crisp, and served “loaded,” meaning topped with pickle chips, mustard, and onions. (Mayo, cheese, and ketchup are also available, but must be specified.) These sandwiches are a savory splurge. Enjoy them at John’s small counter or at one of three tables on the sidewalk, from which you have a view of the long-defunct Gus’s Lunch, the even longer-gone Mai Wah Noodle Parlor, and China Alley, a cramped back street that was the heart of Butte’s once-thriving (but now extinct) Chinatown.
There is one last flickering small sign in China Alley, however, on a second floor, for the PEKIN NOODLE PARLOR; and, if you walk through the narrow thoroughfare in the late afternoon, you will hear kitchen clatter and smell won tons frying. Around the front, on South Main Street, the orange neon “Chop Suey” sign flashes on at precisely 5 P.M. when the door is unlocked. Up an eerie, bare flight of stairs lit by a single lantern, you find yourself in an authentic Chinese-American eatery reminiscent of a set from D. W. Griffith’s melodramatic Broken Blossoms, except here the film’s hoary wood interior is painted salmon pink. There is a lounge for cocktails (the local favorite is a “ditch” —Montanese for whiskey and water) and a few long banquet tables up front, overlooking the street, but most dinner parties are seated in back at their own rickety table in one of about a dozen curtained cubicles on either side of a center aisle. When the food comes from the kitchen, it is announced by the rumble of the waitress’s rolling trolley along the wood plank floor; the curtain whisks aside, and behold! Here is a vista of food the likes of which most devotees of big city Asian cookery forgot about forty years ago. Chop suey and chow mein are mild, thick, and harmless; fried shrimp are girdled in breading and served on lettuce leaves with French fried potatoes; sweet-and-sour ribs drip pineapple-flavored syrup; and the house specialty—noodles—comes in a shimmering clear broth with chopped scallions. Get the noodles plain or accompanied by a bowl of pork, beef, or chicken topped with half a hard-boiled egg.
The greatest scenic attraction in Butte, other than the Berkeley Pit (the largest open-pit mine in America), is the M&M BAR AND CAFE. The storefront exterior is spectacular—chrome, like a diner’s, with a dazzling neon sign looming over the street—but it’s the inside that will take your breath away. Not because it is beautiful—it is not—but because it will hurl you into an exhilarating world of frontier brawn and energy. The place is a fluorescent-lit, high-ceilinged cavern of a tavern, big and noisy and weathered by decades of use. As you enter, to the left is the consummate drinking person’s bar, its stools occupied by a clientele of regulars and irregulars including part-time cowboys, old-time miners, frocked priests, and winners and losers—their faces a stunning group portrait of a town long ago known as the Richest Hill on Earth. In the back of the M&M is gambling: keno and poker. Aside from “Texas Hold’ em” poker at the tables, the gambling is done mostly on video machines, but the microchips and boinging electronic sounds are simply swallowed up by this compelling place and in no way intrude on its battered majesty.
At the right is the lunch counter, where customers eat giant ground-round hamburgers with lanky French fries, husky slabs of liver ‘n’ onions, hot roast beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes, or a spaghetti special for which noodles are fetched from a holding tank where they have swollen to maximum bulk, topped with strong red sauce, and accompanied by a quarter chicken roasted to a fare-thee-well. Thursday is pasty day at the M&M, when steaming behemoth baked dough crescents filled with beef, potatoes, and onions come under a surge of brown gravy with a cup of vegetable soup and thick, cream-style cole slaw. Service is diner-fast-and-friendly, and prices are rock-bottom; regulars simply sign their lunch checks and pay at the end of the month.
Charlie Bugni, who has run the M&M for the last twenty-six years, and who sold newspapers in the cafe when he was a boy, told us that Sunday is his favorite day of the week. “After church, people wait in line,” he said. “We even serve them at the bar on Sunday. Prime rib, baked ham, turkey dinner, and I just got some fine lamb from the 4-H’ers, so we’ll be having leg of lamb and chops this Sunday.” Shirley Knoell, who has been an M&M waitress for twenty-two years (“I come with the building,” she says), prefers Mondays because of the five-and-a-half-dollar T-bone special. “You come on Monday for steak, be here. You count on it,” she promises. “I love that T-bone.” Shirley knows all the regulars. Dressed in a flowered shirt and purple pants, her hair neatly styled and her makeup flawless, she keeps a running patter with at least half a dozen customers at once: “Hi, Tom, how are you today? .. . Gravy on that pasty? . . . Ketchup with those fries? . . . Put your name there now and pay the piper later.” When it began in 1890, as “Martin & Mosby,” the M&M stayed open twenty-four hours, seven days a week, because the mines operated non-stop. To this day it has no lock and it never closes—a survivor of Butte when it was a flourishing round-the-clock metropolis.
If it isn’t Thursday and you want a pasty, we suggest NANCY’S PASTY SHOP, a yellow but of a building overlooking the Berkeley Pit. Pasties, of course, are a miner’s meal originally brought to America by quarry-men from Cornwall, and so they are a staple here, and arguably one of the state’s signature dishes. There are several reputable places to eat them in town, including Joe’s and Gamer’s, but Nancy’s are superb. Huge, with a lush crust that cleaves into see-through flakes if you rub it in your fingers, each pasty weighs at least a couple pounds and is loaded with a mouth-watering, onion-scented mélange of coarse-cut beef and little chunks of potato. Not only are they simple and delicious foods, easily eaten out of hand, they are an edible tradition—an authentic taste of the West’s mining history.
Lest you think that all of Butte’s dining rooms are exhibits in a living museum of antique foodways, allow us to recommend the UPTOWN CAFE. Begun nine years ago by Susan Phillips, Barbara Kornet, and Guy Graham, this bistro offers not only classic beef Wellington and coquilles Saint-Jacques but also such up-to-date cuisine as grilled citrus-marinated halibut and chicken breasts with artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes. When we stopped in, Susan was busy making pesto, as she had just received a batch of good basil; Guy was planning the nightly specials that included seared tuna with mango and ginger salsa and salmon on a julienne of summer vegetables; and Barbara guided us through the cafe’s printed monthly lunch calendar, which ranges from chicken potpie to pasta puttanesca and Thai beef stir-fry. We delighted in a grandmotherly sausage onion soup, turkey Devonshire with a zesty twice-baked potato casserole, and desserts such as a drop-dead delicious chocolate rum pound cake, creamy Bavarian apple tart, and an intensely fresh black raspberry pie. It is easy to understand why, even in winter when it’s fifty below zero, customers sometimes drive from Red Lodge (227 miles—no big deal in Montana) for these extraordinary meals.
We asked Guy Graham if we had tasted everything great that Butte had to offer, and he said we couldn’t leave town without visiting MATT’S PLACE. Pristine and prettily white, Matt’s is a vest-pocket drive-in restaurant that celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last summer. It is tiny inside, no room for tables—just a short curved counter and an ancient, bright red, waist-high Coca-Cola machine, the kind in which the green glass bottles tinkle when you pry open the top to fetch one. Two grandiose illuminated photographs of Montana scenery decorate the paneled walls like magic picture windows on a pastoral vista excavated long ago in the search for gold and copper. The soda fountain behind the counter is fully equipped with six wands for blending milk shakes, dispensers for syrup, and three tall seltzer spouts. The menu features root beer floats, ice-cream sodas, malted milks, nut sundaes, and pop from the fountain (70 cents) or in a bottle (90 cents); hot-food items include chili con carne, pork chop sandwiches, and all sorts of burgers, including a “Wimpy special” (two patties on one bun) and a hamburger with an egg on top.
The food is fine, but what is most remarkable about Matt’s Place is its ambiance. No jukebox plays, there is no music at all—in fact the mood around suppertime is as calm as a tearoom’s. In the back kitchen, burgers sizzle slowly on a grill; and at the counter, a few stools away from us, a quartet of elderly Butte ladies with immaculately coiffed hair converse in gentle tones as they each pack away a pork chop sandwich, loaded, with heaps of French fries. “Poor Grace, she just can’t seem to get ahead,” one reflects, gripping her hefty sandwich by its wax-paper wrapper in one hand while drawing a French fry through a puddle of ketchup with the other. The lady on the next stool blots her lips with a napkin and agrees. “Her washing machine can’t be ten years old, and it’s broken already.”
A third customer, the most senior of the quartet, simply shakes her head and “tsk-tsks” in agreement, too focused on her meal to say anything just now. She carefully pours a second helping of her shake into a glass from its icy silver beaker. It is a strawberry milk shake, thick and foamy; she takes a hearty draft, then sets the glass down, smiling with a little milk-shake mustache. She and her three comrades and their loaded pork chop sandwiches and pink milk shakes in Butte, Montana, are a sweet counter scene we won’t soon forget.
M&M Bar and Cafe
Nancy’s Pasty Shop
Pekin Noodle Parlor
Pork Chop John’s
The Ranch Kitchen (permanently closed)
Corwin Springs, Montana
The Winchester Cafe Murray Hotel (permanently closed)
201 West Park