High spirits on the culinary trail from Butte to Missoula
After kicking off our southwestern Montana culinary road trip in Bozeman, we headed northwest to continue discovering more of the area’s traditional and innovative cuisine and spirits.
Bozeman to Butte (85 miles)
Fine spirits and good eats
The picturesque town of Butte is aptly named for the steep hill upon which its historic downtown (appropriately called “uptown”) sits with old mining era buildings lining the streets to the top. Visible on Butte’s landscape are 14 iconic headframes, remnants of the town’s rich mining history. These steel structures straddled mine shafts and were used to lower workers, mules, and equipment into the mines and to bring up loads of ore.
21 S. Montana Street
Headframe Spirits, a key player in the micro-distillery industry, takes its name from the iconic mining structures. Since opening in 2012, its innovative and business-savvy owners, John and Courtney McKee, have been producing spirits with advanced technology (a “continuous flow” distillation process) while honoring the historical roots of Butte. Numerous historical artifacts are on display in the tasting room which has the original hand-laid marble tile floor from the building’s days as Butte’s first Buick dealership. Each spirit in their product line is named for one of the key mines of Butte’s past with related images on the labels from the World Museum of Mining’s archives: Neversweat Bourbon Whiskey, Anselmo Gin, Destroying Angel (one of the four mining lodes directly beneath the distillery), High Ore Vodka, and Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur (a portion of the proceeds from Orphan Girl sales are donated to the World Museum of Mining).
2301 South Montana Street
Muzz and Stan’s Freeway Tavern is a great spot for mingling with the locals (one of whom is Evel Knievel’s son, a Butte native) and for getting a taste of good, old-fashioned saloon fare. A must-have food experience in Butte is a breaded and fried pork chop sandwich, for which residents are quite fond and zealously loyal to their favorite eatery. Having only tried the Freeway Tavern’s “Wop Chop”, I can’t make a claim to how it rates among the others, but it was delicious and I would definitely go back there for another. Pabst Blue Ribbon is wildly popular in this part of Montana, but a Sam Adams paired nicely with my sandwich.
Activity tip: If you’re visiting between Memorial Day and the end of September, take the Trolley tour operated by the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce. The tour highlights many historic landmarks in town and hear the interesting and entertaining stories about the town’s famous and colorful past residents. There is also a stop at a viewing stand to see the Berkeley Pit, a large open-pit copper mine started in 1955 and closed in 1982.
Butte to Philipsburg (55 miles)
Brews, food, and fun
About 55 miles northwest of Butte, mostly along a scenic two-lane road, is the quintessential small silver mining town of Philipsburg, first settled in 1866 as a trading center for the area. The town was selected by the governor of the state as Montana’s first “Tourism Community of the Year” and has been recognized as one of the “Prettiest Painted Places” in the United States.
101 W. Broadway
Philipsburg Brewing, one of Montana’s newest craft breweries, has an ideal corner location in a historic bank building constructed in 1888. It is a warm and welcoming place with bright open architecture, where locals and visitors chat and imbibe in lagers and ales made using Montana malt and local mountain spring water. Adding to the feeling of being in a western town of days gone by, there were two women dressed in period costumes greeting customers in a promotion for the upcoming Prospector Ball (July 2015).
Silver Mill Restaurant
128 E. Broadway
From Philipsburg Brewery we crossed Broadway Street and went up a block to reach the cozy and rustic Silver Mill Restaurant which opened in 2012. Located in a registered historic building, it still has the original brick walls and hardwood floors, and a restored stamped copper ceiling.
Our dinner included a delicious and hearty steak and potatoes dish as you might expect to find in a Southwest Montana town. The surprise was in the nice wine list as well as diverse starters and other entrées of fresh seafood and pasta dishes. Chef Tony’s culinary training and passion go back to growing up in his family’s Italian restaurant business in New York State.
The Sweet Palace
109 E. Broadway
Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth, The Sweet Palace is a fun place for seeing the huge inventory of this old-fashioned candy store. If you do have a sweet tooth, you’ll have no shortage of goodies to choose from with 50 kinds of fudge, 72 flavors of saltwater taffy, 20 varieties of caramels and an assortment hard candies including a colorful spectrum of candy sticks.
Activity tip: Visit Sapphire Gallery at 115 E. Broadway where it’s fun to do indoor mining by sifting through a bag of stones looking for sapphires. We found several beauties. The shop can also appraise, heat treat, and facet your new gems to be ready to wear.
103 W. Broadway
Restored in 2003, each of the eclectic rooms and suites at the Broadway Hotel is decorated uniquely with vintage furnishings. Except for the updated Jacuzzi and bathroom, I felt like our room, Las Palomas (the inn’s honeymoon room), perfectly represented a room of fine inns of days gone by. And the Philipsburg Brewery is right downstairs — an added bonus!
Philipsburg to Superior (130 miles)
Burgers and brews
Superior is a small town of about 800 people in an area of Montana well-known for recreational activities such as horseback riding, hiking, fishing, and whitewater rafting. We spent a wonderful couple of hours horseback riding with Rugg’s Outfitting through the hills and meadows of the area. But before the ride, we got to enjoy a special Montana food experience — a BBQ lunch at a gorgeous setting on the Clark Fork River. Ray Rugg owner of Rugg’s Outfitting and one of our trail guides, grilled up local beef burgers (and a salmon filet for my pescatarian husband) for our group. Dunluce Brewing provided four of their tasty craft beers as the perfect accompaniment for our lunch.
Superior to Paradise (38 miles)
After driving 38 miles (mostly on the St. Regis-Paradise Scenic Byway) from Superior, we reached Paradise. Paradise seems like a well-chosen name reflecting the gorgeous scenery all around, but some historians believe that the name is derived from “Pair O’ Dice,” which was the name of a roadhouse on the old trail through here.
Quinn’s Hot Springs
190 Quinn’s Canyon Road, Route 135
We found a heavenly combination of fine food, wine, and accommodations at Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort. I loved our spacious cabin, one of 13 luxury cabins just opened in 2013 facing the Clark Fork River and a railway running along the banks on the other side. Before dinner, we spent some time on the swing watching the occasional train passing by while breathing in the fresh mountain air.
The Harwood House dining room dates back to 1948 and features a warm and welcoming fireplace. Steaks, seafood, and prime rib are specialties, but the menu also includes Montana favorites such as wild game meatloaf made with buffalo, elk, & ground beef. I couldn’t resist the sirloin which was nicely paired with a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a dry Italian red wine produced by Cantina Zaccagnini. The steak was so juicy and flavorful that I devoured it and the accompanying fresh asparagus without taking a photo. After dinner, we relaxed in the mineral hot springs pool, one of six soaking and swimming pools on the property.
Paradise to Missoula via Ravalli (70 miles)
Road trip tip: Instead of taking the same route back southwest to Missoula from Paradise, we took a beautiful stretch of Montana Highway 200 east partially along the Flathead River that looped south through the Flathead Indian Reservation. There was a special culinary treat to enjoy on the way.
Ravalli is home to just over 100 people, but don’t miss stopping here along the way (about half way between Paradise and Missoula). Just be hungry when you arrive.
Windmill Village Bakery
Open March through December
David and Nancy Martin are the friendly owners and bakers at Windmill Village Bakery. In this picture-perfect setting next to a peaceful pond and the namesake windmill, they turn out fresh doughnuts, pastries, and pies every day. We had a few bites of their specialty pecan sticky buns, but the big draw is their potato-based doughnut which we tasted right out of the fryer.
Home to the University of Montana, Missoula is a bustling small city of 85,000 people with a youthful vibe in its historic downtown with many shops, restaurants and cultural venues.
Clark Fork Market, Missoula Farmers Market, People’s Market
Various locations on Higgins Street
Every Saturday from May through October
The markets of Missoula are lively and full of freshness, hand-crafted products, art, and entertainment. There was a wealth of organic produce, baked goods, fresh cut flowers, jams, and honey. I was particularly impressed with more unusual offerings such as Wild Alaska Seafood (salmon, halibut and scallops); local beef, lamb and pork; artisan specialties like Camelina Gold, an oil made that is high in Omega 3’s and low in saturated fatty acids; and Silk Road’s locally made, but globally inspired, spice blends.
Plonk Wine Bar
322 N. Higgins Ave
A college town in western Montana might not evoke visions of an upscale wine bar with gourmet cuisine and artistic decor, but that’s exactly what Plonk Wine Bar offers. Our group sampled several beautifully presented and prepared dishes, fine wines, and cocktail creations while enjoying the bar’s eclectic music collection.
241 W. Main St
I love many styles of pizza and dinner at Biga Pizza was a big treat where you can watch the pies being made and baked in the brick oven of the open kitchen. Locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients are found in their nice selection of homemade antipasto plates, salads, pizzas, and other items. Our group shared several pizzas, but my favorite was the mushroom & arugula pizza shown below (portabella and button mushrooms, herbed mascarpone, roasted garlic, mozzarella, fresh arugula, cherry tomatoes and herb oil).
Big Dipper Ice Cream
631 S. Higgins Ave
I believe that pizza and ice cream are always a good idea. So it was a welcome bonus to the evening to get dessert at Big Dipper Ice Cream, our final Montana food experience. Big Dipper has received many accolades in media such as being recognized as one of America’s Best by Food and Wine Magazine and mentions on Good Morning America. We waited in line for about 15 minutes (not uncommon on a weekend evening) to place our order, and it was well worth the wait for their homemade ice cream which is available in cones, sundaes, floats, shakes and by the pints and quarts.
Activity tip: The Clark Fork River runs right through Missoula and the Blackfoot and Bitterroot Rivers run nearby, making it a popular year-round destination for fly fishing, rafting, kayaking, and other water sports. In between eating and drinking experiences, we went on a fun and exciting kayak excursion on the Clark Fork River with Montana River Guides.
Now that you’ve heard about some of the diverse and delicious food and drink options in southwestern Montana, can you understand why I want to go back for more?
Disclosure: Our southwestern Montana culinary road trip was sponsored by Montana Office of Tourism, Southwest Montana, and Glacier Country Tourism, but our opinions and perspectives are totally our own — as always.