Southwestern Montana evokes visions of bison, cowboys, and vast landscapes, and that has always held an exciting appeal for me on the occasions I’ve traversed the state on road trips. Although a big part of its makeup and well-known allure, that’s not all that Big Sky Country has to offer as Mr. TWS and I recently learned. We visited several Montana towns in this part of the state and found historical treasures, culinary surprises, and highly-spirited cultures. We’ll be writing posts about the other towns we visited on our four-day trip but let’s start with a taste of Bozeman food, drink, and more.
Eats and Arts in Bozeman
Driving into town past beautiful old Victorian-style homes and then onto Main Street with colorful storefronts and lively pedestrian traffic, I got a sense that Bozeman may be more than the dusty cowboy town that I’d envisioned. Indeed, Bozemanites have a thriving downtown to enjoy while maintaining the feel of living in a small town. Two people in our group of travel companions had attended Montana State University in Bozeman and attest to the changes they’ve seen in this once sleepy agricultural town.
Main Street is vibrant with restaurants, art galleries, and eclectic shops. Located in the historic Baxter Hotel on Main Street is billionaire (and Montana ranch owner) Ted Turner’s restaurant — you can’t miss the neon bison on the sign. In the hotel lobby is La Châtelaine Chocolat Co., a French chocolate maker whose gourmet confections are as pretty as they are tasty. Especially over the last decade or so, the Bozeman economy has had an infusion of out-of-state money from relocations (or second homes) of people from other states (especially Southern California, resulting in the nickname “BozeAngeles”). That infusion has undoubtedly influenced the number and quality of eating, drinking, and cultural establishments for a town (even a college town) of Bozeman’s size.
And there’s an art scene in Bozeman that exists not just in its galleries and museums, but that is seen almost everywhere throughout the town. The strong focus on art seems to be essential to Bozeman and its people.
Bozeman culinary delights
Although the staples of traditional western food are deliciously available in and around Bozeman, there’s been an emerging food scene that is creating new venues showcasing entrepreneurs and chefs whose visions and skills are creating trends in Bozeman and beyond, catching the attention of food lovers like us. From delis to fine dining, from pizza to Asian cuisine, you can find many culinary options. During our short time, we sampled a few Bozeman food and drink highlights.
122.5 W. Main Street
One of the very latest (we were there during their first week) on the food scene in Bozeman is Victory Taco where Joe Darr and Mike Buck, owners of the long-established Roost (“glory-fried” chicken and biscuits) and Genuine Ice Cream Company, have seized upon the food truck trend with their new venture. Their fresh tacos and homemade sauces were awesome. They’re made with imaginative concoctions of quality ingredients in fun menu items such as “The Fin” (grilled mahi, pineapple salsa, red cabbage, fresh guacamole, cilantro lime cream), “The Bird” (Ancho lime chicken, roasted tomato sauce, red cabbage, pickled onions, cilantro), and “The Kim Jong” (Korean pork and BBQ sauce, spicy bean mash, red cabbage, green onions, cilantro). We relished each bite and really liked the casual, friendly vibe.
Housed in a shiny silver 1948 aluminum Spartan Manor trailer on the corner of Main Street and Grand Avenue and adjacent to The Lark (the hotel whose owners originally came up with the idea for the enterprise), they also serve their homemade ice cream. In fact, we came back later that evening for generous servings of ice cream – Mr. TWS had two! (But who’s counting?)
207 W. Olive Street
For an upscale, but comfortable neighborhood dining experience, we had dinner at the Emerson Grill located in a former elementary school originally built in 1918. When it was facing demolition in 1992 a group of community members purchased the building for historic preservation and renovations began. The building was later converted into the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture, one of the testaments to the importance of art to the Bozeman community. In addition to the art in the galleries, the eclectic works of southwestern Montana artists are on display in the corridors of the center as well as in the bar and restaurant.
The bar and dining room are very attractive, but we opted to dine al fresco on the lawn beneath an enormous tree in the fresh Montana air. In this peaceful and pleasant residential area of town, I had a feeling of being part of the neighborhood. I could imagine being a resident who might frequent the restaurant for sharing great food and wine with friends.
The menu is Italian-inspired home-style American cuisine and the wine list includes vintages from Napa Valley, Provence, and Tuscany – three of my personal favorite wine regions. Since opening in 2005, owner Robin Chopus has emphasized local and organic ingredients in the restaurant’s cuisine.
It was difficult to make my dinner choice with a nice selection of meat, pasta, and pizza options that captured my attention, but I ultimately decided on risotto and sausage which was an excellent choice that I completely devoured. Mr. TWS chose swordfish, the seafood special of the day. Before our entrées arrived, we enjoyed ample servings of antipasti (with imported cheeses, meats and spreads), calamari, and a tasty baked brie in a puff pastry (with apricot, roasted garlic and sage).
The Nova Café
312 E. Main Street
There’s something about finding a great place for breakfast on a road trip that really starts the day right. The highly-recommended Nova Café satisfied our taste buds and the lively and colorful décor created a cheery ambiance.
“Local” is definitely the message at The Nova Café as they advertise “Local Food. Local Art. Locals’ Choice”. Food ingredients are supplied by local organic farmers and producers who are specifically listed. The importance of art in the community is also evident here with the works of local artists seen throughout the restaurant in rotating exhibits.
The menu at The Nova Café has something for those who like a hearty traditional breakfast as well as those who want something totally special. My choice of the Western Omelet was a good one, but others in our group opted for more creative fare such as cottage cheese pancakes with strawberries and rhubarb, and a 1/2 and 1/2 Eggs Benedict option — one English muffin topped with pulled pork and the other with lox. Mr. TWS had the “Forager Omelet” stuffed with a fungi and Portobello mushroom blend, artichoke heart, roasted red pepper, spinach, and provolone cheese. The coffee was fresh and our cups were kept full by the attentive staff — an important breakfast restaurant criteria for me.
121 W. Main Street
It’s no news that the craft beer scene has really been booming (and downtown Bozeman has several that we didn’t get to visit this time), but the newer growth industry seems to be craft distilleries. Thanks to a 2005 Montana law removing Prohibition-era restrictions on distilling, there are new distilleries cropping up in the state. We sampled the libations at Bozeman Spirits whose products are vodka, huckleberry vodka, whiskey and gin (a bourbon whiskey will soon be added), all produced with pure water from the melting snow of the Gallatin mountain peaks just south of Bozeman. While I sipped my Montana Mule (Bozeman Spirits 1889 Whiskey, ginger beer, and lime) served in a chilled copper mug, I could feel the ginger as it tingled its way down the back of my throat, an unusual sensation for one not accustomed to ginger drinks. The menu includes other temptations such as “Box O’ Chocolate” that is made with their 1889 whiskey, muddled Bordeaux cherries, orange, caramel, chocolate bitters and cherry juice – I know some people who’d love that one.
Bozeman Spirits’ distiller Thomas McGuane stopped by our table to talk about the business and his craft. He uses locally sourced grains for the spirits, a “locavore” concept that he says is not new to Montanans with their long history of hunting, fishing, and wildcrafting plants. He believes that Bozeman has actually been a leader in the “locavore” movement, long before the term was ever coined. The bar snacks of smoked elk and buffalo beef sticks at the distillery are also locally made.
Bedtime for Bozeman
The Lark Bozeman
122 W. Main Street
The Lark Bozeman, originally a fairly typical small town roadside motel, was a wonderful surprise. The hotel underwent an inspired renovation creating a casual atmosphere with elements of luxury and putting unique art and artistic touches in every room. The Lark now has a trendy hip feel in its common areas and in the 38 guest rooms. The beds were very comfortable and the sheets were luxurious. The room was appointed with canteens (fillable in the lobby) rather than bottled water, one of many touches noting concern for the environment. A field journal presented at check-in is a clever way to acquaint guests with local eateries and other things to do; it also provides blank pages for notes.
The aim of the art and décor is to provide a local experience for guests, showcasing Bozeman itself – the people and the town. As they say at The Lark, “Every stay is built on the experiences available just outside our doors.” The art in the rooms is original, painted by one of 10 Bozeman artists, a project that was headed up by Patrick Hoffman, a local high school art teacher.
Museum of the Rockies
600 W. Kagy Blvd
You can’t be eating and drinking all the time, so don’t miss the Museum of the Rockies just east of downtown. We had to make our visit a very short one but we got a brief, but up close, look at their renowned collection of dinosaur fossils which is their main draw. In fact, when you arrive at the museum, you’re greeted by Big Mike, a bronze T. rex sculpture.
The museum houses the most T. rex specimens anywhere in the world — currently 13. All of the fossils in the collection are from Montana. We saw one of the paleontology team working on extricating a fossil from the soil and rock surrounding it. There are also many large dinosaur models
The Museum of the Rockies has other permanent exhibits including a regional history hall and a planetarium, but we particularly liked the “Living History Farm”, a nearby late 19th-century house that was moved to the site and restored and furnished to represent farm living around Bozeman before the turn of the twentieth century. We felt liked we’d stepped back in time with period-costumed workers depicting activities, such as cooking and on this day making ice cream.
Mr. TWS and I really were impressed with Bozeman during our short stay. The words on the Victory Taco truck in our top photo sum up the range of nearby activities (such as hiking in the beautiful mountains or valley, biking, skiing, fishing, and river rafting) as well as the spirit of the town that I find very alluring. There are also nearby dude ranches, and West Yellowstone, Montana (at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park) is only 90 miles away. Bozeman would be a good place to stay to enjoy these activities, whether for a few days as part of a southwestern Montana driving trip, or longer as a sole destination, combining many of the nearby activities. But even if you’re just passing through, take some time to get a taste of the town.
So long, Bozeman. Now it’s on to Butte!