Tasting Montana, One Town at a Time: Bozeman

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.

The Victory Taco food truck says a lot about Bozeman -- "Fish, Hike, Climb, Ski, Work, Give Back, Love, Create, Buy Local, Be Nice"

The Victory Taco food truck says a lot about Bozeman – “Fish, Hike, Climb, Ski, Work, Give Back, Love, Create, Buy Local, Be Nice”

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.

Ted's Montana Grill, shops, quirky art, and French chocolates along Main Street in Bozeman

Ted’s Montana Grill, shops, quirky art, and French chocolates along Main Street in Bozeman

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.

Victory Taco
122.5 W. Main Street

Service with a smile adds to the enjoyment of these delicious fresh tacos at Victory Taco  in Bozeman, Montana

Service with a smile adds to the enjoyment of these delicious fresh tacos (“The Fin” between “The Birds”) at Victory Taco

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?)

Emerson Grill
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.

Touches of art in the lovely Emerson Grill bar and corridors of the Emerson Cultural Center, Bozeman, Montana

Touches of art in the lovely Emerson Grill bar and corridors of the Emerson Cultural Center

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.

Mr. TWS enjoying a Napa Valley Cabernet and swordfish special (top); My risotto with sausage (bottom) at Emerson Grill in Bozeman, Montana

Mr. TWS enjoying a Napa Valley Cabernet; swordfish special (top left); risotto with sausage (bottom left)

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.

Lively and colorful Nova Cafe with displays of art by local artists

Lively and colorful Nova Cafe with displays of art by local artists

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.

A few of the breakfast options at The Nova Cafe: Western Omelet;cottage cheese strawberry rhubarb pancakes; Forager omelet (with egg whites); and combo pulled pork and lox Eggs Benedict

A few of the breakfast options at The Nova Cafe: Western Omelet;cottage cheese strawberry rhubarb pancakes; Forager omelet (with egg whites); and combo pulled pork and lox Eggs Benedict

Spirited indulgences

Bozeman Spirits
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.

Distillery of Bozeman Spirits with a cameo appearance by "The Duke", Bozeman, Montana

A peek inside the distillery of Bozeman Spirits with a cameo appearance by “The Duke”

Bedtime for Bozeman

The Lark Bozeman
122 W. Main Street

The Lark, Bozeman

The Lark, Bozeman

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.

Left: The Lark "Map Room" and lobby lounge area; Right: One of the small murals, and sleeping/desk area layout in our room at The Lark Bozeman

Left: The Lark “Map Room” and lobby lounge area; Right: One of the small murals, and sleeping/desk area layout in our room

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.

Heading to our room on the second floor of The Lark, Bozeman, Montana

Heading to our room on the second floor of The Lark

Bozeman Bonus

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.

T. rex and me: Dinosaur skeleton sculpture at the Museum of the Rockies

T. rex and me: Big Mike dinosaur sculpture at the Museum of the Rockies

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.

Museum of the Rockies Living History Farm, Bozeman, Montana

Museum of the Rockies Living History Farm

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.

Mountain scenery on the road from Bozeman to Butte, Montana

Leaving Bozeman for Butte

So long, Bozeman. Now it’s on to Butte!

Disclosure: Our stay in Bozeman was hosted by the Montana Office of Tourism and Yellowstone Country Montana, but our opinions and perspectives are totally our own — as always.

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22 thoughts on “Tasting Montana, One Town at a Time: Bozeman

  1. Anita

    Love this fresh look at Montana. I’ve not been to Bozeman, but now I want to go. I am especially taken with imagination of the folks at The Lark, and the focus on art, food and wine. Well done, Bozeman!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Definitely worth a visit and one that is much longer than mine. As you can tell from the post, we were quite taken with the town.

  2. Paula McInerny

    Montana, yes. Bozeman, yes. Food, art, beauty – these are all winning combinations and yes when i think of Montana, I do think bison, cowboys, and vast landscapes. Now it has got even better

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      It sure it. We didn’t go horseback riding near Bozeman, but we did have a great trail ride on this trip in Superior, Montana. Check out our post. — Saddle Up!

  3. noel

    Bozeman looks very cool and quirky, something I wouldn’t expect from this region but I would definitely visit if I tour the area for all its amazing landscape.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      It was a surprise for us, too. A very pleasant one. As much as I love dusty old cowboy towns, I like towns like this that have made some big changes while maintaining the distinctive character of their past.

  4. Sue Reddel

    Woah! The Bozeman culinary scene sure surprised me. For the short time you were there you did an excellent job covering the food scene. I’d love to try the tacos at Victory Taco and the eggs benedict done two ways at The Nova Cafe. Guess we need to plan a trip to Montana! Great post.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Our hosts had been telling us about the culinary scene, so we were expecting that (although we were even more impressed than we thought we’d be), but we didn’t expect the prevalence of art in the community. Great combo- food, art and natural beauty!

  5. Carole Baker

    For a real culinary treat, visit Saffron Table on West Main. The south Asian food is absolutely delicious, beautifully prepared and plated. It is served by a professional staff who take pride in introducing patrons to this cuisine. There’s a reason why it was voted “Best of Bozeman-2015.”

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Thanks for the tip, Carole! I’ll definitely keep it in mind. The hubby and I are serious about making plans to visit again.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Definitely give it a another try. As I mentioned in the post, I’ve been in that area before, but just passing through. Happy we got to spend time there now.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      With all the great food and activities we enjoyed in Montana, it was always a treat to see the awesome scenery of that state.

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