The booming Billings is easily the largest city in Montana (population 105,000). It doesn’t have the same charm as Bozeman, though that may have something to do with the main drag being all dug up when I pass through. It is worth heading up Overlook Drive for a panoramic view of the city, set in the Yellowstone River Valley, with the Pryor Mountains to the south. Area attractions have an aboriginal theme: Pompeys Pillar National Monument (with its petroglyphs), Pictograph Cave State Park and, further afield, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
I realize Harper and Madison is going to be an upscale place as soon as I see it located in the midst of a leafy Billings residential street. Sure enough, everything is first class, from the hefty wooden front door to the fall pumpkin display and a large-tile bathroom that’s nicer than most restaurant dining areas. The food is also beautifully displayed, with artfully arranged strawberry shortcake cupcakes, a heaping glass bowl of wild rice salad and a slab of caramel bread pudding designed to break your caloric willpower. There’s also interesting takes on standards, like a roasted chicken sandwich with Thai slaw and red curry aioli and a roasted butternut squash panini with apple and spiced pumpkin seeds (most of these are around $8.50). As good as everything looks, and tastes, it’s a surprisingly comfortable, roomy place to sip a coffee or savour your lunch.
Harper and Madison
3115 10 Avenue North, Billings
Monday to Friday 7 am-6 pm, Saturday 7 am-1 pm. Closed Sunday
And now for something completely different. The Burger Dive is aptly named and somewhat reflects parts of downtown Billings. There are no concessions to décor—the checkered floor, the tables and even the faded yellow walls don’t look like they’ve been touched in 30 years. Instead, everything here goes into the burger, which you can watch being grilled if you sit on a tractor-seat barstool. The standard burger is a one-third pound Angus beef patty, squeezed between a Grains of Montana bun. But that’s just the starting point for 16 listed burgers, including the Juicy Lucy, a half-pound slab of meat with a molten core of cheese and a warning to poke it with a utensil before chomping down to avoid a nasty explosion. My Blackened Sabbath is an unusual combination of blackened seasoning, blue cheese, bacon, garlic mayo and the kicker, a thick onion ring that provides a contrasting crunch to the burger’s juiciness. Add some fresh cut, skin-on fries and a milkshake that will stand up a spoon, and you’ll soon be staggering out the door. The Dive has a nice feature other restaurants with messy dishes would do well to emulate. Whole rolls of paper towel are placed on each table, so you can wipe away with two or three sheets rather than spread things around with a single, drenched napkin.
The Burger Dive
114 North 27 Street, Billings
Monday to Friday 10:30 am-4 pm, Saturday 11 am-3 pm. Closed Sunday
If you’re thinking of taking the direct route south from Billings to Cody, Wyoming, don’t do it. If I had, I would have missed the most memorable breakfast of my month-long trip to Colorado and back. Instead, take the only slightly longer and lovelier drive via Highway 212 to the town of Red Lodge, Montana. You’ll thank me for it.
When I walk into a restaurant, I’m always glancing at what other diners are having to see what looks good. Short of sticking a forkful of food in my mouth, nothing gives me a better feel than visual appeal. So when I wander into *Cafe Regis and see this fantastic, unusual looking breakfast, I forget the menu and head straight to this guy’s table. “What is that?” I ask. “Rhubarb pineapple French toast, with veggie sausages,” he replies. “It’s a beautiful thing.” It certainly is (even with bacon), the tartness of the rhubarb balancing the pineapple’s sweetness and the underlying French toast steaming hot and fork tender. That’s what makes Cafe Regis outstanding: an attention to detail and little twists on breakfast standards, like crumpets or fruit bread instead of toast, an apple-walnut omelette or a bowl of home fries, veggies and cheese with, horrors, no eggs. As well, owner Martha Young is out front, waiting on tables and talking about her recipes. Finally, Cafe Regis earns major style points for its loving conversion from an old grocery store; today, the walls are lined with health food offerings. Don’t forget to pick up a monster cookie (only $1) before leaving.
16th and Word, Red Lodge, Montana
Tuesday to Sunday 6 am-2 pm. Closed Monday