Bozeman Dining: Summer 2023 Edition

My Montana summer has flown by, and in between lots of hiking, horseback-riding and exploration I have managed to fit in a good amount of eating, both old standbys as well as new spots.

Bozeman in particular is experiencing a restaurant boom and I am excited to report there are some real winners along with some disappointments.

Leading off with the best meal of the summer, Little Star Diner, an old favorite, edged out a couple of close contenders. A true gem right off Bozeman’s main street, Little Star has had some inconsistency over the past few visits, but I am happy to report my most recent meal there was a home run. Farm fresh veggies starred in simply prepared apps followed by excellent fish tacos, and an incredible coffee ice cream parfait with sweet salty spicy hazelnuts and thick chocolate sauce.

We ate on their rooftop and watched the sun go down while being attended to by an incredibly attentive staff (service is where I noticed the most dramatic improvement from my last visits).

Second best meal goes to Shan, a new restaurant tucked away in the super hip Cannery District. Billed as a restaurant specializing in a Chinese/Thai interpretation of curry, noodles and BBQ I was a little skeptical that they could deliver on all that, but it was excellent. It is a compact space with an equally small and concise menu; but the flavors were big and bold and delicious. Bozeman is not known for terrific Chinese food (there is some pretty good Thai, and excellent Korean), but I think Shan is a welcome new addition. There aren’t too many vegetarian choices on the menu, but the tofu and the mushrooms were excellent, and my husband loved all the various meat dishes he sampled.

In third place we have The Storm Castle Café, an old school spot which caters mainly to locals but has been discovered by others, including Guy Fieri who featured the down-home restaurant on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives back in 2018. Storm Castle Café is in close proximity to Montana State University so there is always a good showing of students, families and groups of friends gathered to indulge in the very large portions of expertly prepared comfort food. The waitstaff is extra friendly and enthusiastic which makes a delicious meal even better. There isn’t too much “healthy” food on the menu, but everything is made from scratch and TLC. To be honest, its the perfect place to go if you are a little bit hung-over.

Another Bozeman favorite that did not disappoint is I-Ho’s Korean Grill. I-Ho’s is super casual, but totally authentic. When you have a craving for Bibimbop you need to get yourself over to the restaurant ASAP.

One very pleasant new addition to my Main Street dining options is Rice, a small casual Thai spot that I had passed by for years. It turns out the food is lovingly and capably prepared and makes for the perfect quick pitstop.

For ice cream aficionados (myself included) there is one spot you don’t want to miss in Bozeman, and that is Sweet Peaks. With two locations to choose from downtown you are never far from a fix. The staff is liberal with tastes, and the flavors are creative and outstandingly good. The most recent favorite- Bear Scat, a chocolate blackberry combo.

Moving on to the very good category… Feast bills itself as a Raw Bar + Bistro. People LOVE it, but I had always been a little reluctant to try it. The location is off Main Street, on West Kagy in a small shopping center in close proximity to MSU. I had been skeptical about the viability of a raw bar in landlocked Bozeman, and restaurants that describe themselves as offering fusion cuisine often disappoint. When we finally joined some friends there for dinner I was pleasantly surprised at the energy in the small restaurant. The server was friendly and clearly was proud of the daily oyster selection as well as some of the specials.

As I settled in with a non-alcoholic cocktail (a No-Jito) and perused the menu I struggled to identify something that was really appealing. The menu was just too far reaching and cluttered with ingredients (never a good sign in my mind). I ended up with the crispy Brussels sprouts (very crispy and too much aioli- I didn’t get a chance to photograph them though they closely resembled my husband’s very deep fried chicken wings). For my main I gave the seared Lions Mane mushroom cakes a try. They were blanketed with sauces and accoutrements that just overwhelmed the dish. My husband enjoyed the catch of the day which had a Thai flair. It may be a slight personality defect of mine, but whenever I try a restaurant that everyone raves about, I undoubtedly have an issue with it. Feast is a nice restaurant, the ingredients are fresh and the service is good, but sadly it did not resonate with me.

Blackbird is a perennial favorite, but like Feast, it just doesn’t do it for me. Part of the problem is that since I am gluten free I am unable to enjoy the bread and pizza which they are known for. The vegetarian offerings are hit or miss, though on this visit the sautéed garlic scapes were excellent. The main issue I have with Blackbird is that their staff has a serious attitude issue. They fancy themselves as being superior to just about everyone, which gets old very quickly. While Blackbird may be considered “fine dining” in Bozeman, they need to bring back some good old Montana friendliness in order not to alienate their clientele.

Another Bozeman spot that is generating tremendous buzz is La Esquina, a trendy NYC (!) Mexican restaurant which recently opened in the Cannery district. From the face of it La Esquina looks promising. The space is built out with a cool entry area that looks very authentic, but as far as I have seen is only for show. The inside has a funky vibe with a dining area on one side and an atmospheric bar on the other. We were grabbing dinner so we opted for the dining room. We started by ordering drinks which were colorful and refreshing, while also placing an order for guac and chips to come ASAP because we were all hungry. The guac was very good, complete with large chunks of creamy avocado, and complemented by salty crispy homemade chips. Alas, it turned out the guacamole was the highpoint of the meal.

We placed our order while we munched on chips and then waited, and waited and waited some more until our server came out with the bad news that they were sold out of the chicken taco special of the evening (this was 40 minutes after we ordered) and perhaps we might like to choose something else. He was nice as can be, comping us for our second choice entree, but after waiting over an hour for our mediocre meal, we were not happy. The fried plantains in particular (one of my favorite dishes) were awful. The rice and beans were also bland and a bit watery. If you are looking for an authentic and delicious Mexican fix in Bozeman, give Last Call Modern Mexican a try, it is terrific.

Another mediocre meal was consumed at MAP Brewing, a restaurant which is somewhat redeemed by the beautiful lakeside setting (and the thirst quenching beer). We arrived at MAP right when they opened for lunch, hence the empty tables pictured below. MAP is always packed, and if you want to chill outside with a few beers and enjoy the sunshine, its a great spot. A little advice, you may want to eat beforehand.

In closing I would be remiss not to mention Jam where I find myself at least once a week. It is perpetually mobbed (the trick is to come when they first open) and filled with both locals and tourists alike. The food is fine, the coffee drinks are well prepared and the portions are huge. If you are in town and want to feel the energy of Bozeman, Jam is the place to be.

Please note that these are my opinions, I am not a professional restaurant reviewer, just an extremely picky diner with exceedingly high standards.


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