A short drive west of Bozeman, Livingston is an exceptionally tidy town, with wide streets and scrubbed, old brick buildings containing upscale shops and galleries. It’s fed, to a large extent, by fly fishing on the Yellowstone River and area creeks, witness the plethora of flat-bottom boats being towed behind pickup trucks and the strange sight of a fly fisherman in chest waders clomping through the fine Town and Country Foods. Livingston is also the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
The historic Murray Hotel houses the superb *2nd Street Bistro, a bright room with large windows and local art on the walls. The theme here is “locally sourced”, whether it’s grass-raised Montana meat or vegetables grown in the restaurant’s garden. Buff waitresses fresh off the stream or mountain bike deliver hot plates of food, including for $20 or less lamb ragout with goat cheese over homemade, hand-torn pasta or moist meatloaf—a combination of beef, veal and pork over “smashed” potatoes. Pizzas, for about $12 a pie, burgers and pile-high plates of frites ($5) are also popular. In all, it’s outstanding value for excellent fare produced by an accomplished chef.
2nd Street Bistro
123 North Second Street, Livingston
Tuesday to Saturday, opens at 5 pm.
As soon as I enter Pinky’s Cafe and am warmly greeted by the smiling, white-ponytailed owner, my immediate reaction is to introduce myself instead of asking for a wakeup coffee (not that it takes more than seconds to be poured). “I’m the Pink guy,” he says, as if there’s any doubt. This is a true mom-and-pop operation, with wife Terri handling the cooking and Pinky acting as front man. Pinky’s serves good, affordable fare, featuring breakfast egg standards and plate-sized pancakes, as well as lunchtime sandwiches such as pastrami served on house-made buttermilk bread. I order a tasty, unadorned omelette with white cheddar and chorizo sausage. Sometimes you just don’t want the accompanying toast, taters and bacon, and Pinky’s obliges. Most Fridays, Terri makes much sought after beef pasties, which impressed even noted food critic Anthony Bourdain. But you get the sense Pinky wouldn’t treat him differently than any other customer.
109 South Main Street, Livingston
Monday to Friday 7 am-2 pm, Saturday 8 am-noon
Only 20 minutes west of the bright lights of Billings, you’d be hard pressed to find a reason to pull off in the small town of Laurel, which doesn’t help its tourism cause with a big oil refinery, rail yards and a rather faded main street. But for inquisitive palettes seeking something slightly off the beaten track, there are two reasons for a lunchtime detour.
When I pull up to Cafe Mabel’s, my immediate impulse is to simply slam the car into reverse. But I ignore the peeling-paint exterior and the threadbare carpets and sit myself down at a faded table (they’re quite clean, as is the bathroom, an important consideration, I know, for many traveling diners). And as soon as I dip the complimentary tortilla chips into the delicious, piquant salsa, I know I’m in an authentic, unpretentious Mexican joint. Here, I can order a substantial plate of seared beef fillets, a burrito or an enchilada and groove to the Mexican soundtrack. But instead, I go for something light and fresh: a couple of nicely grilled shrimp tacos, with the tails still attached. I pour the remaining salsa over the fish-cabbage mixture, and presto, I’ve got a nice-sized lunch for only $5.
801 East Main Street, Laurel
Tuesday to Saturday, opens at 11 am. Closed Sunday-Monday
Things are much more gentrified a few blocks away at Emma’s Kitchen. This family operation has a cozy cottage feel. It’s a good place for soup and sandwich or a breakfast treat like a blueberry streusel coffee cake (by the way, where did coffee cake disappear to? You hardly see it anymore, even when it’s far better than many of the ubiquitous cinnamon rolls). My chicken salad sandwich is a huge mound of chicken mixed with tart apple, toasted walnuts and curry stuffed inside a large, house-made croissant. Indeed, I can’t finish it, largely because I just ate at Café Mabel’s (hey, sometimes these doubleheaders are needed in the name of research; I doubt I’m coming back to Laurel any time soon). Emma’s strives to serve local food, from natural beef and sprouts to locally roasted, organic coffee.
401 East Main Street, Laurel
Monday to Friday 7 am-5 pm, Saturday 7 am-3 pm