Stella Fong charts Billings’ culinary history in new book

Book

Stella Fong will launch her new book Thursday.

In earlier times, apparently, restaurant-goers in Billings were big on flesh, as well as variety.

On the menu of the St. Louis Café, formerly located at 2507 Montana Ave., there were more than 30 items under the heading of “Meats.” Offerings included fried kidney, weiner wurst, beef liver with bacon, brains scrambled with eggs, chipped beef in cream, veal chops and half a spring chicken.

Down a couple of blocks at 2711 Montana Ave., at the Luzon Café, the bill of fare included boiled salt mackerel, fried halibut steak, grilled lake trout, boiled ox tongue, fricassee of chicken, braised sirloin of beef, sautéed calf’s liver, grilled mutton chops and homemade sausage with country gravy.

And we haven’t even mentioned the Stockman Café, at 2805 Montana Ave., whose motto was “Where Men Meet Men.” In addition to “man-sized meals,” the Stockman offered beer, wine and liquor, a barbershop, “recreational rooms,” hunting and fishing supplies and up-to-date reports on sporting events. In the 1950s, the Stockman also boasted of cashing more payroll checks than all the banks in town combined.

All this and much more is to be found in “Historic Restaurants of Billings” by Stella Fong, recently published by American Palate, a division of Arcadia Publishing.

Fong covers a lot of ground in 142 pages, making for a rather breathless tour. I wish she could have taken a bit more time and added a few more pages. She must have felt the same way; in a “Final Notes” following the text, she apologizes for neglecting “so many other stories that have contributed to the culinary evolution of this city.”

Fong

Tony Smith

Stella Fong

Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works. In the meantime, there is plenty here for people interested in Billings history or simply in food. Fong, one of the better-known foodies in this region, has taught cooking classes and has written extensively on food for many publications, including a couple of pieces, here and here, for Last Best News.

Rather than proceeding chronologically, Fong chose (wisely, in my opinion) to focus in each chapter on a particular restaurant or restaurateur, or on a particular type of restaurant. There are chapters, for instance, on Chinese and Asian restaurants, drive-ins and diners, and supper clubs where the music and dancing were at least as important as the food.

The first chapter takes a look at some of the earliest restaurants in town, and includes examples of some of the hilariously bombastic advertising in vogue then. At the Key City Dining Hall (actually in Coulson, when that river town still existed on the outskirts of Billings), it was promised that meals “will be served expeditiously, neatly and according to the taste of those who patronize them.”

The Fulton Market Restaurant, for its part, advertised baked goods “unexcelled in quality and with the latest and most modern appointments.” The Billings Brewing Company assured customers that its Old Fashion Beer “brings roses to the cheeks … builds blood and tissues, soothes, quiets and strengthens the nerves, and is highly recommended in many cases by eminent physicians.”

There are chapters on two intriguing places I never knew, but about which I have heard so much: Marie Halone’s Level 3 Team Room in the Stapleton Building at Broadway and First Avenue North, and La Toque, at 123 N. 26th St., founded by James Honaker, Laurent Zirotti and Patricia Rolland.

Halone appears to have been as successful at selling food as at inspiring diners to try new things, and inspiring others to enter the food business. She died at the age of 99 barely a month ago.

La Toque lasted only a short while, but people still talk about its inventive French cuisine, and years later Honaker, Zirotti and Rolland teamed up to open Enzo Mediterranean Bistro on the West End. Now called simply Bistro Enzo, it is run just by Honaker.

Between La Toque and Bistro, Honaker helped his brother Bill establish Walkers Grill at North 27th Street and Third Avenue North. James left in 1998 to start Enzo and Bill moved Walkers to its current location at 2700 First Ave. N.

But look at me, running into the same problems Fong had, but with much, much less space. Can I take my own breathless run at a few more names? The book has chapters or sections on Juliano’s Restaurant, The Rex, Harper & Madison’s Joanie Swords, Mike Schaer’s many culinary enterprises on Montana Avenue, and the Northern Hotel and its Golden Belle Restaurant.

Longtime Gazette columnist Addison Bragg, who often wrote of drinking and dining in the old days, is cited frequently, and the designer Mitch Thompson, responsible for so many fine interior spaces in this town, comes in for at least three mentions.

Fong is having a book launch Thursday night from 5:30 to 7 at Buchanan Capital, 201 N. Broadway, and a book-signing the next day, during the Holiday ArtWalk, from 5 to 9 p.m. in the lobby of the Northern Hotel.

She will also be giving a reading on Tuesday, Dec. 8, at the Billings Public Library. All proceeds from book sales that evening will go the Billings Public Library Foundation.

“Historic Restaurants of Billings” can also be purchased in Billings at the Moss Mansion, Western Heritage Center, King’s Ace Hardware, Jackets & Company (MSUB campus bookstore), Simply Wine, Juliano’s Restaurant and Harper & Madison. It is also available in Columbus at Columbus IGA and in Helena at the Montana Historical Society.

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