The Bar Tab: CJ’s—not bad for a bar with identity crisis


Mr. Bitters and Olive

CJ’s Bar and Grill, an establishment with an identity crisis.

If you’re just driving by, it’s hard to get a feel for CJ’s Bar and Grill. Located at 2455 Central Ave., CJ’s is nestled in a small strip mall next to a printer cartridge refill outfit. It’s also on the way to Target, so we pass by often.

The exterior design of CJ’s is somewhat modern, with an almost cubist vibe. It looks like either a relic of the ’80s geometric period or a new architect’s attempt at “chic.” We weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into when we chose this venue, but we thought it was worth a try.

One recent evening, we visited CJ’s on our way home from work. The first thing that struck us upon entering was the almost overwhelming smell of barbecue; not unpleasant, but surprising. And did we mention strong?

The look of the interior suggests a clash of styles—think Japanese rock garden-meets-alpine ski lodge. Or maybe a Rocky Mountain-themed retreat in Beijing. Asian-inspired pergolas were suspended from the ceiling and the walls were partially lined with wood paneling. A rock fireplace added to the chalet aspect of the vibe.

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Perhaps in a past life, CJ’s was an Asian restaurant. Billings natives, is there any truth to this conjecture?

A large U-shaped bar in the center of the room acts as a focal point for the establishment. To the east of the bar there are booths and a salad bar; this area is definitely suited more for the dining room/date-night crowd. To the west are low tables, some TVs and the aforementioned fireplace.

It is not clear why there are two different dining areas, but the TVs in the western sector were broadcasting various sports networks. This led us to believe that this area could be considered part of the bar. Either way, the room has a distinct lack of flow.

The dining room side was surprisingly full for just a little after 5 p.m, and the bar tables were sparsely populated. A couple of groups of people were already seated at the bar, but there were quite a few seats available so we grabbed two stools.

We were promptly greeted by a friendly bartender. He asked to take our order, but we demurred and asked for a drink menu. To Olive’s delight, their wine selection was a cut above the other places we have reviewed. Unfortunately, her first choice came only by the bottle, but the by-the-glass offerings provided enough variety to please most wine tastes. Mr. Bitters had a gin and tonic.

The drinks were served quickly and with a smile. They tasted pretty darn good, and went down smoothly. We decided to look over the menu as we drank, because although we were not there to eat, we like to give our readers a full impression of the establishment.

The menu was adorned with many color photos of their offerings, which were all heavy on the meat. In our opinion, the price point on the fare seemed to tend toward fancy steak house as opposed to barbecue joint.

Olive, a connoisseur of all things green and leafy, wanted to check out the salad bar. The offerings were standard, consisting of typical ingredients without a lot of flair. Ranch dressing was plentiful, which we suppose says something about CJ’s typical clientele. As salad bars are increasingly scarce, we appreciated the retro feature, even though the necessity for sneeze guards is a little off-putting.

Mr. Bitters soon finished his drink (it had been a long week). Unsure of what he wanted, he turned to the House Cocktails section of the menu for inspiration. Most were pretty standard cocktails with minor changes or embellishments.

For some reason the Hummingbird caught his eye, so we asked the bartender what it was. Apparently it is a concoction of peach liqueur, Tito’s vodka, Tito’s peach vodka, ginger beer and some other elements. We didn’t note the specifics. Shame on us. Olive remarked that it sounded kind of girly. No matter, as Mr. Bitters is secure in his masculinity.

The Hummingbird was served in a tall tumbler-type glass and had a very manly pinkish hue. It was sweet, but pretty balanced and surprisingly delicious and strong. It would be the perfect cocktail for people who would prefer to drink soda, but would like to get drunk. (Note: We do not condone the consumption of Pucker under any circumstances.)

This is usually where we would relate some of the conversational tidbits we overheard while pretending to make small talk with each other. In CJ’s, alas, this is virtually impossible. There was no music playing, but the place somehow seemed loud. The acoustics create a cacophony of white noise, which allows patrons to hold private conversations but inhibits eavesdropping. This is one of our favorite pastimes, so we were a little disappointed.

Based on the appearance of our fellow bar patrons, CJ’s seems to be a place suited for after-work drinks. Most groups appeared to be made up of co-workers looking to unwind, and it seemed to be a popular watering hole for mid-level professionals.

When our drinks were empty and we were properly sugar-fueled, we asked for our tab. The total was reasonable; higher than a dive bar but in line with the higher-scale environment.

As we left, we noticed a completely separate area of CJ’s, labeled CJ’s Sidelines. Apparently CJ’s segregates its gaming area from the dining room (not a bad idea, from an atmospheric perspective). This last observation confirmed that at CJ’s, everyone can find something to suit his taste.

As we drove home we reflected on our experience. While not unpleasant, in the words of Lisa Simpson, we felt rather “meh” toward CJ’s. The wait staff was prompt and friendly, the drink selection was good, the food seemed to be a crowd pleaser, but there was something missing. It needs some element or theme to bring the whole place together and make it distinctive.

We don’t mean to say we would not drink there again, or that our readers should avoid it. After all, it is in many respects a peer of other restaurants like the West End Jake’s, or perhaps chain restaurants like Applebee’s. We are sure that to some, it would be exactly what they are looking for. However, in a town awash with similar offerings, CJ’s failed to offer something distinctive to set itself apart, in our opinion.

In short, CJ’s seems to have a bit of an identity crisis—from the decor to the menu, it is not clear that CJ’s knows what it wants to be. Is it a BBQ joint or a high-class bistro? Is it a neighborhood bar or a dim cocktail bar? Or perhaps it is all of those things: the Swiss army knife of bars. A jack-of-all-trades but master of none. Multipurpose and versatile, while not necessarily excelling at anything.

Good location for West End suburbanites
Unobjectionable drink selection
Friendly staff

Lacks distinctive character
No flow between multiple seating areas

Previous reviews

Chapter 1The Squire Lounge.

Chapter 2The Alpine Casino.

Chapter 3Buck’s Bar.

Chapter 4Stadium Club.

Chapter 5Bones Arcade.

Chapter 6Southern Empire Emporium.

Chapter 7The Holiday Inn.

Chapter 8The Tap Inn.

Chapter 9Fiddler’s Green.

Chapter 10The Den.

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