When Café DeCamp closed a year ago Monday, many people were left wondering about the small restaurant, once nestled in Billings’ industrial North Side.
At the time, the café had made the transition from cult favorite to go-to gourmet hangout and it was poised to grow. Demolition had begun in what was to be a new location on Montana Avenue. The space offered more seating, an expanded kitchen and the promise of a fully realized restaurant from Jason Corbridge, Café DeCamp’s co-owner and executive chef. Since then, anyone craving Corbridge’s innovative, locally sourced cuisine has had little option but to salivate.
That’s about to change. Corbridge plans to open a new restaurant by June, teamed with financier Greg Oliphant, who was involved in the Koinonia Mexican restaurant and outreach program that served the South Side from the mid-1980s until its closure in 1995.
Corbridge and Oliphant began talks last June. Corbridge was working, briefly, as executive chef at the West End Jake’s Bar & Grill; Oliphant was scouting for an executive chef for a restaurant still in the dream phase. What began as chit-chat between a respected chef and a hungry entrepreneur has grown into a restaurant-to-be ready to take root. They are eyeing three spots — all of them on Montana Avenue.
“We have really been struggling to nail down a location. At this point, we have almost had three locations,” Corbridge said.
Wherever it lands, the envisioned eatery will make Café DeCamp — which employees lovingly referred to as “the shack” — look like, well, a shack.
Corbridge said the new business will be a bar, eatery and ale house “with a focus on the choicest craft beer possible — just good beer. Lots of draft, lots of food, and probably at least 100 chairs.” To feed the chairs’ occupants, he will have five different menus — weekend brunch, lunch, dinner, wine and beer — all of which will cycle seasonally.
Since the closure of Café DeCamp, Corbridge has participated in a handful of one-off dinner events, all with a carefully selected drink to pair with every course. Last weekend, Corbridge partnered with Mike Uhrich, the brewmaster at Carter’s Brewing, for a Sour Beer Dinner. The five courses, ranging from a “rye flour and blackstrap molasses licorice taffy” to “coriander and black pepper crusted caprine,” all came to the table with a special sour beer.
If you’re wondering about “caprine,” it’s goat. The goat in question came from just outside of Billings, courtesy of farmers Alexis Bonogofsky and Mike Scott, who could be found seated among the crowd at the dinner. Scott was on a flight from Denver and had to miss the first part of the meal.
“I hope he gets here in time to eat some goat because he’s the one who had to kill it,” Bonogofsky said earlier. Fortunately for Scott, he did.
Many of the 50 people in attendance were regulars of Café DeCamp. They enjoyed the rare opportunity to enjoy Corbridge’s creations, crafted in his image of good food: locally sourced when possible, often adventurous and always thoughtful.
Hesitant to define the fare of his new restaurant, Corbridge described it as “progressive American.” He will offer much of what patrons have come to expect — the popular bison burger and wild mushroom pasta from Café DeCamp will make their return — along with some new dishes. The beer and wine menus will feature small plates, like tapas or pinchos, each with a beverage suggestion.
“I will be able to do things I haven’t been able to do before because Café DeCamp was so limiting,” Corbridge said. The old restaurant had 586 square feet of floor space; the new joint will have at least 5,000.
After a location is secured, the next step will be to obtain a liquor license. Then, floor plans. At some point, he’ll have to give the thing a name. Currently, Corbridge said, “It has, like, 28 names.”
Besides serving as a boon to area foodies, the venture will mark a new period in Corbridge’s life, once plagued by disarray and marital stress entangled in the closure of Café DeCamp. He co-owned the restaurant with his now ex-wife, Emily.
“Divorce is dissolution,” he said. “It was a business that was built on my family, the marriage, the union I had. I did not see it fit, nor did I see it healthy, to try to sustain that business.”
Corbridge considered opening a different restaurant with a new name in the space intended for the new Café DeCamp, but now he’s glad he didn’t. Since the closure, Corbridge worked brief stints in the kitchens of Jake’s and the Fieldhouse Café. He has also catered private and public events.
He can’t wait to run his own place again. “Cooking for somebody else is a bad idea for me,” he said. “I’d rather wash dishes, lay railroad ties, even clean toilets.”
“I’m a person who’s a strong believer in spirit,” he said. “And there’s a lot of food in my spirit. I guess you could call that passion.”
Pete Tolton has been writing, editing, and designing for small publications in Montana since 2009. He also freelances in print design, graphics and photography.