The bar was named for Bruce Harper's father, Dr. R.D. Harper.
A week later than planned, Doc Harper’s martini bar had a “soft opening” Wednesday, throwing open its doors at 4 p.m. By 5, the place was jumping, with nearly every seat on the main level taken and more people sitting in the mezzanine.
“I called some friends and texted some kids, that’s all,” Barb Harper said. “I’m amazed at all the people here.”
She and her husband, Bruce Harper, are the owners of the new nightspot at 116 N. Broadway in the heart of downtown Billings. The long, narrow space is tucked in between Belle en Blanc, a high-end bridal shop, and Prohibition Clothiers, which sells tailor-made men’s clothing and has a full-service barbershop.
With Doc Harper’s occupying the space that most recently housed zPizza, the Babcock Theatre Building is officially full again, seven years after it was purchased by two couples, Mike Mathew and Kay Foster and Don and Kim Olsen.
Mathew said a couple of other people arrived at Doc Harper’s before he did Wednesday evening, but he ordered the first martini.
Gesturing around at the full house, Mathew said, “Just the way you see people in here indicates they’re meeting a market demand.”
Bruce Harper, who continues to practice law at 72, said he got into the bar business after winning a full liquor license in a state lottery a few years ago. He said he wanted to run a tavern, but not badly enough to buy a liquor license on the open market. Thanks to Montana’s quota system, such licenses have gone for more than $1 million.
After winning the lottery, he and Barb ran a liquor concession at the Billings Depot for about nine months, but since it was almost entirely dependent on events held there, it was difficult to get established. Last spring, they heard about the opening in the Babcock building.
“Barb and I walked in together and I said, ‘This would be a great place for a martini bar,’” he said.
They liked the big-city feel of it, with the mezzanine seating and the tight quarters on the main level—about 29 feet wide and 120 feet long. Renovation started Sept. 1. The interior was designed by Barb
Harper and Kim Olsen, who, with her husband, owns O2 Architects.
They came up with a sleek, hip, modern look, accented by painted panels sporting mirror collages, made by Olsen.
Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Barb and Bruce Harper greet customers at their newly opened martini bar.
Bruce Harper said he ended up sinking about $150,000 into the place, including the cost of the liquor license.
“Another good thing was, it didn’t have gaming, and I didn’t want gaming,” he said.
The bar is named for his father, Dr. R.D. Harper, a Chicago native who practiced in Sidney for 41 years and lived in Billings from 1983 until his death in 1994.
“He delivered over 3,000 babies,” said Barb, who was born in nearby Fairview, “and my brother and me were two of them.”
The name was suggested by Bruce’s nephew, R.D. Harper III, a captain with the Billings Police Department. The bar’s signature martini is Doc’s Preferred, consisting only of “vigorously shaken” Grey Goose vodka, served with a speared olive and onion in a chilled glass.
Other martinis include Barb’s Grapefruitini, Healy’s Great North Vesper and the Sidecar. What’s in them? Just ask your friendly bartender. Doc Harper’s also has a selection of wines by the glass or bottle, plus bottled beer and tap beer from four local breweries.
Mike Mathew, a co-owner of the Babcock Theatre Building, welcomed his latest tenant by having a martini at Doc Harper’s Wednesday.
For now, the menu also includes just two items, a cheese and cracker flight and a cheese and meat flight.
“We’re going to add a couple other simple things next week,” Barb said. Bruce added, “We never wanted to be in the food business.”
Hours are 4 to midnight Monday through Saturday, and they are thinking of expanding their Saturday hours in the near future. The Harpers were planning to have a grand opening a week earlier, on Jan. 14, and had advertised it on Facebook, but their credit-card system wasn’t and still isn’t working. At the soft opening Wednesday, it was cash-only.
Bruce Harper said Vantiv’s back-office wireless payment system never performed the way it was supposed to, and he was disappointed in the company’s response to their problems. He was going to have one last conversation with the president of the business on Thursday, but he said they would probably install another system by a different vendor as soon as possible.
One of the early customers Wednesday was Jim Huertas, co-owner of Prohibition Clothiers next door.
“I love it,” he said. “I’ve been a big fan of the concept from Day 1.” He said his store is working on pairing up with Doc Harper’s for what they’re calling the “Sweeney Todd Special.” From 9 to noon on Saturdays, patrons will be able to get a razor shave at Prohibition Clothiers and a bloody Mary from Doc Harper’s.
“I like the idea of it being an upscale clientele,” Huertas said of the martini bar. “Now my people have a place to wear their outfits.”