Every community needs champions like Greg Smith and Julia Johnson. Once their kids were grown and gone, they were keen on making some life changes. This couple made their way from Malta, where they had a sandwich and coffee shop, to Lincoln, and purchased The Montanan Steakhouse in April 2018. Two months later, on Memorial Day, the doors opened for customers.
The location of the restaurant holds a storied place in Lincoln’s history. Barb and Cecil Garland opened Garland’s Town and Country store in 1956, which served as a much-loved general store and a place for locals to congregate and share town news. The most notable customer to frequent the store was the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
After 50 years, the Garlands closed the doors. Barb and her current husband, Audie Solvie, would convert the space into a successful steakhouse that opened in 2009. The steakhouse closed in 2014 and sat vacant for four years before Greg and Julia would purchase The Montanan. When completing the deal, Barb handed off the “secret recipe book,” which meant the new owners could offer up customer favorites from years back, such as the huckleberry wings and Gouda au gratin potatoes.
Purchasing a steakhouse that had sat vacant and getting it operational in two months was no small feat. Greg and Julia enlisted the help of a Sysco chef, and others in the community and some former employees to assist. Looking back on 2018, Greg says, “It was a race to get this place up and running. Prior to our first day, we spent two nights cooking and plating everything on the menu just for practice, then another night devoted to the front of the house operations before we felt prepared. Our menus were delivered on the day the doors opened.”
Later in the summer, they would acquire a liquor license, so now patrons have a full-service bar with the addition of Howdy’s Saloon on one side of the restaurant. Old Station Brewing out of Havre has crafted two microbrews specifically for Howdy’s — Lincoln Logger and Unabomber Stout. Another angle on the saloon side is working with local distillery reps to come in and offer up a tutorial in crafting drinks made with their products. Customers get to sample the spirits.
Greg and Julia are quick to praise Shelby Brookie, a longtime family friend from Malta, as one of the reasons for their success. She worked summers at the restaurant while getting her degree from Montana State University and now has become a permanent “jack of all trades” at The Montanan — from bar tending to food server to food prepping in the kitchen when the staff is slammed with orders.
Greg says the secret to their delicious steaks is using the prime grade of Certified Angus Beef®, purchased through Sysco, one of their suppliers. Over 650 Montana ranches contribute to the Certified Angus Beef® program, so it’s a good bet the steaks served are from cattle raised in Big Sky Country. Steak prep is simple — marinated in butter, seasoned with coarse salt and pepper, then seared at high heat.
Always looking for ways to vary their menu, Greg, Julia and Shelby decided to experiment with Chinese cuisine. They spent 30 days creating, then tweaking, the entrees before they were willing to offer them up on Thursday evenings. Originally designed to be a buffet offering, with today’s COVID rules, they now plate the dinners. New this past fall is German food featured on Wednesday nights. Originally from Germany, Julia was instrumental in introducing specialties, such as red cabbage, pork schnitzel and spaetzle.
While I was interested in learning more about their menu, the trio was intent on talking up Lincoln and all it has to offer. They are vested in the town’s success and understand this happens with all businesses working together. Greg speaks with passion: “Snowmobiling, ATV trails, fishing, camping — it’s all here. The sculpture park — that has been the perfect place for families to social distance during COVID. This past summer, we put on a car show with live music at the rodeo arena.” Greg, with his connections to the entertainment world, plans to bring more live music events to Lincoln.
Out of curiosity, I ask Greg who would be his first choice of a musician to perform in Lincoln. “Alice Cooper,” he blurts out. “Really!” I reply, thinking Alice is one weird dude. So I suggest Jimmy Buffet or Bruce Springsteen. “That would take big money,” responds Greg. While Greg and I love a well-prepared steak, we are on a different page with our musical tastes.
I steer the conversation back to the food. Bacon finds its way into several of the appetizers. I have to give a nod to their cheese curds I had ordered on a previous visit. Golden-fried white cheddar cheese curds are coated with caramel sauce then sprinkled with bacon. Killer good! Their black-and-blue Irish nachos feature house-made potato chips tossed with bacon, green onions, and creamy blue cheese sauce. Cheese fries are topped with bacon and green onion. The prize goes to the candied bacon, where slices of thick-cut smoky bacon are marinated in maple syrup, brown sugar and other secret spices before being cooked to a crisp and served with a blue cheese sauce.
The Montanan serves scratch-made soups, salads and burgers, both beef and bison, in addition to steaks. Consistency in the quality and presentation of any dish is key to the success of this business. “I don’t want any of our customers asking who is cooking before they decide what they will order,” Greg declares.
Long gone are those days when Lincoln was in the limelight thanks to the Unabomber. In 2017, Lincoln was designated as a gateway community to the Continental Divide Trail. The community is the site of the 26-acre Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild International Sculpture Park, with over 18 permanent installations just east of town. The area has plenty of trails for hiking, mountain biking and exploring via ATV. With exceptional eats at The Montanan Steakhouse, there are plenty of reasons to make a beeline to Lincoln.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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