Monday, January 21, 2008

Butte MT

In the middle of August I landed into Butte MT, collecting my guitar in the second smallest airport I've ever been in. A driver met me there and the short drive into town was as I had expected after what friends had told me - a leisurely 35 mph roll with friendly chit chat and the occasional incredulous gawp out the window at tiny pre-fab style houses boasting oversized flashing neon displays with the word CASINO and/or SALOON, like sirens on the shore, luring the would-be high roller with their hypnotic juggling of fortune, poverty and, possibly, claustrophobia.

Our first stop, at the driver's suggestion was The Butte Depot, an old railway depot turned bar and music venue. One train that stops there runs between Butte and Anaconda, and incorporates a tour of the area highlighting it's mining history, it's effect on the land and economy, and by all accounts, makes for a most enjoyable train ride for those of us who take pleasure in that most under-appreciated mode of travel.

We were unfortunate enough to miss the train's scheduled run, so we had to satisfy ourselves with a couple of cold beers and some more of that friendly chit chat. Dang! The chit chat was becoming more informative, covering such topics as the lack of an open container law in the town of Butte - you can legally walk anywhere in town with a beer - to the visit of Irish President Mary Mc Aleese to Butte the previous year - a point of some pride to the large Irish-American community in Butte.

The cold beer was remaining more friendly than informative as I stuck to old familiars for now; a Sierra Nevada IPA followed by The Belgian Brewing Co.'s Fat Tire. Yummy.

Heather, my drinking buddy, outside the Butte Depot.

From there, it was time for the hotel check in, where even more pleasant surprises awaited.

As someone who does his state-hopping as a gun-for-hire guitar player, I generally expect to find myself checking into any one of the all too numerous economy franchises that dot the highways promising free wireless, HBO, maybe breakfast, but sometimes seem to fall short on things like hot water, peace and quiet and, unfortunately, character. So when I heard I would be staying at THe Finlen, I figured it was just some localised chain I was yet to become cynical about.

I was about as wrong as a travel weary cynic could be. The Finlen was built in the twenties and named after a local mining millionaire and modeled on the scaled down plans of New York's Astor Hotel, and at the time of check in, the only comparison my then slightly groggy sleep deprived brain could muster was to the hotel Jack Nicholson's character booked into in The Shining, not in it's physical dimension or indeed, thankfully , are there any supernatural or demonic parallels. It's more in the old-school feel, and in the echoes of past grandeur.*

That night was the festival musician's "meet 'n' greet", a term that would send the weaker or less jet-lagged among us running for the door. However, once the awkward hellos and even more awkward excuses to leave were over and done with, a small and hardy handful of us retreated to the resident's bar, a small, plush, retro affair which has forever burned it's place in my memory as The Place I Discovered Bachelor's Bitter - a dark, rich, full-bodied bitter that seemed to get better and better as the night meandered lazily in a general forward direction, a direction that inevitably led to my room, in a comfortable bed 2 floors up overlooking Broadway, with it's fading art deco signs and period brownstones from a different time, one where a booming mountain town saw copper and silver in every hill, and American presidents were frequent callers. Right now, though, the streets are quiet, as they are most of the time.

Buttians(?) are very proud of their towns history, with a plethora of walking tours, mansion tours and the like to provide ample info-tainment for the curious tourist, bringing valuable revenue to this sleepy little community, something the powers that be are clearly aware of, as the town hosts a number of annual festivals including an Irish Music Festival, Folk Festival and a festival in honor of Butte's most famous son, Evel Knievel.

Oh come on... it's kinda cool...

If, during your stay in Butte, the friendly people, the history, and the old-world charm still leave you wanting more, maybe you could top off your stay like I did: a leisurely pub crawl in the summer breeze, taking in some great beer and great food along the way.

If that's the kind of thing that tickles your bits, then let me outline the route that eventually led to a culinary highlight;

Right downtown, The M+M is a 24 hour bar with burgers 'n' fries/diner food and diner decor, plus a handful of slot machines/poker machines for the undiscerning drinker. A shifting crowd in this round-the-clock funhouse saw us 30-somethings migrate further uptown as the semi-drunk and giggly college kids filed in. "Bless 'em, their lovely at that age." we remarked as we headed for Pablo's, a newly opened pizza and beer joint about two blocks away.

Pablo's boasts a refreshingly different beer and pizza menu. Proud of their local and Northwestern breweries, and rightly so, their beers include such titles as Moose Drool and Trout Slayer from the Big Sky Brewing Co., and a Huckleberry Wheat that got the thumbs up all 'round.

Pizza toppings included bbq wing sauce and a wide variety of chillis, heat and spiciness being a running theme. In a nutshell, Pablo's served us up a nice laid back, comfortable vibe with good pizza and great beer. Oh, and the beer battered fries! Man, I nearly forgot about the beer battered fries. Holy Crap! Lemme tellya...if you want to die happy, this is the heart attack in a basket that'll have St Peter or whoever you meet first wondering what you been up to and where they can get some- a full pound of thick cut fries battered in - you guessed it - beer. Eat deep of the basket, my friend, and I'll see you up there.

Pablo's left us with such a warm glow and feelings of good will to all, not to mention such a mild but persistant hankering for the soporific effects of bad television, that we decided to postpone the remainder of the intended crawl til the following day, and adjourn to the seasoned bosom of The Finlen.

Night Falls in Big Sky country.


Next morning, after breakfast at the friendly and quirky Gamer's Cafe, a restored turn-of-the century gaming house, half of which still functions as a casino (yes, they're everywhere), and a mocha at local-artist-driven coffeehouse Venus Rising, we decided on a stroll circumnavigating the town, and taking in a local bakery that made and sold what has long been a part of the Buttian's diet; the Cornish Pasty.

Originating in Cornwall, England, the pasty resembles an apple turnover in appearance, but the filling is one of beef and potato.
While munching on this most filling of on-the-hoof delicacies, we followed ever decreasing circles back into the heart of town, where, as we had come to expect, not a lot was going on. To refer to Butte as "sleepy" or "laid back" would be like referring to rush hour in downtown Manhattan as "rather busy". Although some might regard this as a fault, we took great pleasure in soaking up the mountain air, and effortlessly adopted the easy gait and demeanor of the local population. If this doesn't sound like your kind of thing, try downtown Manhattan in rush hour. It's rather busy.Once we'd mastered the easy gait, it was time to resume that pub crawl.

Our starting point, about a block from the hotel , was Moloney's, one of Butte's many Irish bars - a result of a huge influx of Irish immigrant families to work in the once numerous copper mines. Moloney's is small, friendly, with the biggest moose head I've ever seen hanging on the wall. About half way through our second beer, after engaging in enough idle banter with the bartender, we decided to revel in the aforementioned absence of an open container law, and take our half finished beers with us as we sought out our next watering hole.

At the Butte Depot, my first stop on arriving in Butte, we found ourselves sitting at the bar and being served by Nikki, who makes a mean Bloody Mary, and immediately made us feel like we'd all known each other for years - a rare and enviable quality that she effortlessly exuded. As she handed me my Bloody Mary, she explained that if her "cock 'n' balls" arrangement of the asparagus stalk and olives made me a little uneasy, I was welcome to re-arrange it.
Over the course of our long and friendly chat. she guided us through some more local and local-ish beers, and here I have to admit, I tasted a turkey, if you get what i mean. The beer in question shall remain nameless. Suffice to to say that as soon as I tasted it, a local guy occupying the neighboring barstool enquired as to how i liked it. When I remarked politely that it wasn't "for me", he smiled knowingly, saying "Yep, it pretty much isn't for anybody."

Enjoying an open container....

We said our goodbyes to Nikki and the other patrons - all two of 'em, and headed to Fred's Mesquite Steak house for a pint of Widmer's wheat beer. "What?" I hear you gasp "-no steak?". Well, we had done the steak, and the fish and chips earlier that weekend, and anyway, we were on a mission. However , the food is well worth a mention. The fish batter was light and flavorful, and the fries were roughly chopped potato's "skins 'n' all" . Yummy. The steak sandwich needed no adornments of any kind, dripping with flavor, juicy and succulent. But tonight, food was deferred until later, across town in one of Butte's most historically interesting restaurants.
We finished our Widmer's and headed for the next port of call - The Silver Dollar.

Walking in the door of The Silver Dollar, we handed a scraggy student-type four bucks each for the live band ("....dude")and headed inside to an old bar, comfortably overburdened with chochkeys, coasters, college age cool and the occasional hip local. The retro jukebox was made even more cool by the fact that it didn't work, and the tattooed barmaid was made even more cool by the fact that she headed straight for us despite a busy chatter of beer swillers that she juggled singlehandedly with an easy smile and a word for everyone. The band were tight but loose, and the beer was Beltian White - light with a bite, and refreshing on a hot summer night. There's no good reason not to go to The Silver Dollar, we concluded, unless you're allergic to having the kind of harmless fun that a chilled out atmosphere with a bunch of friendly strangers can inspire.
Neither could we find any good reason to leave The Silver Dollar except for one - right next door is that most historic of restaurants mentioned earlier, and we were getting hungry.

Saying goodnight to the scraggy guy taking the money, we headed for The Pekin Chop Suey House, a Chinese restaurant that's been open since the turn of the twentieth century, when the area was a full-on Chinatown, and the adjoining building was a whorehouse. We climbed the stairs and found ourselves staring down a narrow hallway lined on either side by wooden paneling painted bright pink, which housed booths concealed by pink curtains. I privately entertained the notion that we had somehow stepped back in time, missed our entrance and were actually standing in the whorehouse, when a friendly Chinese woman with very little english appeared as if from nowhere, and before I could apologise and go looking for that glitch in the space/time continuum that found me in a turn-of-the-century House of Sin and wondering if my mother might ever get wind of this, she guided us to a booth, sat us down and headed off to get us some waters, pulling the curtain behind her. After a brief moment or two admiring our almost completely pink surroundings, our friendly Chinese lady returned and we ordered.

We figured we'd keep it simple - sweet and sour chicken and a plate of Chop Suey - if it was in the restaurant's name, they must be proud of it, we reckoned. We waited for the food sipping on a Tsingtao beer, which reminded us somewhat of our server: pleasant, inoffensive and efficiently doing just what's expected. Nothing more, nothing less.

With a quiet swish of the pink curtain, the food arrived, and here is where my loquatiousness escapes me, perspicacity becomes no more than a word, and my penchant for wanton verbosity runs for cover, terrified that i demand more of it than it can handle. The food, dear reader, can only be described thusly; UNBELIEVABLE!!! I assure you I mean no discredit in such a short description. We were left speechless by the understated, clearly defined aromatic flavors, and at one point we both exclaimed "Now THAT'S what sweet and sour sauce is S'POSED to taste like". Nothing short of dazzling, dear reader, and if you are or regard yourself a true chowhound, then for you, this restaurant alone is worth a trip to Butte MT. Enough said.
At this point, we were a hair's breadth from barricading ourselves in the restaurant and holding the chef hostage to do our bidding, and indeed it might have come to that were it not for the relaxed atmosphere, and the disarming smile of the friendly Chinese woman. We decided instead, to finish up and head back to the hotel, satisfied that the night had reached it's zenith, and that any further attempt to reach new heights would have been foolish. We slipped into sleep with thoughts of the road ahead in the morning, the occasional sweet and sour belch, and the quiet street whispering tales of a mountain town's glory days. Butte, may you live forever.

Irish for a day in Butte MT.

* The night after writing this , I found myself staying the night in The Biltmore, downtown LA, where 50 years earlier, stars of the silver screen would swan between banquet hall and ballroom, shimmering in their mid-twentieth century elegance in a flood of flashbulbs and fanfare.

From the walls - row upon monochrome row of tuxedoed bigwigs and movie icons, Fonda, Stewart and Bogart among 'em, smiled up from their dinner table, their diamond encrusted ladies by their sides, at the hotel photographer, hired to record one more night of glitz and glamour on the crest of a hollywood wave. Such pictures hang from almost every wall in the lobby, and they bear a striking resemblance to a certain photograph featured in a movie called - wait a minute - The Shining?. It seems that somewhere between Butte MT, and LA, CA, I had found the circle within the straight line, and being a rather pathetic part-time movie buff, i was back to thinking about demonic and supernatural paralells.