by George Everett
In 1985, Butte, was the only community in Montana of more than 30,000 residents (and probably the only such community in the whole U.S.) that didn't have its own McDonald's restaurant. Then, as if to usher in a new era, or to usher out an old one, the golden arches were hoisted within sight of Interstate 90 atop a tall telescoping tower that arrived seemingly overnight, complete with flashing safety lights to warn away low-flying aircraft.
On the strip of Harrison Avenue perpendicular to I-90, the Butte McDonald's joined company with Arby's, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, and the Colonel's Kentucky Fried Chicken. These restaurants are clustered by the interstate for the convenience of passing tourists who hop off for a hot snack on their way up north to Glacier National Park or down south to Yellowstone Park since Butte is about halfway between the two.
Butte residents now line up with the tourists for Big Macs and Personal Pan Pizzas, but this old mining camp, which has done things its own way for more than a century, has never needed national franchises to teach lessons on how to "do " lunch. That's because this is Butte, where, as they say, it's a mile high, a mile deep, and everyone is on the level.
In Butte they don't do lunch, they eat it.
From its earliest days as a gold and silver, and then copper camp, Butte attracted immigrants from all parts of the world and with them came their culinary traditions. Finns, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Yugoslavians, English, and Welsh came to Butte to work the many mines on what is still called "the Richest Hill on Earth."
A century's heritage of hard work under hard rock has left its mark upon the city's residents. Precisely because of Butte's rich working class heritage, the place is still flush with a rich vein of no-nonsense eateries wherein a respectable meal designed to fit between shifts can be had.
In the heart of old uptown Butte stands the restored art deco facade of the grand old madam of Butte restaurants, the M&M cigar store, a 24-hour cafe and gambling parlor that serves history, local color, and often an adventure with their meals. In the past, when miners came off shift, they would head straight to one of several cigar stores on the hill. So called because they sold cigars, these enterprises also served whiskey, beer chasers, fights, gambling, and then, often as an afterthought, food. The beer chaser or a sandwich were often given free as prizes for surviving another shift at up to 4,000 feet below the ground. The M&M was built in 1890 as a gambling hall. A 1900 map shows a bowling alley in the basement of the M&M, with a saloon and restaurant on the first floor and a gambling hall on the second.
The recommended fare here is a Whatzit, a hearty Cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce, and tomato. The flashing neon sign of the M&M can be found in the heart of the historic uptown
area at 9 North Main Street (723-7612).
The Deluxe Bar also continues a tradition of serving inexpensive but hefty sandwiches to accompany a tap beer or two. The house specialty is a creature that includes 12 slices (count them!) of roast beef served on thick rye or french bread with regular mustard or industrial strength horseradish. The Deluxe Bar is located at 823 E. Front (782-7686).
Miners from Southern England and Wales brought the pasty to Butte by way of the copper mines of Northern Michigan. They tucked these into their lunch buckets to be savored later underground. Miners described their lunch pasties as "letters from 'ome." A mixture of meat, potatoes, and onions baked in a light crust and often drowned in gravy, the pasty is still a Butte favorite for lunch and nobody does them better than Joe`s Pasty Shop at 1641 Grand Avenue (723-9071).
The Chinese came to Butte to take their share of the ore from the placer mines but more often they worked as launderers, tailors, and cooks. At one time there were 10 to 15 noodle parlors in the uptown area. Most of these stood in the Chinatown section of Butte where the Pekin Noodle Parlor now stands up the alley from the defunct Mai Wah and Wah Chong Tai.
During the 1920's, hundreds of Chinese lived in this block which was adjacent to the red light district of Butte known as "Venus Alley" or "The Line." The Pekin, which was built in 1909, is the last of these Chinese noodle parlors still serving Chinese food in Butte. The Pekin is still operated at its original location by Danny Wong, descendant of the Chinese family that has continually operated the restaurant since 1916. The Pekin can be found at 117 South Main Street (782-2217).
Another Butte favorite is the pork chop sandwich which has been served by Pork Chop John's for more than 50 years. Back in the early 1920's, the original John, John Berklund invented this Butte delicacy, which is a breaded deep-fried pork patty on a bun with all the fixings. He sold them from a cart on the corner of Mercury and Main Streets uptown until 1924 when he moved his business into the Doyle Hotel at 8 West Mercury. The Doyle Hotel is gone but the restaurant remains.
Butte has two Pork Chop John shops -- the original at 8 West Mercury (782-0812), and the other at 2400 Harrison Avenue in the valley below, or "The Flat" as it is locally called (782-1783).
Matt's Place, by far the jewel of Butte lunch spots, is as much a living icon to Western drive-in restaurants as it is a place for delicious milk shakes and some of the world's best onion rings, and of course the famous Matt's Place "nutburger," a burger with a protein blast of crushed peanuts mixed in. At Matt's Place, they still have a Proctor Silex coffee machine and the owner Mae Lawrence explains, "If it ever breaks we're in big trouble."
Two large, hand-painted photo murals of Northern Rockies mountain scenes decorate the walls and the soda fountain stools give the tiny restaurant a more cozy than cramped feel. Opened in 1930, Matt's Place is the oldest drive-in restaurant in Montana and it sits near the corner of Rowe Road and Montana Street (782-8049).
Butte's best answer to the Colonel is the Freeway Tavern which serves up sizzling hot fried chicken and "jojos" while a montage of infrequent patron, Evel Kneivel, looks down on you. If you ask the owner, "Muzzy" Ferroni, he'll spice up your meal with anecdotes about the Butte-born and raised daredevil. The Freeway also offers a traditional pork chop sandwich called "The Wop Chop." The Freeway sits half a block from Matt's Place and only a few yards from Interstate 90 at 2001 South Main Street (723-9083).
So, if you are driving by Butte in the near future and you want to find food that's not too fast, look around. While the classic Butte lunch spots like the Chequamegon and the Success Cafe which only sat four at a time may be gone, historical meals are still to be had there, and within a few minutes of the Interstate highway, too.