Even on a weekend, the streets of historic uptown Butte, MT are deserted until about 8 PM. Then rowdy people materialize from the darkness- loud, intoxicated and prepared to fight. We stayed on the 3rd floor of the Hotel Finlen, just across from the Acoma Lounge. Butte is replete with such dim dens--padded vinyl on the bars and middle aged male bartenders that pour stiff drinks. As the toenail paring of a waxing crescent moon seemed to ride the updrafts above the Metals Bank building, we heard the beginnings of a clamor that would last until the wee hours.
I've been to Butte a number of times, and it can be a somewhat bleak experience. If you don't already know, the town is the home of the Berkeley Pit, a yawning copper mine that spreads in craggy, orange and taupe tiers above uptown Butte. Enough metal was pulled out of the hills there to have made the city at one time one of the most populous between the Mississippi River and the West Coast. Butte exudes, if not quite a faded glory, then at least a strong sense that there was once much more afoot on its corners and in its businesses.
Something about the exposed guts of the mountain, the crumbling, vacant state of the once fancy brick buildings, the silent streets, the blue, snowy ranges in the distance, and fact that everything is always closed- gives Butte, on a normal day, a bit of a haunted feeling.
We once stopped by on July 4th, expecting the streets to be lively, but we'd missed the morning's parade and everyone had gone home.
St. Patrick's Day is a lively exception to the town's deserted feeling, as is the Montana Folk Festival which takes place in July.
One February day we visited Butte in order to climb up to Our Lady of the Rockies- a 90 foot tall vinyl statue of Mary that sits on a ridge top above town. Fueled by a half-inch thick ham steak cooked on the griddle at the M & M Cigar Shop (sadly now closed), we busted our way through waist-deep snowdrifts to get to the statue. The wind howled through her plastic cowl and blasted our faces and froze our hands. We paid our respects and got the hell off the mountain.
What to eat in Butte? A couple of places have made the food travel shows- Joe's Pasties and Pork Chop John's. Joe's is one of many Butte purveyors of Cornish meat pies doused in brown gravy. The pies are stuffed with chunks of tender beef, onions and cubed potatoes and the crust is more chewy than flaky. John's is the king of the fried pork chop sandwich- a boneless loin chop is breaded in John's special seasoning, fried and placed on a seeded bun with lettuce, tomato and onion. There are a couple joints that found their way into Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood books. One is the Pekin Noodle Parlour, which serves second rate Chinese food, but its charming location on the upstairs floor of a building that may have served as a brothel and is now equipped with it's own private eating cubicles makes up for the dull food.
The highlight of our last trip was a visit to Lydia's, recommended by Bubba, our dear friend and a Butte native. Stained glass and velour-bedecked Lydia's has been around since 1946, and has occupied its current location on the flats near the airport since 1964. Lydia's is an old style supper club and serves steaks, seafood and Italian American fare accompanied by a table-crushing round of antipasto plates and enough sides to satisfy the most bottomless stomach. Warning: Don't go to Lydia's without an appetite. Before you order, the server brings salad, pickled peppers, whole scallions, sweet potato salad, canned beets and dressing boats filled with Lydia's sweet Italian vinaigrette studded with bits of Roquefort cheese. This dressing brought me back to the St. Louis Hill restaurants we frequented when I was a kid and the Roquefort provided a pungent punch the St. Louis dressings lacked.
I ordered the Lydia's signature chicken Cacciatori which is a half chicken that arrives in a pool of winy sauce. The half chicken fried in butter was even more luxurious with crusty bits of caramelized skin. Entrees are accompanied by ravioli, spaghetti and fries (soggy). After dinner, you get your choice of tea or coffee and a scoop of ice cream. The Spumoni was delicious with bits of candied cherries and nuts. Lydia's is worth a visit for the atmosphere and the enormous spread. I wish I had some chicken fried in butter on a warm plate right now.