Pine Creek Lodge and Cafe keeps regulars, celebrities coming back

Late last August, a fire swept through the Pine Creek and Deep Creek drainages in the Paradise Valley. Park County residents parked along Highway 89 watching the flames leap from the Absaroka Mountains while they tried to figure out what was happening. Others gathered at the weekly Livingston farmers market. While shopping for local veggies, they exchanged hearsay and mourned the possible loss of the Pine Creek Lodge and Cafe and homes in the area. Someone announced that the beloved restaurant had burned to the ground. But then there was an announcement that the fire had bypassed the cafe.

The Pine Creek Cafe plays an important historical, culinary and musical role in Park County. Well-known actors and writers have long used it as a gathering place. Families dance outside on summer nights to their favorite bands. Couples celebrate anniversaries, and just about everyone loves the brunch. In the 1970s, writers such as Richard Brautigan and Jim Harrison, actors including Peter Fonda and artists like Russell Chatham flocked to the Paradise Valley, according to Scott Campbell, Pine Creek’s manager. Jeff Bridges and Thomas McGuane hung out at Pine Creek while filming “Rancho Deluxe.” The cafe didn’t exist, yet, but cabins and a general store had been around since the 1940s. These men, and they were mostly men, would rent cabins and “sit around, drink and amuse each other with their stories,” Campbell said.

Over the years, Pine Creek evolved. The cafe opened; then a bar and deck were added. In summer, diners eat outside in the trees. When Mark Hartwig bought Pine Creek last fall, he expanded the dining room and renovated the kitchen.

Walking into the cafe, the first thing one notices is the warm odor of wood smoke from the soapstone stove in the middle of the room. Windows look out upon conifers and a little creek that flows through the property. Log cabin walls are adorned with local art, memorabilia and a Pine Creek Store sign.

New chef Charlie Newsome recently changed up the menu.

“We have a little bit of everything,” Campbell said. “We serve bison, beef, chicken, fish and pasta. The chef is very creative and comes up with great specials.”

A favorite, according to Campbell, is the trout taco plate. Flaked trout, shredded lettuce, cilantro-lime creme, avocado puree and black bean and corn salsa are piled into soft taco shells and served with rice pilaf.

The barbecue ribs are also a big hit. A half rack of ribs is slow cooked with a chipotle glaze and served with potatoes au gratin, seasonal vegetables and garnished with black beans and corn salsa.

On weekend mornings, while families, couples and friends linger over coffee, the hands-down favorite dish is Huevos Rancheros.

“For brunch, they are just really good,” Campbell said.

With all the changes Pine Creek has gone through over the years, the restaurant has remained a draw for writers, musicians, artists and other creative types. On Wednesdays, a writers’ night attracts locals to listen to authors and poets talk about their latest works, or read verses of their poetry. Tim Cahill, Scott McMillian and Richard Wheeler are among those writers booked for late winter and spring.

Friday and Saturday nights mean live music from regional musicians. Around Memorial Day, the music moves outside to make room for more dancing and eating. Locals and tourists bring their camp chairs and dig into the outdoor barbecue and bar.

“We have a big summer of music planned, including the Red Elvises and the March FourthMarching Band,” Campbell said.

A collective sigh of relief was felt in Park County when Pine Creek Lodge and Café was finally determined to be safe from fire damage last fall, although several homes in the area were not so lucky. At Pine Creek, the music plays on, the food is served, and the café’s history continues to grow.

From the Great Falls Tribune