I’m generally grouchy about the dining scene in Missoula but there are a few gems. I mostly cook at home, save my money, and go nuts when I travel. In any case, here’s my advice:
The Best (go out of your way):
I’ve had multiple visitors from places with great pizza (like, um, NYC) who have texted me months later telling me they are still thinking about Biga Pizza. This is the one culinary experience in Missoula that is truly world class. It gets the basics right (excellent brick oven crust and high quality ingredients) and then adds lots of really amazing, thoughtful flavor combinations. Chef Bob Marshall thinks about texture when putting toppings together, which is something that even a lot of very good pizza chefs ignore. My winter favorites are the pie with sweet potato, bacon, maple-chipotle, and hazelnut and their signature classic: smoked Gouda, fennel sausage, Flathead cherry chutney. In the summer I like the margherita, the bacon and fennel marmalade, and the mushroom-arugula. Also, with the exception of the occasional vanilla-laced vinaigrette, their salad game is on point. I almost always order the special salad, and it’s almost always stellar. One small negative comment is that lately I don’t think Marshall has been developing the weekly special pizzas himself and some of them have been out of balance (like a Cubano pizza that sounded amazing but was overwhelmingly acidic).
Cajun joint in the back of Charlie B’s. The setting here is great. Charlie’s is the best bar in Missoula, and really the only one I actively enjoy spending time in. What’s so great about it is the total lack of social barriers. Everyone goes to Charlie’s from all Montanan walks of life and people mostly get along. I can’t vouch for most of the menu but the Gumbolaya (yep, gumbo on jambalaya) is the best cheap, quick lunch around and I would eat it twice a week if I lived closer. Also: very good wings. I’ve had the etouffee and some of the po’ boys and I enjoyed them but I like the Gumbolaya so much I rarely even think about what I’m going to order.
Le Petit Outre
Well-prepared Vivace espresso from Seattle and excellent not-too-sweet French-style pastries. The canelés are transcendent and the other pastries–except the scones– are great (though a lot of people also like the scones). This is the only coffee or espresso in town I will go out of my way for (ignore their drip, though).
Kamoon Arabian Cuisine
New food truck outside Imagine Nation Brewing. Spendy, but I don’t mind supporting these guys and this is really the only great non-Western food around. Indeed, it’s exceptional. One thing: if you get a wrap, probably ask them to heat the shell just to make sure they do. That’s the one problem I’ve had.
Best breakfast, and a good value. Corned beef hash, sourdough pancakes.
Parker’s Family Restaurant
This is actually in Drummond, but it’s totally worth the drive (closed on Sundays and Mondays!) and easy to tie in with a visit to Garnet ghost town during summer months or Phillipsburg all year round. They have like 127 burgers on the menu and they get really crazy. Like, you can get a burger topped with a smaller burger. The woman who runs the place is AMAZING and I LOVE HER.
La Mas Fina Mexican Food
This is down in Victor, but it’s the only Mexican food around I’d go out of my way for. Good tamales.
This place has been inconsistent in my experience but it is generally very solid BBQ. They are better at ribs than brisket. The sides are generally awesome. Not into the sauces but when you catch them on a good day their meat doesn’t need any sauce.
Lisa’s Pasty Pantry
A taste of Butte, right here in Missoula. Aside from a classic pasty, you can get a Butte-style fried pork chop sandwich or a pretty damn good Reuben.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a ski area that serves better food for more reasonable prices than Snowbowl, which is also open much of the summer for MTB and ziplining. The pizza is not as good as Biga, but I wouldn’t want to eat only Biga and never have Snowbowl. It’s good in its own way.
Excellent hipster ice cream. Much better than Big Dipper. Avoid the sorbet. I like mainstays like salted caramel, but their very best special flavors deploy fresh herbs.
Excellent cake. The only bakery around besides Le Petit that I’d recommend.
Fun spot for homemade pie down in Florence
Red Bird Wine Bar
Best burger in the city limits. Get hushpuppies on the side. The duck pâté is good but I generally don’t enjoy the rest of their menu.
Unexceptional but pleasant Indian counter service. A good choice for a quick, relatively healthy lunch.
They moved to Lolo. The only acceptable Americanized Chinese food around.
Inconsistent but usually very good expensive sandwiches. I always get the Megadeth.
The Empanada Joint
Solid. They do more traditional Argentine-style but also breakfast empanadas with eggs and bacon or sausage that are awesome.
I do not recommend fine dining in Missoula. None of the places here would be good enough to stay open in a modestly competitive market. If you absolutely must, you can get a tasty plate of overpriced food at the Pearl. Avoid Scotty’s Table and ignore the people who will inevitably disagree with me about this. They make some very basic mistakes for a place that charges as much as they do (standing out in my memory: mushy mussels and unbalanced plates without enough of components that you need with every bite). Except for their holiday stollen, avoid the very popular Black Cat Bake Shop, which has gone way down hill. Almost everything there tastes like the walk-in freezer. They fill fruit pastries with pie filling out of a can. Almost everything is underbaked. Avoid all Asian food not mentioned above, except maybe Vietnam Noodle, which does kinda sorta have a place in my heart (it’s not good per se but it’s got charm). The Michi Ramen bar is probably the single worst place I’ve eaten at in Missoula (the food made me so angry that I was inspired to write this post– greasy, watery, undersalted, mushy noodles, undercooked egg white, overpowering burnt garlic). Definitely no sushi. There used to be a marginally acceptable place in Hamilton but it closed and reopened and I heard that it’s now bad. Avoid all the random upscale bar food like the James Bar. Just go to Charlie’s if you want to eat in a bar. And that, friends, is my grumpy Missoula dining summary.