I’m staring out the window of the Legal Tender Pub & Bistro, looking east across the Interstate to the location of the original Legal Tender Mine. The mine was first developed in 1872 but would have its most productive years between 1909 and 1927. Historical records indicate that by the end of the 1890s, the mine produced $1,500,000 worth of silver. Over the years, production would dwindle and finally end in 1951.
It seems fitting that this Clancy, Montana, eatery honors the area’s mining history. The original Legal Tender Restaurant operated from 1982 to 2006. It would change hands and names a few times before it closed. In November 2015, the restaurant reopened under the new ownership of Cliff Meis, his parents, and Richard Miltenberger. Bob Marks, a patriarch of the Clancy area who built the place in 1982, and his wife Barb, proclaimed to the new owners that the restaurant should once again be called the Legal Tender.
When asked what prompted this engineer and his partners to delve into the restaurant business, soft-spoken Cliff shrugs his shoulders and says, “I remember riding the school bus for years. We always passed by this building. Prickly Pear Creek is just out the door. Across the road, there is a pair of nesting bald eagles.” For Cliff, who grew up in Clancy, I sense the building was an institution that he was keen on bringing back to life. His love for this small community, roughly a 15-minute drive from Helena, is obvious.
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In the role of both general manager and head chef is Charles “Rusty” James. Rusty, originally from Oklahoma, has over 30 years of “on-the-job” restaurant experience. Rusty chuckles when he says, “I don’t consider myself a chef, but everyone else does.” He managed the Brewhouse for 15 years and was involved with the Fusion Grill as a partner for five years. He joined the team at the Legal Tender in January 2017. By February, Rusty had reshaped the menu with his recipes, which he describes as upscale casual. “Presentation and flavor are key to what comes out of my kitchen, with 99% of the choices made from scratch," Rusty says with a sense of pride.
In terms of the atmosphere and the food, Rusty reveals, “I want to be everything to everybody, from the high schooler on a prom date to the person celebrating a 60th birthday.” His extensive menu reflects this goal. The restaurant is best known for its steaks, with a favorite being the whiskey steak, using a sauce of Rusty’s creation. The chicken fried steak catches my attention, one of my favorite foods. The menu describes it as certified Angus beef baseball cut sirloin pounded out and lightly breaded, fried crisp and topped with creamy sausage gravy. I make a mental note to try this on my next visit to the Legal Tender.
But then I see the restaurant does honey Dijon shrimp, prepared with fresh garlic and shallots, deglazed with white wine and lemon with a touch of Dijon and honey. I rarely fix shrimp, so Clancy is on my list for a dinner outing when I’m in a seafood mood. After this past year of staying home and struggling with ideas of what to fix for dinner, I’m all for getting out and letting someone else do the cooking.
There is something on the menu for everyone’s taste, from Marsala chicken to seafood mac and cheese to Italian gnocchi. On the weekends, customers can opt for slow-roasted prime rib. There is an array of burgers, pizza and sandwiches, including a patty melt and a Cubano porkie. The smoked brisket melt is popular, featuring grilled sourdough with hardwood-smoked brisket, bacon, apricot applewood BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese. For starters, fried green beans, hand-cut calamari, and pretzel bites drizzled with Monterey Jack beer cheese are options. There is a well-rounded complement of local microbrews and wine selections, along with a full-service bar for customers to enjoy a choice of spirits with their meal.
On the weekends, the Legal Tender Pub & Bistro is open for breakfast from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Rusty insists I come out and try the candied walnut praline cinnamon roll French toast. He gets no argument from me on that suggestion.
Before COVID hit, the Legal Tender hosted history-themed fundraising dinners to benefit local entities, including Clancy School, Elkhorn Search and Rescue, and the Jefferson County Library. Patrons were treated to a set dinner at $25 a plate and a history lesson from a local who had a story to tell. One such dinner showcased the last meal on the Titanic. The speaker talked about folks with a Montana connection that were aboard the fateful ship. Cliff hopes these fundraising dinners will continue as we move out of the pandemic.
I ask about future plans for the restaurant. Cliff blurts out, “I have a pair of lederhosen, and my wife has a dirndl outfit. We like celebrating Oktoberfest and have space and plans to install a beer garden.” The Legal Tender does indeed have room, with a sizable restaurant, a banquet room and an oversized parking lot. I’m married to a German who loves his beer, so the idea of an Oktoberfest celebration just a few miles from home will make him very happy!
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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