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LAST BEST PLATES

Timber Bar - the quintessential watering hole of Big Timber

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The town of Big Timber has always held a soft spot in my heart. It’s where my dad, a transplant from Wisconsin, would meet and marry my mom, who had grown up near Melville. The town sits in the shadow of my favorite Montana mountain range, the Crazy Mountains, and takes its name nearby Big Timber Creek. The area around Big Timber has long been known for its sheep and cattle ranches.

Like many small towns dotted across the state, it has its quintessential watering hole, fittingly named the Timber Bar. The Fuller family opened this family-friendly hangout in Big Timber’s business district in 1957. In 2014, Melissa Chounet bought the bar, being only the second owner of an institution that has stood firm for 64 years. Melissa, who goes by Mel, grew up in Columbus and is no stranger to the food industry. Her childhood hangouts included the old Frosty Freeze in Big Timber, which her grandparents owned, and the Stillwater Sandwich Shop in Columbus, owned by her parents. Today, Mel splits her time between the Timber Bar and working from home managing a virtual call center, a career that has spanned 20 years.

If you happen by the bar after dark, you can’t miss the vintage Timber Bar neon sign that lights up McLeod Street. The interior of Mel’s place is classic bar décor, with walls peppered with beer and neon signs, western prints, and thank you certificates from local causes that the bar supports. Behind the counter is a sizable display of liquor — over 250 varieties, including many from Montana distilleries. There is a pool table and a small casino area in the back. The ceiling displays over 500 beer tap handles from the various breweries whose products have been featured at the Timber Bar.

Mel is a professed beer geek, and her fondness for brews has influenced the liquid offerings available. There are 14 beers on tap, with approximately 25 kegs stored in the back cooler and basement, conveniently aging until rotated in. Mel goes on to say, “We get a lot of specialty kegs, but one cool thing we do is a vertical of Bad Santa every year. We will put on kegs from 2019, 2020, and 2021 of this Eisbock beer crafted at Bayern Brewing out of Missoula in December. I’ll leave it to Eisbock fans to consider a December trip to the Timber Bar.

The Timber Bar has found favor with beer lovers who use the Untapped app. Not being a beer drinker, Mel explains to me how this social media platform works. It’s a bit of a scavenger hunt for beer enthusiasts looking to earn badges for trying a variety of beers from around the world. Folks tuned into the app can log in, rate the beer, and share with friends what they drank at the Timber Bar.

Beyond the liquid offerings, the bar is known for consistently great food. You would expect to find bar food in the form of burgers, fries, sandwiches, salads and chicken wings, which are all part of the menu. The beef, lamb and pork are sourced locally from Pioneer Meats. The daily soup selections are homemade, including Wisconsin beer soup topped with popcorn, and spaghetti soup, which I found very tasty.

But the Timber Bar has some distinctive choices. The Herder Burger features 1/2 pound of local Big Timber lamb served with tzatziki sauce and homemade potato chips. Blue cheese crumbles and jalapenos can be added to the lamb burger. The Big Arn is named after Melissa’s grandpa Arnold. It’s a hamburger deluxe topped with loaded sauce and pickles, served with beer-battered fries and creamy coleslaw. When I ask about the loaded sauce, Mel grins as she says, “I call it the old people’s sauce because my mom always put it on the burgers. It’s just a mix of ketchup, mustard and relish.”

Not surprisingly, beer finds its way into some of the appetizers. Bottle Caps feature beer-battered jalapeno slices, and Cajun bites consist of local Andouille sausage in a Cold Smoke beer batter.

Sirloin and ribeye steaks, jumbo prawns and chicken (four pieces marinated then coated in a secret breading) are hearty choices for those stopping for dinner. For lighter fare, prime rib sandwiches are always a weekend special. The Big Timber “Mac” Salad is right up my alley, as I tend to like a burger without the bun. It consists of a 1/2 pound burger served on a bed of lettuce with tomato, pickle and onion, then topped with cheese and served with 1000 Island dressing.

The Timber Bar left a lasting impression on Theo Pilny, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. His stepdad plans over-the-top Harley Davidson trips every few years, and one of those destinations was Montana. When Theo learned of their proposed route, he did some research and came across the Timber Bar’s neon sign and knew this was a must-stop.

When they reached Big Timber, they headed to the bar for dinner and drinks. Theo’s affection for Montana comes through as he exclaims, “It was the best night of the trip. Everyone was super friendly, the food was great, and all the right songs came on.”

Theo wanted to commemorate the evening, which led him to get a bicep tattoo in 2020. Adapted from the bar’s neon sign, the tat features Theo’s dog Aspen as a lumberjack with the words Timber Bar. Melissa learned about the ink from Theo’s mom and stepdad, who stopped in the Timber Bar in May of this year. I’m reminded again of what a small world this can be.

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.

TheLastBestPlates.com is a digital destination that serves up Montana's tasty food, travel and culture stories … one bite at a time.

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