The historic Granary, a family and friend-owned restaurant, recently went under a face-lift-like metamorphosis in the spring of 2004. Now one of the premier dining establishments in Billings, the Granary has proven to be a surprising culinary jewel in the expanse of eastern Montana.
My friend Robyn and I recently took a trip to Billings to dine at the Granary restaurant. Before our 7 p.m. reservation, I did some online research so that I was somewhat familiar with the cuisine and history of the Granary. I discovered that it was built in 1935 and served as the milling department for the Billings Polytechnic Institute until WWII. In 1976, the building opened as a restaurant; in 2004, friends Aaron Sparboe and John Scott took over ownership and hired friend John Beckner as General Manager and Alan Sparboe, brother to Aaron, as Executive Chef. After extensive remodeling that included the addition of a patio, loft, and trendy bar area, the Granary reopened in October 2004 and has been delighting food lovers, such as Robyn and myself, ever since.
Upon entering the Granary, Robyn and I immediately took notice of the eclectic pairing of modernity and the Old West in aesthetic combinations such as rustic branding irons adorning the walls accompanied by jazz music playing quietly in the background. Similarly in contrast is the clientele: diners varied in ages and dress, from jeans and sweatshirts to more formal dresses, suits, and stilettos. It seemed to us that anyone would feel comfortable in the elegant yet comfortable environment judging by the relaxed ambiance of the varied groups in the dining room area.
We were also impressed by the large mural-like Ralston painting on the far-end wall of the dining room depicting Custer and Native Americans traveling in procession on horseback. Another Ralston painting, appropriately titled, “Sobering Up,” graces the wall in the stylish bar area and portrays a cowboy sitting on the ground, holding his head in a gesture of disbelief. According to Sparboe family history, Ralston stayed in the Grand Hotel, which was owned by the Sparboe brothers’ father, during the 1940s and 50s, and he painted in exchange for room and board at the Grand Hotel.
Also within the dining area is an above-ground wine cellar which has controlled humidity and temperature set at 54 degrees with the capacity to hold 2500 bottles of wine ranging from $16-$800/bottle. The wine list alone is an unbelievable and tempting 16 pages long consisting of wine from all over the Northwest, California, Australia, Italy, and France. The various menus are extensive and could be considered overwhelming if not for the amiable and knowledgeable advice of the experienced wait staff, who are more than happy to share with their eager and hungry customers. I knew that I wanted to try a glass of wine with my meal but had no clue what I would be eating for dinner yet, so I asked our server, Sedley, what she would recommend that would go with any of my potential choices. She advised me to try a sweeter white wine called “The Innocent”, which is a house wine available by the glass, and I soon discovered this to be an excellent recommendation. My dinner companion approached the cocktail menu with a similar sense of adventure and ordered first the Pomegranate Martini, followed by the Key Lime Pie Martini. After sampling these innovative and delicious cocktails, Robyn and I could fully understand why the Granary’s bartender was awarded the Billings Gazette’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best Bartender this past year.
To start off our meal, we went with the choice of crispy spring rolls from the Appetizer portion of the dinner menu. Upon the first bite, the response from both Robyn and me was a mutual in-chorus and not so subtle: “These are awesome!” The sauce that accompanied the delicious and crispy spring rolls was a teriyaki that Sedley called “Dragon Sauce,” the perfect compliment for the blending of vegetables that offered just the right amount of sweet and spice to the appetizer. Following the completion of the spring rolls, we continued to savor the wine and share the scrumptious cocktails while we waited for the arrival of our main entrées, the evening’s Steak Special – a 16 oz. sirloin steak covered in bacon and blue cheese crumbles accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and a side salad served with a strawberry vinaigrette – and the Thai Prawns – Thai glazed and grilled jumbo prawns leaning on sweet coconut sticky rice and a cucumber, roasted red pepper, and pickled ginger slaw.
After our meal, Executive Chef Alan Sparboe, who continually checked on us throughout the progression of the courses, sat down with us while we contemplated the dessert menu. He suggested that we try the Chocolate Tower – a Granary favorite consisting of white and dark chocolate pate over flourless chocolate cake covered in rich chocolate ganache accompanied by three dipping sauces. Robyn and I were both full and satisfied from our meal but felt that we just had to sample an item from the dessert menu for the culinary experience to be complete. What better way to do so than try a confection titled the Chocolate Tower? Speaking as a lover of chocolate, I can honestly say that this is one tower I wouldn’t mind being locked up in for any extensive period of time. Truly decadent and definitely worthy to be shared!
What struck us about Chef Sparboe is his humble attitude towards his recently being named the Montana Chef’s Association 2005 Chef of the Year. What does he think about such an honor? “It’s cool, I like it.” But, he admits, the attention makes him uncomfortable and he’d much rather hide in the kitchen due to his shy nature. Robyn and I were curious about his inspiration for cuisine, and he replied to our question with a smile, “I like to make food that looks good, tastes good, and makes people happy and full.” As to his own refrigerator at home, “It’s empty” and he’s an old-fashioned “McDonald’s and popcorn kind of guy,” on rare occasions when not supervising the kitchen at the Granary.
Sparboe is in charge of eight people on the kitchen staff and three dishwashers, all of whom are personally trained by him and his sous chef, Summer Dunn. In his past culinary experience, Sparboe graduated from the New England Culinary Institute and worked in the kitchens of the Four Seasons and Hilton Tower Hotels in Chicago, the Inn at Essex in Vermont, and has had numerous jobs at various restaurants throughout Billings. Because of his eclectic interest in different kinds of foods and taste sensations, Sparboe rotates the menu quarterly and does so to reflect the changes in seasons and available foods and also takes into consideration customer feedback when altering the menu selections.
After dinner, Robyn and I went on a guided tour of the entire restaurant. In addition to the dining room and attached bar on the main level, there is a loft area upstairs and a private banquet room downstairs with a private bar; both areas can be rented for banquets, wedding rehearsal dinners, parties, anniversaries, and other special events. The entire atmosphere certainly lends itself towards romance, and it isn’t surprising that the Granary was named the Most Romantic Place to Have Dinner according to the Billings Gazette Readers’ Choice Awards. In fact, shortly before we sat down to dinner, a couple near us became engaged!
The Granary isn’t just an indoors-only type of restaurant with the addition of the patio which stems outside from the bar. The patio is welcoming and cozy, complete with a large round table enabling friendly conversation and camaraderie around the center chiminea. In addition to the fire pit, numerous portable heaters surround the patio, creating warmth as the crispness of winter approaches and the patio nears its closing time of mid-October. You can look forward to the patio’s re-opening in May for the celebration of Cinco de Mayo.
The Granary is located at 1500 Poly Drive in Billings. For more information, images, and extensive and printable menus, you can visit the Granary’s website at www.billings-granary.com or call 406-259-3488 to inquire about reservations.
— Mary Biehl is a native Montanan writer and editor, living and loving life under Bozeman’s beautiful big sky.