Brian Menges preaches homemade food, and as the owner and chef of 2nd Street Bistro, the Murray Bar, Gil’s Goods, and The Tackle Box in Livingston, he continues to grow his congregation of diners.
I waited for Menges, the recipient of the 2012 Montana Ambassadors “Entrepreneur of the Year Award,” at the Murray Bar. He arrived dressed in shorts and a Bahama shirt, then led me to the adjacent 2nd Street Bistro.
We settled at the chef ’s table, where Menges shared the tale of his life as a philosopher, sommelier, and chef, beginning from the “union of a disenfranchised monk and a pious nun.” His father had been a Trappist monk, and his mother a Cisterian nun, before the two met in Salt Lake City.
As a boy, Menges was a talented wrestler, and later earned a college scholarship to Nebraska. Two years later, he returned to Colorado. Though he excelled at Boulder’s Colorado University for several semesters, he became disillusioned with his schooling, and took time off to live with a Rastafarian in Belize and teach English in Guatemala.
Menges’ culinary education has roots in many places. He credits a Denver-neighborhood French restaurant for his classic culinary education; during his high school years, he worked at Le Central, where he became versed in butchering and making stocks and breads. His wine knowledge developed while he worked at Trios in Boulder and at Terroir in Jackson Hole; eventually he received a sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
In 2003, he discovered Livingston and fell in love with the authentic Murray Bar, which, he said, was “full of dogs, cigarettes, and stale beer.” Serendipitously, the bar and restaurant next door were up for sale. With a loan from the Bozeman office of the Prospera Business Network, Menges opened 2nd Street Bistro in 2004.
Anthony Bourdain was impressed that such a high level of craft had found its way to rural America.
Fast-forward to 2009: The restaurant was featured on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, which lauded what Menges described as his “Norman Rockwell existence.” Bourdain was impressed that such a high level of craft had found its way to rural America.
Though the restaurant was always busy, Menges found fine dining unsustainable. When neighboring Gil’s Goods became available in 2012, he purchased it to create a European-style café. Anchored by a one-of-a-kind 15,000-pound wood-fired oven, the restaurant offers diners a place for coffee, wine, or food with an opening to the Murray Bar and al fresco sidewalk dining on West Park Street. Menges admitted that it took some convincing for him to offer paper cups for to-go coffees—though he relented on that front, his preference is still for patrons to “take a moment out of [their] day to sit down and enjoy a nice cup of coffee out of a ceramic cup with a saucer.”
When it came time to refashion the Murray Bar, Menges took great care. He didn’t want to “destroy the vibe” with the wrong kind of renovation, and waited a long time before deciding thoughtfully on plans that “embraced all that was great about the bar.”
Two doors down, Menges sells sandwiches and deli salads at The Tackle Box, and has an industrial kitchen he calls 2SC (Second Street Central) performing the created-from-scratch prep for his restaurants: butchery, burger grinds, soups, sauces, and stocks are some examples of 2SC preparations.
As a chef and philosopher, Menges proselytizes good food and good living; the two, he believes, go hand-in-hand. A growing population of Livingston’s residents and visitors agree.