Edible Bozeman

J.W. Heist Steakhouse Rises from its Montana Roots

One thing’s for sure: J.W. Heist is not a redundant Montana steakhouse.

You can tell that the instant you walk past the iconic David Frederick Riley portrait of an HK-branded champion Hereford bull hung in the entrance, slide your shoes over the massive bronze “H” embedded in the Paradise Valley–quarried basalt floor, and enter the main dining area bedecked with chandeliers and sconces salvaged from New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, finely appointed red leather booths, and scores of distinctive Western oil paintings, bronzes, and African mounts.

And that’s before mentioning the food, service, or the fact that this locale might offer the only coat-check room in town. J.W. Heist Steakhouse opened in Bozeman in January and has been an immediate hit. It seems that, from the ground up, J.W. Heist set its own parameters for existence. Here, on the center cut of Main Street, a pleasing awareness of space, primal fire, and exceptional service aim to give patrons the best steak experience of their lives.

“I want to provide a level of service with enough people and enough experience so that we always have a collective surplus of effort,” says co-founder and lead sommelier Michael Ochsner. To achieve this, there are two knowledgeable servers per table and staff rallies together as a cooperative team.

For Ochsner and executive chef John Thayer, J.W. Heist is a collision of ideas. And what comes from this merger is an elevation of the classic American steakhouse: time-honored dishes, grandiose cuts of prime steaks, rich wine, and an impeccable respect for details—all set within a space curated by William Peace of Bozeman’s Peace Design Group.

J.W. Heist Steakhouse is a place where classic is elevated, visually enhanced, and sometimes sophisticatedly twisted. It’s good food, unpretentious, and fulfilling. Opposite: Executive chef John Thayer (left) and co-founder and lead sommelier Michael Ochsner.

The restaurant is named after Joseph Walter (J.W.) Heist, great-grandfather of Ochsner’s business partner Brett Evje, whose family homesteaded a ranch in the Cinnabar Basin near Yellowstone National Park in 1907 and moved to Belgrade in the 1950s to raise prized Polled Hereford bulls. It’s safe to say the name is an homage to Heist, as well as the hardworking values of Montana ranchers. So don’t be surprised if a little bit of the Treasure State seeps into your experience.

The menu includes special cuts from ranches across Montana and bordering states. The true soul of the fare, though, is the hearth—a huge, custom, double-cantilevered grill usually manned by no less than three chefs. White oak burns hot and provides the subtle flavors noted in the meat and traditional seafood and adds nuance to many salads and vegetables.

“We want this beautiful taste to go beyond the meat,” says Thayer, who’s worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants over the years. “Taking that subtlety and doing things with our own personality represents the space, hearth, and feel that is going to set us apart as a certain style of classic steakhouse.”

Carnivores of all kinds take note: You will cherish that this clean, hot fire delivers a bigger, thicker cut meticulously selected, aged, and finished as Prime Grade beef, boldly charred but succulent. Go ahead and sit at one of the six seats in front of the hearth. Feel the heat and hear the singe. It’s culinary sightseeing at its finest.

Of course, because such presentations deserve great wine, Ochsner has spent the last 13 years assembling a center-stage list made to keep the most ardent oenophiles curious. The impressive wine book is comprised of several hundred bottles from the world’s top producers.

“One thing I’ve certainly learned … the people of Bozeman have a surprising sophistication to wine,” says Ochsner, who seems both confidently relaxed and active in his suit and tennis shoes. “I just love people who want to try something they haven’t had before.”

Perhaps the same can be said for the bar’s cocktail classics: Palomas made with homemade grapefruit soda that are tangy and sharp, premium Manhattans stirred with both sweet and dry Dolin vermouth, and a New York Whiskey Sour with a sweepingly good wine foam on top. Each drink is mixed from behind the 1896 mahogany Brunswick bar reclaimed from the small town of Hysham.

So, is Montana ready for J.W. Heist?

“Well, we’ve been booked solid ever since our opening,” says Ochsner. “And it seems like patrons are coming from all over the place.”

As it stands now, there is nothing quite like it.

The staff ’s daily ritual organically progresses each day, and one detail unseen by the public is a 4:30 p.m. staff lineup in front of the bar. It’s a daily, formalized little pep rally of sorts, for every server, chef, and owner to connect and set the direction for the night. The one I witnessed ended with one of the servers politely asking everyone if he could end the meeting with a group rallying cry he had coined: “Live, laugh, Heist!”

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