On the east end of Main Street in Bozeman’s thriving downtown, where boutiques and galleries mingle with hip bars and restaurants, there’s a gem that still functions, as if untouched by time, as a relic of the old West. Here, at the Western Cafe, classic swivel diner stools are lined up against the counter, typically filled with regular customers. Behind, a pie cooler displays the day’s picks and the kitchen is visible off to the side with the original twirling ticket holder still in use and the sizzling sounds of bacon and eggs coinciding with the chatter of a full house.
Located in a small building that dates back to the 1870s, the space became a food establishment in the 1940s, with owner’s living quarters in the back and 10 stools out front. Since that time it has expanded, gone through different family ownerships and changed names, finally settling on the Western Cafe. And although it’s changed hands, somehow it has never lost the authentic charm that rings true from the decor to the locally sourced, made-from-scratch food.
“That’s what we take a lot of pride in,” explains Julie Gandulla, who has helped her mother Susan Sebena run the cafe since she bought it 10 years ago. “We really didn’t change a lot, but we added our own flair.”
That flair includes the addition of Sebena’s family recipes, mostly from her father who ran restaurants around the state, notably Bill’s Drive-In and then Wimpy’s Palace in Butte. Her father’s hand-cut chicken fried steak and his signature biscuits and gravy are some of the favorites among many simple but hearty selections like French toast, pancakes, steak and eggs, omelettes, and the Bobcat Special, which includes cinnamon roll French toast, eggs, hash browns and bacon or sausage. Breakfast and lunch are both served all day.
Keeping with tradition instead of trend, Sebena puts great importance in sourcing as much local food as possible, from the eggs to the butter, honey, flour and meats. “Back in the day, you would always buy from your neighbors,” she says. “That’s trendy now, but we’ve always done this. We use real food: half and half, real butter, organic jams.”
Pastry chef Annie Robinson has been cooking and baking at the Western Cafe for more than 30 years, and still uses traditional methods to create her signature pies, Strawberry Rhubarb and Luscious Lemon being among the favorites, along with the cinnamon rolls. “She’s an old-school cook and very particular,” Susan says. “She has a stock pot going all the time, and she makes everything from scratch, including cakes and frosting.”
With an old building, Sebena’s been faced with repairs, but she’s managed to keep the character of the building intact. Along with the same knotty pine walls that have stood the test of time, she’s added a pressed tin ceiling that matches the era. Sebena’s added flair also includes some essential additions to the decor: local art that depicts the cafe over time, family heirlooms that customers have brought in to hang there, and ranch brands that line the top of the walls. “This allows people to be part of the experience,” Sebena says. “I don’t know a lot of places where people feel like it’s their own, but they do here.”
Many of the regulars are locals, or even seasonal locals, who have been dining at the Western for decades. Sebena points to one customer at the counter who’s digging into a burger and fries. “He eats here every day,” she says. “We’re like another family for them, we call them by name, and they harass us a little bit,” Sebena laughs.
“And we harass them right back,” Gandulla adds.
That includes asking people to put their cell phones away; the cafe does not have wi-fi on purpose, and Sebena’s been known to introduce people to each other at the counter to spur conversation, just like the old days.
You can’t help but imagine that Western Cafe customers turn into regulars because they yearn for the authentic, old West experience that oozes from every inch of the Western Cafe, as it anchors Main Street Bozeman to its historic roots.
“I have so many people come up and ask me never to change it,” Sebena says. “I’m hoping it will go for another 100 years; it’s everybody’s Western.”
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