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Babb club cooks up new reputation

Pub Date: 10/1/2010

Babb club cooks up new reputation

By Paul Vang
Montana Tavern Times

    “It's one of the top 25 hideouts and secret spots in the United States.”
    That's a rating of the Cattle Baron Supper Club of Babb, Montana, by the magazine Men's Journal, which goes on to say that “Babb is one of the top four-star one-horse towns.”
    Babb is barely a dot on the Montana highway map, yet this tiny community on the east edge of Glacier National Park has earned great reputation centered on the Cattle Baron Supper Club, a Native American-owned and -operated business on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

 The Cattle Baron Supper Club is a unique blend.

    The Cattle Baron Supper Club first popped up on this reporter's radar a few years ago when an acquaintance said he was going to Glacier National Park for the weekend and had made dinner reservations at the Cattle Baron at Babb.
    “The what?” I asked, and he told me about this great restaurant, which brought up my next question, “Where's Babb?”
    So this summer we had a houseguest from the East Coast who wanted to take a trip to Glacier, giving me an oportunity to visit the steakhouse I had heard about.
    Babb is on U.S. Highway 89, near the northeast corner of Glacier National Park at the lower end of Lower St. Mary's Lake, and near the Park entrance road leading to the Many Glacier area.
    The community is small –  not much more than a small motel, a general store, and of course the Cattle Baron Supper Club. The Club is owned and operated by Bob and Charlene Burns.
    Bob and Charlene weren't in when we were there, though his granddaughter, Tedi Burns, was the bartender on duty. I later caught up with Bob by phone and he shared his story.
    Burns bought the Babb Bar in 1974, and made a small improvement a couple years later when he built a small dance floor to the north end of the building.
    The Babb Bar, Burns will point out, also had a reputation.
    “It was rated as the Number Two rowdiest bar in the nation by Playboy magazine,” Burns recalls, explaining how the regular clientele was a mixture of Americans (native and non-native), Canadians, Canadian Indians, and National Park employees. It was a volatile mixture.
    “We had some pretty interesting times. We were out in the boonies, and law enforcement was pretty spotty.”
    The nearest law enforcement was Bureau of Indian Affairs police from Browning. Bob said and it might take two or three days before they'd respond to a call.
     “They'd ask where the troublemakers went, and we couldn't do much more than   shrug. They might have been in Paris by then.”
    In 1986, Burns started working on a long-term project to create a new restaurant from that rowdy bar.
    It took a long time. First of all, Burns, who also had a construction business, was tied up with a major road-construction project. Then he went through a divorce. Then financing became a problem.
    “It's just about impossible to get financing on an Indian reservation,” Burns says, citing overlapping state, federal and tribal government jurisdictions.
    Consequently, he worked on the restaurant as time and money became available, finally opening the Cattle Baron Supper Club in 2000.
    Bob and Charlene created a showplace in their design of the new restaurant. It's a unique blend of rustic, western and Native American themes, with a big horseshoe-shaped bar on the main floor. A grand staircase leads to the dining area on an upper level gallery overlooking the main floor.
    Native American designs and artwork dominate the décor, along with classic photos of Blackfeet people on the walls. Placemats at the tables tell stories of Blackfeet people and places.
    “Charlene designed the décor and created all the placemats,” Burns says, noting that Charlene is also the personnel manager for the business.
Native Americans also make up the bulk of the staffing at the restaurant.
    “We have 31 employees and 28 of them are Native American,” he says.
Burns feels strongly about the importance of offering employment opportunities.
    “Every year we hire four or five new employees, and we train them in the fine arts of bartending and serving. It enables them to qualify for jobs anywhere.”
    Though the Cattle Baron is a small business, its employment opportunities are important on the Blackfeet reservation, where there is 60 percent unemployment in summer and 90 percent unemployment in winter.
    He says Glacier Park, Inc., which operates most of the hotels, restaurants and gift shops in and around the Park, has traditionally hired college students from around the country and in recent years has brought in Russian and Mexican nationals to work in their facilities.
     “It'd be nice if they'd give more consideration to Native Americans,”  he says quietly, especially considering that the Park itself was created from Indian lands, with the area east of the Continental Divide carved out from the Blackfeet reservation and the area west of the Divide from the Salish-Kootenai reservation.
    As the name Cattle Baron might suggest, beef takes center stage on the menu at the restaurant, along with lamb, buffalo and seafood items.
    At our visit, my wife had a ribeye steak, while I had rack of lamb. We both cook and eat a lot of lamb at our house, and I thought my lamb was absolutely superb. Dinners also come with a loaf of freshly baked bread, mixed green salads, sautéed vegetables and a baked potato.
    Burns says he personally trained the chef.
    “My mother was a great cook, and I learned the trade at the end of a spatula. That bread is from my mother's recipe, and the baked potato is my wife's recipe. We make all our own salad dressings. We don't have a can opener on the place.”
    Despite Babb's isolated location, the restaurant's proximity to the Park brings an international following to its customer base.
    “Our customers come from all over the world,” Burns says, “including many who don't speak English. We also get a lot of Canadians (Babb is just 10 miles from the Canadian border, near Cardston, Alberta).”
    Of course, that dependence on tourist trade means that the Cattle Baron is also seasonal, opening in May and closing in October.
    Reflecting on the club’s transition from one of the nation's rowdiest bars to a fine dining establishment, Burns is pleased.
    “It's different now,” he says. “The people come in and see the quality of the restaurant, and they don't let their hair down like they did before.”
    Besides operating the restaurant, Burns runs a herd of cattle on his ranch, though he points out that his livestock operation isn't big enough to supply the restaurant.   “We'll go through 60 to 70 ribeye steaks a night. It takes a lot of cattle to supply all those steaks.”
    Now age 67, Burns says he has no plans to retire.
    “I think as we get older we have to work harder – otherwise we tend to rust.”