North of Big Timber, Montana, you’ll find the little town of Melville, population 82. But before you get to Melville, you’ll arrive at Big Sky Corner, and Bill’s Place Diner. The drive alone is worth the trip, passing the Crazy Mountains then turning on to Highway 191 alongside rolling fields of grass.
The log building is iconic. Formerly The Old Saloon, it was built when the population of Melville was around 25-30 people, and though it wasn’t the first bar in town, it was the last. Eventually, the building was moved to the corner of the road to get more traffic and became the cafe, grocery store, and home to the post office. (Fun Fact: During those days, the postmaster was appointed by the president. The postmistress at the time was Dorothy Ford, who was appointed by President Kennedy.)
According to Ronda Johnston, a long time resident and owner of the building, “The grocery store didn’t have a lot of produce, but it did have a meat slicer and you could buy things like bulk bologna.” She goes on to explain, “Most ranches back in the day had a ranch cook, but eventually, the cafe took the place of the cook and became the place ranch hands would gather for meals. It was also the location of the local coffee klatch; where mothers would gather to visit after taking the kids to school.”
Eventually, the cafe became the school bus stop with plenty of parking and a place kids could stay warm in the winter. “It’s where people swing in and pick up their mail and maybe grab an ice cream sandwich,” Johnston says. “The grocery still works on the honor system. If you need some eggs or ice cream, you just write it down and pay later.”
Today, the restaurant is leased by Bill and Sandy Witwer. The couple spent years hunting and fishing in the area before buying the restaurant and moving west. “I love to cook,” Bill explains. I was a baker and cook in the Navy. As soon as I leave here I go home and start cooking.” He grew up in the clam and oyster business, then ran his own restaurant back east. “I’ve been doing this my whole life,” he says.
Bill’s Place specializes in barbecue, and let me tell you, it’s truly special; beef brisket, smoked pork, ribs and chicken. The portions are big and the side dishes are traditional and delicious; baked beans, cole slaw and potato salad to name a few. While Bill is overwhelmingly humble, when it comes to his barbecue, he isn’t shy about saying, “It’s the best in Montana.”
But that isn’t all they do. The tomato soup is to die for, and Bill says people come as much for the seafood chowder as they do the steak and prime rib! On holidays, they serve special buffets, including dishes like shrimp and crab cakes.
Another bonus; Bill’s Place caters— a lot. People from Bozeman to Billings hire the husband and wife team to cater everything from weddings, to conferences to cattle brandings. (Yes, we said brandings, which are still very much a part of ranching and an occasion that brings people together to help get the work done.)
Being in a remote location hasn’t stopped the Witwer’s. “Its tough being in the middle of nowhere, but we’re busy and that’s all that matters,” Bill says.” Sandy goes on to explain, “We don’t want to gouge people, we just want to make a living and pay our bills.
And as Bill puts it, “We’re livin’ the dream. It’s our little piece of heaven.”
To get there, take I-90 to Big Timber. Use exit 367 and head to Highway 191 North toward Harlowtown. Bill’s Place is about 20 miles from Big Timber on the right side of the road, just before the turnoff to Melville Road.