Regulars at Hops Downtown Grill love the unique twists chef Tim Phillips and his team take on the Chef’s Special. Pictured here is one such dish, a rib eye steak brûléed with applewood-smoked blue cheese.

Dining Out: Heart and Soul

Drop into Hops Downtown Grill in Kalispell, Montana, and you’ll see a small, chef-owned restaurant that’s big on food, fun, and family. The atmosphere is cozy and welcoming, filled with people celebrating a range of life experiences — first dates, family dinners, birthday celebrations, and in our case, warm respite from a wet bike ride. 

The bar is my favorite seat in the house. Six stools wide, with an eclectic mix of old record albums hanging on the wall, it’s a lively and inviting spot guaranteed to spark conversation.

Chef and co-owner Tim Phillips describes Hops as “upscale casual. We do put nice dishes together. Every day is a new challenge, and that’s what I like.”

Indeed, others do, too: Hops has earned a following that has people lined up at the door at 5 p.m. sharp. The small, 48-seat restaurant does not take reservations and fills up fast. And patrons love it for a good reason. Tim, a from-scratch chef who purchased Hops with his wife, Dana, in 2017, puts a lot of heart and soul into doing things differently. 

Guests line up outside of Hops in downtown Kalispell, Montana at 5 p.m. sharp.

Ask a regular what their favorite item is on the menu, and they’ll probably tell you “the Chef’s Special.” It doesn’t really matter what the Chef’s Special is; people love to experience the unique twists that Tim and his team take. “When it comes to creating the Chef’s Special, I like to consider, ‘What can we do with it? How can we make it different? How can we make it Hops?’” says Tim. “Sometimes, I’ll even ask my regular guests, ‘What would you like me to make?’” Tonight, the Chef’s Special is a rib eye steak brûléed with applewood-smoked blue cheese, served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. It’s pretty easy to love. 

It’s also easy to love the restaurant’s commitment to their family, friends, employees, and community. At Hops, everyone is special. “I enjoy making food that other people interpret, that’s outside the box,” Tim says. “But don’t just give me credit, I’m working with my team back there. The success of this restaurant is largely due to my amazing culinary team — both in the front and back of the house. We really are a family.”

Chef Phillips particularly enjoys making food that’s open to interpretation, challenging typical approaches and applications.

Having grown up working in the restaurant industry — starting as a dishwasher and then becoming a large corporation’s food and beverage manager  — Tim wanted to take a different approach to running a restaurant. “I don’t see myself as a typical chef,” he says. “I spent the first couple of years working in more of a teacher or mentor role. Today, I’m on the line, cooking side by side with my co-workers. It’s important to me that my chefs share in and apply their passions to the dishes we create. Even if it’s sometimes out of my wheelhouse, I’m willing to give it a try.”

Over the years, Tim and his culinary team have offered their own twists on the Chef’s Special, playing off themes such as Vietnamese night and Cinco de Mayo.

The elk bratwurst and ale house pretzel appetizer is a favorite among guests.

Rather than attend culinary school, Tim worked and trained under experienced chefs, starting with his mother. “My mom was an amazing cook,” he says, adding that he went on to study formally under established chefs in New Orleans, Portland, Oregon, and Italy. Tim favors fresh ingredients, quality over quantity, simplicity, and the pleasure of cooking and eating together. “I think I take an Italian approach to cooking,” he says. “But we’re not an Italian restaurant.”

And, as experimental and interpretive as his specials may be, Tim aims for consistency, high quality, and value for everything on the menu. “In the winter, we cater to our local customers, with an emphasis on hearty, homestyle dishes,” he says. “In the summer, we’ll change up the menu to serve a broader range of guests — both regulars and tourists. Regardless, the focus is on freshness. I want everything to be as fresh as possible.”

Now in its 27th year, the restaurant’s decor is an eclectic mix of old and new.

Now in its 27th year, Hops was first conceived as a soup restaurant. It later morphed into fine dining and then a casual dining restaurant known for having the best burgers and an impressive selection of beers and wines. Today, it is all of the above, offering something for everyone. “I wanted to diversify the menu and provide a broader array of fresh, delicious homestyle, home-cooked dishes at different price points. Sure, you can still get a great burger here, but you can also get seafood, pasta, even a crimson lentil and quinoa burger. Plus, we get to have a little fun experimenting. It never gets old. For me, it’s more about balance,” Tim says.

Wild protein is a sweet spot for the Hops culinary team. Be it the elk bratwurst and ale house pretzel appetizer, the elk bolognese lasagna, or the Spring Brook Ranch yak burger — the Hops menu certainly has unique protein offerings. But it also features other appetizing and unexpected dishes, including seared ahi with tempura vegetables, chicken parmesan, and the ever-popular griddled meatloaf. “It’s only five ingredients — including local Montana grass-fed beef and pork — but it’s what we do that makes it special,” Tim says. “We griddle it and top it with a bacon-tomato jam. And, of course, it’s served with mashed potatoes and gravy. It’s our most popular dish.”

“We make all of our sauces and dressings in-house,” he adds. “Tomato jams, soups, gravies, fresh vegetables — everything is coming from scratch using traditional recipes that we’ve created.”

Hops’ desserts are equally inventive and appealing. “In the summer months, we offer a house-made mascarpone cheesecake,” says Dana. “And a variety of crème brûlées. Our most popular is Mexican chocolate with ancho pepper, but the kitchen likes to have their fun with it — we’ve even made a Froot Loops flavor before.”

What’s evident, too, both in the food and the service, is the genuine thoughtfulness that goes into every aspect of the restaurant. The Hops family takes pride in serving great food and putting smiles on people’s faces; they truly care about their customers.

At Hops, comfort foods reign supreme, including the ever-popular griddled meatloaf topped with bacon-tomato jam.

“Before we bought Hops, the kitchen served burgers with potato chips,” Tim says. “I wanted to serve fries, and some of our guests had a fit. On the other hand, some people really loved the fries. The answer to the conundrum became Sidewinder Fries, a uniquely cut fry that is crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside — it holds its crunch and seems to keep everyone happy.”

Collaborating with and supporting local producers is also a huge part of the Hops’ approach. The restaurant sources yak from Kalispell’s Spring Brook Ranch, one of North America’s premier Tibetan yak breeders. Farm to Market Pork & Beef, a family-owned butcher in Kalispell, cuts pork chops for them every week. Tim counts on Flathead Fish & Seafood Co. for offerings from the ocean, and Lower Valley Processing Co. supplies the elk and bison. “We use a local beer — Bias Brewing’s Scotch Ale — to make our gravy and caramelized onions,” Tim says. “It’s kind of unexpected.”

The couple even collaborated with the owner of another (no longer operating) restaurant to evolve their seared ahi with tempura vegetables appetizer. 
“Originally, that dish was mostly ahi tuna — and it was great,” Dana explains. “But she taught us new techniques that inspired us to take that dish to a new level.” Ceres Bakery, also downtown, makes the restaurant’s bread, and Cravens Coffee supplies a unique blend of coffee beans prepared just for Hops. Dana regularly partners with Brix Bottleshop, the beer and wine store next door, when selecting spirits for the menu.

Originally from Oregon, Dana’s family spent a lot of time venturing to different wineries and pairing wines with food. “We try to get unique offerings of wine and beers — ones that celebrate and spotlight the Northwest — that you can’t just buy in the grocery store,” she says. 

The trappings, too, are a beautiful, eclectic mix. Vinyl albums tiled together at the bar lend a classic feel. Blondie, Bowie, Bob Dylan, and B.B. King hang alongside an antique bear mount, a yak skull marked and blessed by a Tibetan shaman, and vintage window panes. “Most of the decor is the same as when we first bought the place,” says Dana. “We changed some of the artwork and background music to better reflect our personal preferences, but we kept many of the elements that are uniquely Hops.”

Hops, complete with its original apostrophe-including sign, is located on Main Street, in historic downtown Kalispell.

“The records bring history to the place,” says Tim. “For many, they bring back special memories — I myself have gone to a number of concerts with the bands featured on the wall. And yes, with the exception of one album, all of the actual records are hanging up there, too.”

One thing they did change was removing the apostrophe from the original name of Hop’s. “We always thought the name Hop’s was in reference to beer hops — given the restaurant’s history for burgers and beers,” says Dana. “A former English major, I couldn’t wrap my head around why there was an apostrophe there.” 

It turns out, the original owners named the restaurant after their family’s pet frog, Hop. Hence, the punctuation. “We don’t have a pet frog,” she says, laughing. “So, we opted for just Hops.”

Christine Phillips is a freelance writer based in Whitefish, Montana. She enjoys writing about art, architecture, design, health, and outdoor recreation. When not playing with words and working with her clients, she loves hiking, biking, snowboarding, taking care of her two little dogs, and teaching Pilates.

Aaron Agosto is an editorial, commercial, and fine-art photographer living in Bigfork, Montana. His work focuses on stories and slices of life in the American West.

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