City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More

Featured Article

Off the Rails

Boxcar Bistro is an unexpected indulgence

Walking into the Boxcar Bistro feels a lot like being transported by time machine onto the Orient Express. The entryway is cloaked in drapes hung on wrought-iron and populated with images of exotic animals on a midnight-blue background. Stepping around the entryway you encounter an intimate space full of antique chandeliers, swirling agate wallpaper, a tall wooden mirrored bar with shelves of spirits, and warm wooden chairs and rich burgundy leather bench seats accented with azure pillows. It’s opulent, but hidden, like a tucked-away gem. It’s cozy but also has an air of intrigue. And, just as importantly, it smells delicious.

Boxcar opened in May of this year. It’s a French-cuisine restaurant on the street-level of Polleys Square, a set of high-end condos and ground-floor businesses located in the Old Sawmill District. The Old Sawmill District is one of Missoula’s newest neighborhoods and it’s characterized by its combination of European-style architecture, brownstones, and warehouse flats. Boxcar is part of the mixed-use plan—a charming neighborhood restaurant (a true “bistro”) nestled among residential spaces.

The menu is divided by First, Second, and Third courses—essentially, appetizers, entrees, and dessert—and everything on it looks simply perfect. Just a few examples: The first course menu includes beef tartare and sardine rillettes. The second course boasts chicken chasseur, steak frites, and a Boxcar burger, which features roasted poblano, candied pancetta, and fried shallots. On the third course list: Crème brûlée and chocolate torte, among other sweet, rich items. There is also a cheese menu and a caviar menu.

Leslie and Ed Wetherbee are the owners of Boxcar and developers of the Old Sawmill District. 

“We wanted there to be some place where people who live here felt comfortable coming but also a place that all of Missoula could enjoy,” Leslie said. “We wanted it to be intimate, unique, exquisite—a great experience all around.” 

For that reason, the Wetherbees leave it all up to their chef, Jess Wrightson and restaurant manager, Ben Burda, along with a few other key staff. Leslie said Jess has a background in French-American cooking and since it is his favorite cuisine to cook, they went in that direction. Ben is an expert in wines and beers and ciders, and he’s paired each item on the menu with a suggested beverage. (For the burger? A malbec called Chatelet de Gaudou.) 

The feeling of being on the Orient Express is no accident. In its early iteration, Boxcar was going to be in a much larger space and called the Sawmill Grille. But the smaller 45-seat space, revealed other possibilities. Ben and Jess were walking back to the Old Sawmill neighborhood one day for a meeting when they passed under the railroad tracks and their conversation turned to Missoula history with railroads. That’s when they came up with the name “Boxcar” and presented it to the staff. 

“Everyone loved it,” Leslie said. “So we built the design around that.”

The elegant interiors are based on old dining cars from the early days of the Orient Express. The long-distance passenger train service was launched in 1883 by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits and, though it was, in reality, a standard international railway service, it become romanticized—associated with luxury and intrigue and worldly travelers meeting as strangers in storied and exciting places. The Express was the epitome of comfort and splendor during a time that was dangerous and unrefined. Its inaugural dinner menu featured oysters, turbot with green sauce, and chicken chasseur, among other delicacies. 

The Wetherbees hired designer Kelly Roessler of Intaglio to create the antique opulence and rich colors that provide the feel of time travel and grandiosity. But the space is also a nod to Missoula’s train history.

At the bar, Ben, the restaurant manager, laments there is no duck for me to try today and the mussels will come tomorrow but there is so much to choose from, regardless. Limited supply of any item in this case just means the restaurant is particular about its ingredients and where they come from, which is a good thing and only makes customers want to come back another day to try whatever is fresh. 

For a first course, I try the escargot (because you have to, right?), which come perched in tiny pools of butter and are eaten with crispy garlic rye bread. I also have the sardines, which come as luxurious spread made with rich harissa oil and mixed with parsley to be put on crostini.

For the second course, I try the steelhead en pappiote, on the recommendation of Ben. He very firmly states that everything on the menu is deliberate, so it’s not like he recommends some things and not others. But the steelhead is a must. As the name implies, it is cooked in beautiful parchment paper, wrapped like a present, and Ben suggests opening it from the top (where there is already a slit cut) and eating it inside the paper. It feels fancy in a mid-19th century way. Inside is steelhead trout that is as flaky and moist as it gets, and mild and rich as salmon. It’s topped with fennel, perfectly done french green beans, and capers as red as Christmas. 

All this luxury, but the prices are so affordable it is easy to do a doubletake with the menu. It’s still a fancier restaurant as far as Missoula restaurants go but it’s reasonable. The escargot is $7 and the sardine rillettes are $8. (The caviar is, in comparison, a splurge.)

“If you were in France you would have the sardine rillettes and a glass of wine for lunch,” Ben said. 

It really would be enough for a light meal. But I want the second course. A Second Course meal can be shared by two with a couple first course items, Ben pointed out, and you still won’t break the bank. There is no up-selling at Boxcar. The point is to enjoy the food, which is just one example of how the Boxcar lacks pretension. 

Leslie said part of the concept of Boxcar was that it should feel like luxury at prices that are affordable to Missoula people working a steady job. And that goes for the Dog & Bicycle, too, an airy, sunny, breakfast and lunch place the Wetherbees also own, which shares the Boxcar’s kitchen and is located on the street side of Polleys Square. It serves breakfast burritos and an extravaganza of artisan grilled cheese sandwiches, among other things. 

It is advisable to make a reservation at the Boxcar but a few outdoor tables and the bar are open to walk-ins, first come, first served. Sitting at the bar, it’s easy to get a sense of Ben’s deep connection to the place. At some restaurants it’s not clear that the people working there have much investment or curiosity—and often, with little autonomy, why would they? But Ben and Jess, along with others, have gotten to create an exquisite refuge for which they get to hand-pick and design the details, and make it not just a meal but an experience. 

“Our staff is very passionate about what they do,” Leslie said. “About the wine, the services, the food and the experience. We like to empower them and not micro-manage them. They are the experts.” She smiled and laughed. “And we are the experts on eating the food.”

Boxcar Bistro

875 Wyoming St Suite 101