I had often thought that Cooke City would make the ideal location for someone in the witness relocation program. Matt “Raz” Schneider, the former owner of the Miners Saloon in Cooke City for 17 years, doesn’t disagree.

“Oh, there are plenty of shady characters and stories to be told about the town,” he says with a chuckle.

I’m curious how a California transplant found his way to this historic mining town. Raz then launches into a colorful tale.

“I left home at 17 to follow the Grateful Dead. After a concert in Seattle, my friend Josh Snider, who had previously worked in Yellowstone Park, suggested I head to Cooke City, where I could easily start a bar tab. I hitchhiked out to Montana and landed in Cooke City in 1994. I opened a bar tab, got in a bar fight, and caught a trout on my first day there.”

Raz took a job at the Miners Saloon, and after seven years, he bought the business in 2004 on a handshake and a $75,000 loan. Owning Miners opened the door for Raz and his wife Maddie, to unleash their creativity with all things culinary. Josh joined the couple in their endeavors, and brought into the mix an extensive background in the food industry. Josh had owned and operated High Five Pizza and Catering in San Jose, California, and he had worked as the head caterer for the San Jose Sharks for five years. The Saloon became a destination for pizza lovers with their exceptional hand-tossed pizzas. Sunday BBQs, steaks, occasionally an Asian-focused night — there was no limit on innovation with the food.

After 25 years, Cooke City had run its course for the crew at Miners Saloon. The hunt was on for a change of pace with the idea of opening a new restaurant. During visits to Missoula, Raz and Maddie had become very fond of the Red Bird Restaurant inside the historic Florence Building. Zootown had the energy and creative vibe that appealed to the trio in their quest for a new venue. Accessibility to local ingredients and produce would be a plus, something which was always a struggle in Cooke City. When Red Bird came up for sale, Maddie, Raz, and Josh purchased the business in June 2019.

Second Set Bistro is accessed through the art deco lobby of the Florence building. Customers are welcome to enjoy the ambiance of this trendy space with a glass of wine or a local microbrew before dinner. Maddie tells me a few cosmetic changes were made to the interior of the restaurant. Gone is the deep red wall color that defined Red Bird, painted over with muted whites and grays. The trio’s love of music is reflected in the wall décor, with music-themed art. A back wall catches my attention with un-repairable brass musical instruments artfully arranged. A second dining area remained as is, which features the bold Lenny Kravitz-designed wallpaper in shades of bronze and orange.

The name, Second Set Bistro, refers to the second set in a musical performance, where improvisation happens. “We like to be imaginative, taking diners into unfamiliar territory with flavors,” quips Raz. While he has no formal training as a chef, Maddie declares, “His creativity in the kitchen comes out of his brain. It’s the way his mind works. He is always thinking about food and flavors.”

The occasion that brought my husband Ed and I to Second Set Bistro was preparing for an early morning flight out of Missoula to Paris. We started our meal by sharing the apple and honeycomb salad, a combo of lettuce, apples, local honeycomb, Pecorino Romano cheese, hazelnuts, and Calabrian chilies. The dressing for this salad was a subtle tarragon vinaigrette.

Ed opted for their signature dish, a ribeye steak, served medium rare and pre-sliced. Accompanying the steak was a ramekin of a beef tallow dip, made with beef fat that has been heated, then poured over Red Boat Fish sauce. Scallions and black pepper round out the ingredients in the dip. Raz instructed us to take a small piece of steak and scoop down to the bottom of the ramekin to coat each bite with the beef tallow. This unique method of serving a ribeye was succulent.

I chose the Chicken Scarpariello. The kitchen staff lets the chicken marinate in a dry rub for three days before roasting, then serves the nicely browned bird with a delicate sauce featuring Italian sausage, pickled pepper and vinegar. We added a second dish, the Mushroom Panzanella, a mix of local mushrooms, frisée, and currants coated in a vegetable glaze. In one word — Wow! I would make a trip back to Missoula just for this entrée.

The menu is not extensive but is unique to the Missoula dining scene. It changes seasonally or when a creative entrée is born. Bread, pastries, sauces and pasta are all made from scratch at Second Set. Starters include Brussels sprouts prepared with fish sauce, caramel, lime, mint and Fresno chilies. Customers can also choose calamari served with a Tonkatsu sauce, Kewpie mayo, togarashi, and Japanese pickled cucumber.

Pork Milanese is currently on the menu, featuring a fried pork cutlet, served with smoked trout, tonnato sauce, and greens. While I was delighted with the chicken, my second choice would have been Bucatini All’Amatriciana, featuring guanciale, red chili flakes, Pecorino Romano cheese, accompanied with grilled bread. For the sweet tooth, sticky toffee pudding and crème brulee are options.

Maddie defines the philosophy behind Second Set.

“Food is like a perfume that sticks with people. We want to create memories for our customers in the way we feed and nourish them.” The trio firmly believes earning the respect of the locals and developing a relationship with the community is the key to their success.

Second Set’s application for potential employees asks some thought-provoking questions. “If you had one meal left to eat, who is it with (living or dead, no limit on the number of people)? What music are you listening to? What are you drinking? What are you eating? What is a guiding principle in your life? What motto do you try to live by?”

I turn the tables on Maddie and Raz, asking each of them who would be their choice for sharing their last meal with. Raz answers without hesitation, “Maddie, because she understands food.”

“That doesn’t count. It has to be someone other than your spouse,” I reply. I guessed Jerry Garcia, as Raz has been to over 60 Grateful Dead concerts. But his answer was Barack Obama or Noah Trevor, as he feels both have so much to offer with intelligent conversations. Maddie’s answer is Shirley Temple. Josh would go with either Anthony Bourdain or Arthur Fonzarelli, aka The Fonz.

Dining at Second Set was the best of Montana experiences, a combo of succulent cuisine served with an attentive staff. The evening had presented an explosion of flavors new to my palate. Having a chance to visit with Maddie and Raz (Josh was off for the day), made for a memorable evening! By the way, Mother Theresa would be my choice as a tablemate for my last meal.

Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.

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