A gem sits on the corner of Main Street and Pintler Veterans Memorial Highway in the historic mining town of Anaconda. Steve and Barbara Nelson opened Firefly Cafe in 2019 to serve freshly made food and offer a generous selection of home-baked brownies, cookies, and dessert bars.

Pulling into the back parking lot for the cafe allowed me to get a full view of the mural depicting a mountain scene with forests, streams, lakes, snow-capped mountains along with a bear sitting on grass painted on the sides of the building. The back entrance led into a small hallway through a door into the restaurant. Upon entering the brightly lit wood paneled room, I moved to the counter, towards an antique sideboard under a sign “order, pay, pickup here." Quickly my attention focused on the glass case with plates of thick palm-sized brownies.

Britta Bryant cheerfully greeted me, “Hello. Hello. Welcome to Firefly Cafe.” Behind her, on the wall, today’s specials were written on a chalkboard. Below the soup special of “Tomato Basil” was an offering of a quart of dill pickle juice for sale from the house made condiment.

“Both Steve and I were born with the gift of food,” Barbara Nelson said. The two met at culinary school at Everett Community College in Washington and married in February of 1993, six months after completing school. With both of them loving the mountains and snow, their goal was to eventually relocate to Montana.

“I missed my dream job at the Triple Creek Ranch by three hours,” Barbara shared of almost getting a pastry chef position at the luxury lodge. Then thirty minutes later she received a phone call from The Baron Restaurant in Anaconda which brought them to Montana. After a short stint, she took on jobs at the Fairmont Hot Springs kitchen and at the Butte Country Club.

“I had been doing pastries all my life so I wanted to do it for myself,” she said. At the time Steve was working on a contract with the Air Force focusing on wire harnesses. He suggested, “Why don’t we put all of our eggs in one basket? I will quit what I am doing,” to go into business with her.

The couple opened Firefly Cafe on October 28, 2019, “right before COVID when we just hit our stride.” Barbara admitted that if she had been in business for thirty years, she probably would have walked away, but she wanted to continue to share her passion for feeding the community.

In loving her work, she ignored friends who said, “Your food is so prep heavy,” suggesting she should take shortcuts and purchase dressings for their salads and stop cutting their own fries. “We hand cut our cabbage” for the coleslaw they serve as a side dish.

Steve began focusing on smoking meats with hardwood smoked brisket and hardwood smoked pork butt on the menu served with a cornmeal muffin with honey butter with a choice of a side such as “Steve's smokehouse beans” made with burnt ends of the brisket, a “sweet potato bake” with brown sugar and cinnamon butter.

The rest of the menu showed diversity with salads, sandwiches with Cuban and Vietnamese influences along with noodle and vegetable bowls. Gluten free and vegetarian options were also available.

The name for the cafe came from Barbara’s visits to Disneyland as a child. She recalled her delight with the fireflies that flickered in the grotto of the Pirates of Caribbean ride. “I decided I wanted a fun and whimsical name that conveyed what I felt from food. I wanted a place where friends could talk while having a meal together, sharing fellowship like coming into my house,” she said of finally deciding on the name Firefly.

Throughout the restaurant, inspirational plaques hang on the wall. From “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations” to “be awesome today” not only bring good spirits to diners, but they provide inspiration for Barbara who became very ill with COVID. She has yet to get back to her full energetic self so they have limited hours at the restaurant, and closing on Sundays and Mondays.

Windy Thorpe who has worked as a barista for over a dozen years, and once baked at the Dough House Bakery recently joined the kitchen as Sous Patissier. Even though her profession is baking she stated, “I even bake at home. It’s my passion. It makes me happy.” At the Firefly Cafe, she valued what she was learning from Barbara.

On this day, the duo offered over two dozen sweet options with brownies two-inches thick cut into four-inch squares. The selections include: “Triple Chocolate”, “PARATROOPER” with toasted pecans and butterscotch chips, and “Purist.” Other bars include “Hello Dolly” with a graham cracker crust, pecans and coconut dusted with confectioner’s sugar, the popular lemon bar as well as blueberry, raspberry and strawberry bars. Rhubarb-walnut, oatmeal Scotties, and "Chocolate Chip Chubby” made for the cookie choices.

Britta Bryant brought over my order of half a Reuben with Angus corned beef slowly braised in Smelter City’s beer. Sliced thin, topped with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing, grilled on dark Pumpernickel rye, accompanied with sweet potato fries. The potato was lightly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The sandwich oozed with cheese forming strings as I took my first bite of tender smoked meat balanced with fermented sour from the cabbage and sweet from the dressing.

In the town that once dug deep for treasures, Firefly Cafe can be easily found right at the corner, just off the highway leading into Anaconda.

Stella Fong, author of 'Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food' hosts 'Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region' for Yellowstone Public Radio.

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