FLORENCE — When Chris Lynn lived and worked in Missoula, he liked meeting friends at the downtown Dram Shop, where they’d order a drink and chat about life, work, family, plans and adventures.
Then he moved to Florence, 22 miles south of Missoula. He started imagining a similar gathering spot for that town, too — not a bar, but a neighborhood retreat where people could come for a beer or a cocktail, a bite to eat and time to socialize with kids, friends, neighbors and family.
Imagination became reality: The Backyard Tap House opened just two months ago just off the Eastside Highway in Florence. It has 32 beers on tap — “99 percent of them from Montana,” Lynn said — and more in bottles and cans; craft cocktails, some featuring spirits from Montana or the Northwest (Lolo Creek Huckleberry Vodka, Wild Roots Peach Vodka); wines; and a small menu of appealing eats too.
“My favorite place to have a beer is in my backyard, sitting around a fire pit, having a conversation,” said Lynn. “That’s the atmosphere we want here: We want you to feel comfortable, as if you’re in your own backyard.”
Thus the name: Backyard Tap House.
Lynn teamed up with his wife, Tessa, and kitchen manager Nicholas Cebalo, and spent more than a year visiting other breweries, tap houses and bistros, interviewing people, researching trends, studying the local market in Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley.
What they settled on is a tap house that serves food, not a restaurant that serves drinks.
“Originally, I didn’t want to deal with food,” he said. Too many restaurants fail.
But they decided Florence could support the tap house/eatery model, especially one that offers a different kind of menu. “We wanted a place where adults could enjoy a beverage and could bring along their kids, too,” Lynn said.
Cebalo said he tried to create casual but refreshing dishes — bar food with light, modern, globally inspired twists. He studied at a farm-to-table culinary school in Colorado and has spent 10 of his 29 years creating and serving food.
“I have no fryers back there at all,” Cebalo said, motioning to the kitchen. “Most of everything is regionally sourced, whether it’s our vegetables or beef. … We wanted it to be a place where you could feel comfortable coming multiple times a week and not feel that you are filling up with French fries and chicken tenders.”
The menu is simple and fast-casual, but refined — like the Backyard Burger, made with grass-fed Montana beef, bacon, pepper jack cheese, onion straws and a fried egg ($14), or the BLT with garlic aioli ($9), both served with a choice of sides.
Especially creative are the $6-$12 “Shareables,” designed to be shared as small-plate appetizers, including red potatoes roasted with chili flakes, garlic and rosemary; honey-glazed brussel sprouts; nachos; mac and cheese bites.
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A conversation-starter (and taste-bud lighter) is the Pint O’ Bacon, four applewood-smoked slices of bacon, thickly hand-cut and served with a maple-bourbon-glaze dipping sauce ($8).
Some shareables are big enough to be an individual dinner, such as:
• Three street tacos: Steak, chicken or veggie tacos — or a sampler of all three — with house-made cilantro-lime sour cream ($12).
• Homemade meatballs: Choice of chicken tzatziki, honey-garlic pork or beef barbecue meatballs, or ginger-soy-rice vegetarian “meatballs,” or the sampler plate ($10).
• Sliders: Three grass-fed beef sliders on Brioche buns with a choice of cheese ($9).
• Kabobs: Three grilled kabobs with mushrooms, bell peppers, onions and choice of steak, chicken or seasonal veggie, or a sampler of all three ($9).
The kids’ menu has a special flair too, offering familiar favorites — mac and cheese, pigs in a blanket, buttered noodles, a mini-burger — but with parent-pleasing options, such as a side of tangerines, Caesar salad or roasted Brussels sprouts.
Sunday is brunch day, with similar temptations: waffles, breakfast tacos, French toast, Eggs Benny, and The Woodpile — roasted red potatoes piled with sautéed onions, herbs, cheddar cheese and eggs for $8, or add bacon or sausage for another $2.
“Everything is hand-cut — the pico is hand-diced, the potatoes and broccoli are hand-cut,” Cebalo said. “We hand-patty every slider and every burger. Nothing comes in frozen, and all the sauces we produce ourselves.”
“We are going for flavorful, fresh, so you can taste every ingredient,” he said.
The Backyard Tap House opened in the building that housed Caffe Firenze for more than a decade. Completely remodeled inside, it transformed from an Old World Italian eatery to a tap house with an easygoing, open-floor, stay-awhile feel. The owners populated one wall with board games like dominoes, checkers, Sequence, Yahtzee, Quiddler and Five Crowns, plus puzzles and Memory for the littles and some outdoor lawn games too.
“We aren’t expecting people to just eat and leave,” Lynn said. “Grab Battleship or Sorry or a cribbage board, and have another beer.”