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Beyond Local: Taste the Spirit of Montana at Lilac in Billings

Update: Like too many treasured local restaurants, Lilac was forced to close during the Covid-19 pandemic. I leave this story up as a tribute to a special restaurant, its chef and owner Jeremy Engebretson, its staff, and the food scene of my hometown.  Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, beneath an expansive blue sky, diners can taste not just Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself. Expressed through food, the Montana identity values the land and landscape, direct communication and unpretentiousness, affordability and responsibility, and an ironclad sense of character—in ingredients, dishes, cooking technique, and people too. Nestled in the Yellowstone River Valley beneath breathtaking sandstone cliffs, Billings is the largest city in the state, where I grew up, and home to Lilac, a restaurant that has earned local adoration and national accolades. Just a year after it opened in 2012, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Award for …