Buffalo Block Prime Steakhouse at the Rex opened on October 1 as Billings’ newest first class restaurant.
Since the closure of the Rex Restaurant about a year -and -a -half ago, Billings has been closely watching and wondering what would emerge from one of the city’s most popular haunts. When news was announced that the property had been purchased by the Larson Family with the intent of reopening as a first class restaurant, spirits rose about its future, and the remodeling that has been going on over the past year has been closely monitored by the community.
Billings will not be disappointed with what has been done. Completely redesigned, remodeled and equipped, Buffalo Block offers high-end dining in a completely new atmosphere, and yet one that somehow retains a hint of its past; and the character that has always made The Rex distinctive still lingers just below the surface.
With a completely new floor plan, the warm honey-tones of a walnut wood finish, throughout, brings a warmth and comfort. Special attention to detail and décor brings a sense of luxury, augmented by an open state-of-the-art kitchen that literally glows as the heart of the restaurant bustling with activity, the focus of which is the open wood-flame grilling of prime dry -aged beef, the house specialty.
To preserve and retain The Rex on Montana Avenue, and all that its 100-plus year history, has meant to Billings, was the primary goal of Rick and Nicki Larson. Even though they are highly successful business owners, well-known for their business, EBMS, which they founded and built over the last 30-plus years, the only thing they knew about the restaurant business was how much they had enjoyed The Rex in the past, and how much they enjoy good food, good wine and spirits, with the comradery of good friends.
To be able to assure The Rex experience in the future for Billings is in a sense a giving back to the community, far more so than being a business venture. But to make sure the effort is successful they went in search of getting the expertise that will be needed. They found that in the manager and executive chef they hired.
Mitch Fox is the manager of Buffalo Block and Austin Stewart is the executive chef. Both are excited about being part of this new venture and about being in Billings, Montana. And, as far as being on the Larson team, “I feel like I won the lottery,” says Austin.
Although originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Austin comes to Billings by way of Sarasota, Florida. His wife had ties in Billings, having attended Rocky Mountain College and MSU-Billings. As a very experienced steakhouse chef, Austin’s vision for his culinary talents are very much in line with those of Rick Larson.
Buffalo Block features their own aged beef, from filet mignon, ribeye, New York strip, and wood-fired prime rib, as well as lobster tails, king crab legs, scallops, roasted chicken, and short ribs.
All beef is “prime beef” and is dry aged on premises, from 30 to 75 days—an expensive process that while edging up menu prices still squeezes the profit margin, explained Manager Mitch Fox, but noting that only about 3 percent of all processed beef qualifies as “prime” it’s well worth it. They purchase their beef from a Spokane processing company that draws most of its beef from Montana. To buy as much locally as possible is very much a part of their operation, said Mitch, pointing out that most of the refurbishing of the building has been done by local builders and crafts people.
Mitch’s experience comes from the management of restaurants in the ski areas of Colorado, which makes him well adapted for the Montana winters. But, nonetheless he enjoys sunny days and hopes there will still be a few such days yet this fall to allow the partial opening of the patio. Equipped with massive stationary umbrellas with LED lighting and heaters, the odds are good, they will be able to do so.
The completely rebuilt patio area provides seating for 96, which augments interior seating capacity of about 135, which includes about 85 in the formal dining room.
Mitch will be overseeing and training a staff of some 50 people.
A special feature of Buffalo Block will be the offering of 55 lockers which patrons may rent, in which to keep bottles of their favorite wines and spirits. Mitch said that he will go to great lengths to acquire whatever labels patrons want. They want to build Buffalo Block’s list of wines and liquor “into something special,” said Mitch. One of their features will be offer the purchase of customized flights (one ounce samples), as well as offering a hundred labels on the “by the glass” wine list.
The restaurant hours will be from 11 am to closing. Open six days a week, closed on Sundays.
The Rex was built in 1910, with such notables as Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and Will James having contributed to its historic tale as a hotel, restaurant and bar that catered to the railroad passengers, cowboys and town folk, alike. Business slacked off in the 1960s and by 1975 the building faced almost certain demise, when at the last minute Senia Hart bought the building just to save it. It was brought back as a very popular restaurant and gathering place over the past 30 years by previous owner, Gene Burgad, who contributed to the revitalization of the entire historic district of Montana Avenue. The Rex Hotel building is on the National Register of Historic Places.