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Flavors: Cheers to Gene Burgad

Stella Fong

Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region replayed a show that aired in the spring of 2018 to pay tribute to Gene Burgad. The world lost Gene on August 14, 2018, a man who gave us food, drink, community and humor. As the co-owner of The Rex Bar and Grill for 34 years, he was ever present to welcome guests who walked into his establishment. He was influential in reforming and refashioning Montana Avenue.

I felt honored when he and Executive Chef David Maplethorpe came into the studio to share their stories. (Please note: my writings in italics are a recent addition to the blog I posted a year ago.)

The Rex Restaurant Bar and Grill closed the day after Valentine’s Day a year ago. The Rex Partnership made the decision to shut down the restaurant with no advance notice to the community.  A handwritten sign on the door announced its closing.

During the 34 years of operation, Gene Burgad was the face of the restaurant, backed by two silent partners. Executive Chef David Maplethorpe ran the kitchen for 27 of those years. He had hoped to retire last May but was forced to move that date forward with the sudden closing. The partners decided the time was right to quit the restaurant and bar, while continuing to lease offices in the upper floors of the former the hotel.

Credit Stella Fong
Gene Burgand in front of The Rex in 2015 during the MSUB Wine and Food Festival.

H. Alfred Heimer opened the Rex Hotel and Bar across from the Billings Depot on March 27, 1909 with the help of his friend Buffalo Bill Cody. At sixteen, the German immigrant took a job with Buffalo Cody’s Wild West Show in 1894. The young man, who was purportedly fired three times, worked for Cody in his private railway car until 1903.

In 1975, Senia Hart saved The Rex from demolition buy purchasing the historic building that had gone into disrepair. Later she sold it to A and E Architects who later sold to Gene Burgad and his partners. To this day, the mahogany bar with brass foot railings, the metal ceiling, and stained and beveled glass windows remain.

In 1917, a third-floor addition converted Heimer’s hotel into one of the best places to stay at the time. Noteworthy guests included the Crow Chief Plenty Coups as he was heading to Washington, D. C. in 1921. More colorful celebrities included Will James and Calamity Jane.

During Prohibition, festivities moved from room to room at the hotel. Underground tunnels provided for the movement of alcohol and partiers. Gambling and prostitution were popular pastimes during the period.

If only the walls could talk. Reid Pyburn, who started at the Rex as a dishwasher, worked his way up, bartending and managing the restaurant, recalls ghost stories. During October, in the weeks before Halloween, tours would come through in search of a ghost named “buck”, a woman that occupied the lower floors, and reportedly seen by guests as they descended the stairway.

Pyburn’s firsthand experience came when a couple came in for dinner one night. Coincidentally seated at table 13, Pyburn was asked by a waiter to come to the table. The female guest requested a table change because she saw a ghost standing by the table. After the staff moved the diners, the woman said, “This sort of thing happens to me all the time.”

Credit Stella Fong
Stella Fong
Celebration menu from the holidays in 1986.

Tolerance of ghosts is a testimonial to the loyalty of local patrons.  Throughout the years, celebrities and dignitaries as well as locals came to gather. Clint Eastwood showed up for the opening of the patio when Burgad and his partners closed down 24th Street North to expand the restaurant. The massive oval bar, large beamed ceilings, and outside patio with a fire pit were added during this remodel.

The soft opening turned into a major event with Eastwood’s presence. Throughout the years, hostess Krissy Duenow recalls waiting on customers such as Mel Gilson and Sawyer Brown.  Vice President Dan Quayle ate at the restaurant. When Far and Away was being filmed in the Depot across the street, production crew dined frequently at the restaurant. Burgad and Maplethorpe remember seeing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in the establishment.

Though there was always excitement in seeing famous patrons, Maplethorpe, Pyburn and Duenow all emphasized that the staff treated everyone fairly.  Pyburn said, “That is why celebrities liked coming there because no one bothered them.” Maplethorpe added, “They were just customers, they all had to be treated the same.”

With years of working together, the staff felt like family.  With one goal of satisfying customers, front of house and back of house worked together. Service required physical and mental agility and everyone worked as a team. The joint effort brought camaraderie, bonding them through good times and also challenging ones. Together they pushed through the long hours and late nights.

Credit Stella Fong
Reid Pyburn, long time bartender and manager, has taken skills learned at The Rex to his restaurant, High Horse Saloon and Eatery.

Over the years the Rex contributed to the community by hosting The Guest Chefs Dinners for the Montana State University Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival. Chefs such as Bernard Guillas, Kevin Davis, Emily Luchetti and Shane Ryan have cooked in kitchen alongside Maplethorpe to raise funds for scholarships.

Black angus beef highlighted the menu. Steaks were seasoned with salt and pepper accompanied with a Cognac Dijon Mustard Sauce, Mushroom Sauce, garlic butter, peppered or plain. Prime rib rubbed with spices came to the table served plain or blackened. According to Maplethorpe, the most popular item on the menu was the Garlic Roasted Fillet topped with a cognac Dijon mustard sauce. He jokingly shared that he disliked the dish but could not take it off the menu for fear of a customer revolt. Duenow remembered the popular warm loaves of fresh baked bread, brought to the table on a cutting board.

Years of serving beef brought recognition to the restaurant by The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, through the 2007 National Foodservice Beef Backer Award. Maplethorpe said he was proud to receive “Innovator of the Year”, in recognition of his skills.

Credit Stella Fong
Rick and Nicki Larson stand in front of the new Rex, Buffalo Block.

When dining at the restaurant, Burgad was almost always present watching over the business and greeting customers. Employees respected how he handled the intense day-to-day demands of the business.

Duenow recalled one incident where a conflict was resolved by a simple “walk around the block” with Burgad and solved the issue. I always knew if I needed anything in the world he would be there for me.” Duenow left the business almost 25 years ago, but still had this to say, “I miss Gene a lot. He was very good to me,”

Pyburn recalled, “One thing I learned from Gene was not to overreact, not to get mad. Empower your employees to make decisions.” Now, as the owner of The High Horse Saloon and Eatery, he believes an owner needs to set an example and perform all duties that he expects his employees to do.

Maplethorpe spent the majority of his daily hours at the restaurant, and Burgad became a very good friend. Those who worked there became his family. Finally retired from the rigors of being a chef, Maplethorpe remains in the business as Chef/Culinary Jobs Skills Instructor for the Billings Food Bank.

Rick Larson and his family recently bought The Rex. The family wants to preserve the historic restaurant that holds fond memories for them. Larson had been going regularly to The Rex since 1980 in search of a good steak. He is still in the research stage, making plans to refurbish the restaurant and change the concept slightly. He recently returned from traveling to Denver to study the steak houses there and hopes to open a restaurant serving high-end steaks. Some ideas include a showcase refrigerator in the restaurant for aging meat, and a wood fired grill for cooking up steaks.

Recently Ken Siebert and I went down to Montana Avenue to talk to Larson as he was readied for the final walk through of the remodel of his establishment with contractors and architect. Much refurbishing was needed from the ground up to get the building up to function and code.

Credit Stella Fong
David Maplethorpe was the Executive Chef at The Rex for 27 years.

The name Buffalo Block pays homage to the durable brick found in the old building as well as to the historical spirit of the Buffalo Bar at the Rex during the H. Alfred Heimer and Buffalo Bill Cody era.

Though the building is basically unchanged from the outside, the inside has taken on a new elegance with the beams from the old bar and brick from the inner walls. Otherwise, steaks will be aged and then cooked on a woodfired grill by Executive Chef Austin Stewart. If all goes as planned Buffalo Block at the Rex will open in October.

As a new chapter begins for The Rex, Burgad expressed gratitude for his co-workers “Great people, working both with and for the customers. I can’t say enough about the customers”. “We will both miss it but we must go on,” Maplethorpe concluded.

We will go on but with a place in our heart for a man who was a friend to so many. He changed Montana Avenue. We will miss Gene Burgad for his generosity and humor. Cheers and thank you Gene for all you were and have done.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.