Written by Katie Turpen
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Walk into The Coal Yard, a restaurant sprawling across three buildings in downtown Helena, and you’ll hear the sound of guitar chords being gently plucked in a corner of the dining room. Pictures and artifacts from as early as the beginning of the 20th century line the walls and soft mood lighting cloak this warm space in nostalgia.
For owner Jeff Oetting, it was important to preserve the story of both the buildings and the town. “This place has been a general store, headquarters for a coal company, a machine shop, just a progression of things,” he says. “It has a rich history of things that were important to Helena.”
Before he opened the unique food and music venue in April 2015, Oetting was a stranger to the restaurant business, having been a consultant for publishing companies. He and his wife, Rosalie, were initially planning on opening a gallery downtown, but when more buildings became available, they found themselves in the business of creative food paired with live music.
It took Oetting about two years to finish restoring the building. From the bar top found in a warehouse in Missouri to the coal car that sits in front of the restaurant that was taken from the Helena woods, the couple restored the building piece by piece and truly made it their own. “A lot of guys play tennis or golf. I like to take old materials and make them reusable,” says Oetting. “We tried to use materials that reflected the history of the building.”
Oetting’s goal was to give Helena residents a taste of downtown Birmingham right in their own back yard by combining three essential ingredients—the food, the music, and the bar. “We like to think it’s a small town meeting place with some of the sophistication of downtown,” he says. “We want it to be a place for young professionals who can come and have dinner and listen to music, taking what they need out of it.”
The Coal Yard boasts live music on a stage in the main dining area Tuesday through Saturday and even an open mic night on Wednesdays (they are closed on Sunday and Monday.) Oetting says he has been overwhelmed by the music community in the area and wishes he could book everyone who contacts him about playing. The venue often attracts artists traveling through the area and guests can expect to hear both music they are familiar with as well as genres they’ve never heard before. “The musicians are doing this because they love to play music,” he says. “It’s fun for musicians as well as the audience. It’s what we want to be known for.”
In addition to the music, Oetting also wants to be known for the food. The bar has a robust cocktail, wine, and beer list and a menu offering burgers, sandwiches, seafood, vegetables, and other southern dishes. The Gouda Bites, a twist on a traditional comfort food, have been the most popular item on the menu, much to the surprise of Oetting. Since opening in April, they’ve sold about 35,000 of these hot, cheesy treats. The restaurant also smokes wings and the corned beef for their Reuben sandwich.
Head chef Jason Shipp, who has worked with Chris Hastings, enjoys making creative fare for the guests. Items on his chef menu have included sautéed seafood pasta, bacon-wrapped roasted pork chops, and grilled blackened Mahi. “The food is sort of like the music,” Oetting says. “We have a set menu people can count on and then we also have the chef’s menu that he changes once every few weeks. It gives him creative room so that he can add things and take them and rotate them. I like to go to a restaurant to be able to pick something different if I want to.”
Beyond the food and the music, the restaurant is a true tribute to the Helena community. Oetting recalls a fond memory from a year and a half ago. A company from California rented the downtown buildings to film a movie. When the massive snowstorm hit the area, the production crew and stars were stranded inside the buildings. When Helena residents heard the news through a local blog, many of them immediately brought blankets, food, and other supplies. “They were blown away,” Oetting says. “But being in this area, it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would do that. That’s what I like about Helena. It’s like Cheers. The park, the river, the train tracks. I’ve always loved this area.”
Oetting and his wife are proud of the success they have achieved so far and hope to continue to provide an inviting atmosphere for locals as well as those traveling through the area. “It’s a business, but a restaurant is also a service,” Oetting says. “If you make it a comfortable place for people to feel good about where they spend their money it becomes less of a business and more of a fun way to interact with people.”
For more about The Coal Yard, visit facebook.com/coalyardinhelena.