HIDDEN GEMS, WYOMING’S BEST EATS: Yellowstone’s Lake Hotel Serves Up French-inspired Fare With Sunset Views

First opened in 1891, Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park offers a French-inspired menu with new twists on old classics. (Wyoming Truth photo by Ruffin Prevost)

By Ruffin Prevost

Special to the Wyoming Truth

LAKE VILLAGE, Wyo. — Wyoming doesn’t exactly spring to mind when someone mentions memorable French fine dining experiences, especially beyond a handful of venues in Jackson and Cheyenne. But the dining room in a 132-year-old hotel where guests once arrived by steamboat has more than a few diners this summer wishing each other “bon appétit!”

The Lake Hotel dining room in Yellowstone National Park has for years been beloved for its romantic setting, beautiful views and elegant presentation of standard fare like steaks, pork chops, trout and elk. But an updated menu this year offers French-inspired makeovers of old favorites, and a few new French twists as well.

The cassoulet served by the Lake Hotel dining room features a sausage made from pork, rabbit and antelope. (Wyoming Truth photo by Ruffin Prevost)

Diners are lingering longer at their tables, said manager Nolan Rizzo, because they’re ordering more of everything than in recent years.

Popular appetizers include a rich and silky coquille Saint Jacques (scallops broiled in wine and cream with mushroom puree for $22), and escargot Bourguignon (snails broiled with garlic and herbed butter for $16).

Entrees are simple, but with classic French preparations. They include coq au vin (chicken braised in Burgundy wine with mushrooms and aromatics for $28) and the widely acclaimed cassoulet for $30, with duck confit, white beans and a sausage of intense, layered flavors that includes pork, rabbit and antelope—described favorably by one diner as “Noah’s Ark in a blender.”

Lake Hotel is almost two hours from Cody, the nearest city, and reservations are notoriously difficult to snag. Prices may be in line with fine dining in Jackson, but steak au poivre at $44, for instance, is in the upper range of what Cody residents spend on a fancy main course, and they are the highest of any destination in Yellowstone.

Catherine Foley plays the piano in the lounge adjacent to the Lake Hotel dining room in Yellowstone National Park. (Wyoming Truth photo by Ruffin Prevost)

“It’s definitely more expensive, but they’re serving a quality of food that is really good,” said Jimmy Connolly, who worked at Lake Hotel last year and served as manager of neighboring Lake Lodge this year.

“It’s the highest quality dining room in the park, and people love the historic setting,” he said.

Opened in 1891, Lake Hotel is the oldest lodging built in any national park and has seen numerous expansions and renovations. Most recently, a $28 million makeover completed in 2014 was followed by a National Historic Landmark designation in 2015. During its first quarter-century, guests traveling by boat from West Thumb on vessels like the popular Zillah or the 500-passenger E.C. Waters could dock in front of the hotel’s massive Ionic columns before checking in.

Epic road trip

The Basque cake served at the Lake Hotel dining room has a crispy exterior and creamy vanilla custard center, and is a favorite among staff and diners. (Wyoming Truth photo by Ruffin Prevost)

For Christina Hill and her family, the approach to Lake Hotel was no less epic, as it was the culmination of a seven-state road trip celebrating her 19-year wedding anniversary and the first real vacation for her parents in 30 years.

She chose Lake Hotel because she wanted a memorable dinner in a grand old Yellowstone property, but didn’t know about the recent switch to French-inspired cuisine. The group gave the coq au vin and steak au poivre high marks, and Hill said her meal was “incredible.”

That included the standout dessert on the menu, a Basque cake baked by Amanda Strolin, whose solo enterprise Varney Bridge Bakery near Bozeman, Montana is nearly three hours away. The cake has a crispy exterior and creamy vanilla custard center, a recipe Strolin said she learned from a baking and pastry course she completed at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California.

Xanterra Travel Collection, the company that operates Lake Hotel, strives to serve sustainably sourced food from local providers, a goal that was put to the test earlier this year when Strolin had hip replacement surgery and couldn’t bake at the usual pace.

“I love that Xanterra uses local suppliers, but we are a rural community and that comes with challenges with supplies, delivery and weather,” she said.

Relatively high prices and scarce reservations at the Lake Hotel dining room have not deterred diners looking to try the venue’s new French-inspired menu. (Courtesy photo from National Park Service)

Rizzo, the manager, recommends calling early in the season to make a reservation, or calling ahead or stopping by if you’re in or near Yellowstone to see if there are cancellations. You can always wait for a table in the adjacent lounge and have a Campari spritz or Fernet cascade while you listen to the piano player or string quartet, taking in the sunset views of Yellowstone Lake.

Reservations are easier to get late in the season, Rizzo said, and “with this menu as good as its been in the four years I’ve been in this dining room, I’m proud of the great things we’re doing, and I want everyone to try it.”

The Lake Hotel Dining Room, 236 Yellowstone Lake Rd., Lake Village, Wyoming; (307) 344-7311. Open May through October, serving breakfast 6:30 to 10 a.m. and dinner 5 p.m. to 1o p.m. Dining room closes for the season on Oct. 1.

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