The big dining rooms at Old Faithful Inn, Mammoth Hot Springs and Lake Hotel have been transformed in recent years into fine-dining showcases, with elk, bison and other “exotic” foods on the menu. Perhaps too high-end and exotic for the average Yellowstone visitor, as prices are lower and offerings are more mainstream this year, if changes at Old Faithful Inn Dining Room are any indication. Two years ago elk medallions were on the menu for $30.95; this year there are no elk medallions on the menu. Two years ago the rib eye was $30.95; this year it’s only $29. Other comparable prices for trout and salmon are higher now, but this year’s menu has more lower-end items like an open-face steak sandwich ($15.95) and rice and corn cakes ($16.25).
We also dined at the Lake Hotel Dining Room, where the food is more upscale and marketed as “slow food,” part of an international movement. Again, the offerings this season aren’t as exotic as seen in previous years; no antelope medallions this year. At Grant Village Dining Room, the offerings were midpriced (burgers for $13, bison meatloaf for $18).
The menu hasn’t changed at Roosevelt Lodge Dining Room: the emphasis is on smoked meats and hearty fare. We’d recommend the barbecue sampler ($21) or the pork carnitas ($17.45). Don’t pass on the Roosevelt beans.
So you will eat well if you go with one of the main dining rooms. Getting into one is a matter of planning and persistence.
Old Faithful Inn Dining Room, Lake Hotel Dining Room, and Grant Village Dining Room all accept reservations (866-439-7375), which are mandatory most of the summer season. If you’re not staying at Old Faithful Inn, you can make reservations 60 days in advance of your visit; if you are, you can make them pretty much any time after May 1. (Yes, they will look up your reservation record.) The same goes for Lake Hotel Dining Room and Grant Village Dining Room.
We cannot emphasize this enough: make dinner reservations before you leave for the Park. We’re always a little saddened when we’re waiting in line to dine at Old Faithful Inn Dining Room and a first-time visitor saunters up at 6 p.m. and expects there to be an open table just waiting for them, only to be told the first available opening is at 9:30 p.m. Of course, we made our reservations months in advance.
So, the lesson here is to plan ahead. Draw up an itinerary of sorts: you’ll be rewarded for planning ahead and laying in enough supplies.
– Bring some food and picnic. There are over 40 picnic areas in Yellowstone National Park, all marked on the official Park Service map. Some are better than others. A nice place to stop for meals on the west side of the Park is the Whiskey Flats picnic area, located near the Fountain Paint Pots area. It’s shaded and features a bathroom. (The only drawback: it’s a haven for mosquitos.) Another picnic area we like: an unnamed spot next to the Boiling River trailhead, near the 45th Parallel marker between Mammoth and Gardiner. It’s small, but you’re right next to the river. These aren’t insider secrets; you will not be alone if you picnic at either.
– The insider secret here: there are lots of unmarked picnic areas throughout the Park. Virtually every Yellowstone General Store has a picnic table or three nearby. Some hotels, including Old Faithful Snow Lodge, also have picnic tables nearby. There are also picnic tables near the museum at Mammoth Hot Springs. Where there’s a crowd (away from the geyser basins, of course) there will usually be a picnic table.
– Make lunch your big meal of the day. The fancy dining rooms offer much more affordable menus at lunchtime, and there’s usually not a wait. Not all are open for lunch, however; check first.
– Kids will love eating at the Roosevelt Lodge Dining Room; it’s the only spot in the Park with a Wild West theme. It’s not a large dining room, so there’s usually a wait. Stake out a rocking chair on the lodge’s porch of the lodge and head inside for a microbrew or a cocktail. There’s nothing more relaxing than a beer from Grand Tetons Brewing while rocking on the porch.
– Seek out a dining spot off the beaten path. Many of the Yellowstone General Stores have small diner-type seating areas that usually are not too crowded; we especially like the diners at the Lake General Store and the Fishing Bridge General Store. The takeout counters at Old Faithful Lodge and Lake Hotel are rarely crowded, while you will rarely find a long wait at the Canyon and Lake Lodge cafeterias. The selections are not extensive, but it’s a quick and easy way to snare a meal. Similarly, the lakeside restaurant at Grant Village – at the end of a steep walk down from the main dining room – offers a casual menu (burgers, pizzas) all day long. The lakeside location provides one of the more scenic views among any of the Park’s dining facilities.
– Don’t forget about the diner-style fountains in the old Hamilton General Stores: fast food served in a historic atmosphere. Our favorite: the original Hamilton Store at Old Faithful.
Some notes about the dining scene in Yellowstone National Park in 2009:
– There is no more free morning coffee in any hotel lobby. Two years ago coffee urns were set up in lobbies, while last summer the urns were moved behind counters but available upon demand. This season there’s no free coffee at all: polite inquiries at the counter were met by directions to the nearest coffee stand (on the second floor, in the case of Old Faithful Inn). It’s not a big deal, of course, but it does make the hotels seem a little less civilized and more money-hungry.
– Yellowstone General Stores did not have huckleberry ice cream; Xanterra ice-cream stands in the hotels did. Insiders know Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream has been served at Yellowstone National Park for decades, and a cup or cone of the huckleberry flavor is a traditional treat. Yeah, we know it’s a little thing, but Yellowstone is a place for traditions.