The Best Places to Eat and Drink Around Yellowstone
When pressed to reveal which restaurants in Yellowstone serve the best food, a number of park volunteers and seasonal employees -- even the ones employed at the food-serving places -- tactfully demurred that they enjoyed trout fishing for their lunch, or that they often brought meals from home. Others were pretty straight-up about the fact that, outside of a notable establishment or two, the food is simply not that good.
There are a ton of places to eat within Yellowstone National Park, and most of them you should not go to unless you have to. You’ll see that each of the main areas (the big stops on the map, which include Grant Village, Old Faithful Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs, Canyon Village, and Fishing Bridge) features an establishment called its Grill. These are great places for chatting with the retirees who work or volunteer here, especially in the busy high season, and are perfectly adequate for filling up on burgers with cardboardy buns and Kraft Singles.
You don’t go to Yellowstone to eat, though. You go there to hike, and to watch erupting geysers and to see bears but ideally from some distance. However, eat you must. Here follows the best dining options within the park and nearby towns, West Yellowstone and Gardiner. But first, I must do my duty and emphatically suggest you go the picnic route.
Everything You Have to Eat at Yellowstone
Thrillist has all the recs on what to eat at Yellowstone after a long day of exploring.
Embrace the picnic
The food you find in Yellowstone won’t be anything special, so the least you can do is eat that not-special food while looking out at something spectacular, rather than sitting in a drab cafeteria (though I’ll allow that the Wilderness Chili is pretty good).
The move in Yellowstone -- at least for breakfast and lunch -- is to go to one of the general stores you’ll find next to the visitor centers. A single company supplies all 12 stores within the park, so the inventory is more or less the same wherever you go.
You’ve got the most options at the largest stores: Old Faithful Basin and Canyon Village, where you can curate pretty much whatever genre of picnic you want: Survivalist (granola, Beefaroni, jerky an’ stuff); Survivalist: Low Carb (meat-and-cheese sandwiches, by which I mean a sandwich that is literally meat sandwiched by two pieces of cheese); Bougie (coconut water, wine in containers that look like they should be for coconut water, Greek yogurt); Pre-Assembled (grab-and-go salads, sandwiches similar); and Family/Walmart (everything on offer from PepsiCo, General Mills, and Unilever). You’ll obviously cover more ground if you eat on the go, but to really do the thing right, you should just take your bounty to one of the many scenic picnic sites around the park and enjoy it there.
Definitely try the ice cream
There is one exception to everything in the park being just OK: the ice cream. If you’re visiting in the summertime, you’ll notice there is ice cream at just about every store or kiosk, and it’s good. Try the huckleberry, a flavor which an assertive branding campaign has installed around the park in the form of everything from coffee to pancake mix. It’s very good.
For a national park in which so many people get around by driving, there is a truly stunning volume and diversity of alcohol available for purchase. At pretty much any of the general stores, you’ll find local beers with quirky names you probably haven’t seen before: Otter Water, Moose Drool, Bitch Creek, Highlander Bison Tale Pale Ale, Old Faithful Ale, Twisted Tea (huckleberry flavor), Teton Amber, and Family Vacation. Drink responsibly, of course.
The Old Faithful Inn gives you a ton of options. People have mostly good things to say about the buffet laid out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and next door at the Bear Pit you might find yourself drinking with friendly off-duty employees. Head to the second floor of the Inn and you’ll find a small bar tucked into a corner by the deck (with a view of Old Faithful), which is fantastic for when you want a drink that does not involve standing in line. If it’s an Irish coffee you’re after, perform the tiniest of bar hacks by ordering just an Irish whiskey and then taking it to the espresso bar that sits opposite, where the coffee’s fresher.
Next door from the Inn, the Obsidian Dining Room at the Snow Lodge is well known for putting together a good meal -- the restaurant is smaller, which tends to mean a bit more care goes into things.
If money is no object and you’re looking for absolute class, anyone who knows anything will tell you to go to the Lake Hotel. Breakfast and lunch are first come, first served, but reserve in advance for dinner, when you can go for fresh fish or bison but also lobster florentine or Montana wagyu beef, depending on the mood.
West Yellowstone, Montana, is a small town just outside the park’s West entrance, about a half-hour (very pretty!) drive from Madison. The non-residential side (closest to the park) can get expensive and kitschy. Still, there are decent dining options to be found if you’re staying there or swinging through for a hot meal, especially if you’re desperate for something other than bison burger.
One of the fondest memories I have from my last visit to Yellowstone is of waiting out a thunderstorm inside a school bus that sells tacos. Las Palmitas is open throughout the summer, and if you’re hungry in West Yellowstone you should eat there. There are reviewers online who claim these tacos to be the “second best Mexican food I’ve had outside southern California,” and these people deserve our sympathies. But the Taco Bus, as it is alternately known, is affordable and whimsical and charming on a strip of real estate that’s mostly given over to try-hard kitschy establishments.
The award for Best Pizza in the Yellowstone Area goes, by highly unscientific but highly unanimous poll, to Wild West Pizza. A fan favorite among both seasonal workers and tourists, this place does live music but also delivers (pizza, not music) if you need that.
Wander off the main strip, which is to say turn left on Highway 20 and continue for several seconds, and you’ll hit long-time West Yellowstone institution Ernie’s Bakery & Deli. They open at 7am -- if you’re not set on getting into the park at dawn, stop here for breakfast.
Gardiner, Montana, lies on the far side of Yellowstone’s North entrance, about a five minute drive up from the Mammoth area. It’s more charming than West Yellowstone, with a scenic river situation and a few tasty standbys beloved by locals and tourists alike. Gardiner also has the shadow of a nightlife scene; the bars mentioned below are about six seconds apart so you can bounce around between them. A few are even open ‘till 2am, but just remember that means only drinks -- some Google algorithm might say “late-night food,” but she’s a liar. There is no late-night food in Gardiner, and this is how you end up in your car at 2am eating the various confusing jerky products that were supposed to get you through the following day.
The near-unanimous favorite among locals polled for the best bar in Gardiner was Two Bit Saloon. There’s live music, cheap drinks, karaoke, and general good vibes, plus slot machines (and breakfast, lunch, and dinner). This was also the only place in town I could find to sell me so much as a bag of chips after midnight, and believe me when I say that I looked.
Also in the top tier of Bars That Serve Food is Iron Horse, which is a little more spacious and has the added draw of a deck overlooking the river.
For a burger (bison or otherwise) you want The Corral, which has a great outdoor seating area where you can relax with a beer.
Newcomer Grizzly Grille serves good tacos on a good deck, with bonus amenities like horseshoe games and a hammock. Having debuted in summer 2018, its off-season hours aren’t established yet, but the working timeline is that it might be open through the end of September or so.