The year 2020 has not been an easy time to open a business, let alone a restaurant. But that hasn’t stopped The Marble Table, and the risk is now paying off. Billings Restaurant is a semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant at the prestigious James Beard Awards.
The awards are basically the Oscars for the world of food. Given annually, they celebrate the best and brightest in the culinary arts.
Jason and Jen Marble own The Marble Table, where Jason serves as head chef and pastry chef. The idea of opening a restaurant had been germinating for a long time for the couple. “We always knew we would open a restaurant,” Jen said, “we just didn’t know when.”
That “when” ended up falling in November 2020, when the world was deeply gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We never had to bounce back [from COVID] because we never backed down,” Jen said.
The Marble Table strives for what they call “stylish comfort food”. Which means, as Jen explained, “we can make any dish we like”. The menu, which changes regularly, reflects this. Dishes are highlighted by home-cooking staples like mac and cheese, fried chicken, and braised beef pasta bolognese, which Jason calls his classic Italian take on “Sunday sauce.”
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“Food can be very healing for people. People think about food and they think about comfort,” Jen said.
They don’t know exactly how they were named. “Someone must have come here and tried our food,” Jen said. “It wasn’t something on our radar. We were just trying to maintain that for a while.
“It’s awesome,” Jason said. “It leaves me a little speechless.”
Most James Beard awards are for specific people, like chefs and bakers. But the best new restaurant is for the whole place. “It’s really cool that it’s for the whole restaurant, and not individualized,” Jason said. “Our staff are wonderful and deserve to be recognized.”
“We can’t do this without our staff,” added Jen. “It’s for everyone. It’s for our customers, it’s for Billings, it’s for our family.
It’s not just the food that sets The Marble Table apart. The Marbles make a point of showing up at every table that comes along.
“We want people to feel at home,” Jen said, while explaining The Marble Table’s emphasis on personal relationships.
“You wouldn’t invite someone over for dinner and throw the food on the table and leave,” Jason added. “This is our home. I spend more time here than at my permanent address. It’s right where my bed is.
This isn’t the first time the James Beard Awards have recognized restaurants in the Billings area. Walkers chef Nick Steen was a semi-finalist for Best Chef: Mountain in 2020. In 2014, James Honaker of Bistro Enzo was nominated in that same category.
Even the space now occupied by The Marble Table has been given pride of place. In 2018, Lilac’s owner and chef, Jeremy Engebretson, was named Best Chef. This restaurant closed in June 2020, freeing up space at 2515 Montana Avenue that The Marble Table now inhabits.
Other Montana restaurants vying for a James Beard Award this year include Chris Lockhart and Danny Mowatt of PREROGATIvE Kitchen at Red Lodge, who are semi-finalists in Best Chef: Mountain. Restaurants in Great Falls, Bozeman and Livingston are also semi-finalists in this category, and a handful of other restaurants are recognized for pastry, pastries and wine, with eight nominees in total for the state.
The 30 semi-finalists will be narrowed down to five finalists, who will be announced on Wednesday, March 16. The Marbles are unsure of their chances. “I don’t know if we’ll make it,” Jen admitted, “but it’s so cool to be part of this food map.”
“If we go further,” added Jason, “it would be great for our whole industry in Billings. Ditto if one of the other eight nominees left.
In one of The Marble Table’s dining rooms is a perfect metaphor for what Jen and Jason are trying to do. It’s a large white table with the words “The Gathering Place: Where Friends Become Family” written in the middle. Surrounding this inscription are dozens of inspirational quotes and sayings, each written by a customer. The table blurs the line between restaurant and community, something the Marbles usually try to do. “The Billings community is happy to have us,” Jen said. “They keep coming back.”
The Billings community responded with such enthusiasm that The Marble Table had to expand last summer, just six months after opening.
The nine additional tables more than doubled the eight that already existed. Still, the restaurant remains busy. Jen estimated that from Tuesday to Thursday they turn down an average of 22 tables. On Fridays and Saturdays, that number jumps to 54. She recommends making reservations.
“It was amazing,” Jen said. “We are super blessed.”
“Don’t let the hard days win,” reads one of the quotes on the whiteboard. It’s advice The Marble Table, which opened during a global pandemic, seems to have always followed.