Signing In

Linda Burton posting from Helena, Montana – “Please No Guns or Cell Phones Inside” states the sign at the door of the No Sweat Café on Last Chance Gulch, where another sign advertises the Two Dot Burger. I pushed through the screen door, glad to know I could expect a peaceful lunch. The nine tables and five booths inside were highly varnished knotty pine, served by pretty women in cute shorts and cowgirl boots. The Two Dot burger, by the way, is one patty bigger than the One Dot; most items on the menu leaned towards breakfast fare – omelets and pancakes and sausage, all done from scratch; I chose a sandwich, turkey and cream cheese, lettuce and tomato; with chips. The chips were blue corn and the tomato tasted as if it had just been picked from the tomato patch out back, it was that juicy fresh. I asked about their name; was told the original restaurant was near hot springs, therefore, people who came in were not (or were) sweating. Whatever, the cheeky humor and simply good food were a fun stop on a warm afternoon of exploring Helena. And being enticed by signs.

I hate to shop, but that cheeky humor, the clever names, and the clear directional signs made me want to go inside every store, or walk another block or two. Easy to spot red/blue/gold signs put you center-of-the-universe – if you’re standing in the 400 Block of Last Chance Gulch you are given directions for the Holter Museum (left), the St Helena Cathedral (also left), the Grandstreet Theatre (right), Visitor Information 3 blocks straight ahead. My chance for visiting those places is upped by about 300 percent, simply because of a sign. Why doesn’t every city think of that? People are much more likely to visit a place if they know it is there! Or are regularly reminded of its existence. I began to look for the red/blue/gold directionals; Downtown Helena Park Avenue signs were posted at either end; one directed me to the Library (angle left), Pioneer Park, Pioneer Cabin, Reeder’s Alley, and Mount Helena Park (straight ahead); at the other end I was directed to the Walking Mall, Performance Square, State Capitol 1 mile, Historical Society 1 mile, Visitor Information 2 blocks (all straight ahead).

I headed for the Walking Mall, where another engaging red/blue/gold sign welcomed me into Trolley Block. Clever names assailed me right and left; Birds and Beasleys, an art gallery and gift shop and wild bird store; Frayed Sew, a boutique selling unique hand stitched items; Pan Handler, selling kitchenware, of course; Lasso the Moon Wonderful Toys, selling wonderful toys. A National Register of Historic Places sign explained Uncle Sam’s Block — the first bank chartered in Montana was located on this site in 1866; a housing shortage in the 1880’s led to construction of a 3-story rooming house here (French Second Empire-inspired style with caboose dormers and heavily pedimented windows). See what you can learn from signs?

The Mediterranean Grill seemed a rather ordinary choice of name after all that; still I was attracted by the potted plants on the patio. The sky-high ceiling was painted sky-blue; red and green metal chairs and open-window wall murals transported me straight to the coast. Did I want Bisara, an Egyptian fava bean puree? Or Baba Ghannouj (eggplant, Middle Eastern) or Muhammura (walnuts, red bell peppers, and pomegranate molasses from Allepo in Syria)? The couples at the next table were conversing in French; the menu also offered Tapanades from Provence. I settled for Lasagna Romagnola, wood stone oven baked, glad for the “Now Open Sunday” sign out front that led me to a foreign land.

Driving back through the Great Northern Town Center, I spotted banners hanging from every post; Uptown Service, Uptown Gifts, Uptown Style, Uptown Chic; colorful buildings in modern style; outdoor dining, movie theaters, and shops that this non shopper will probably wind up visiting, all because of the allure of the signs. I smiled at the banner proclaiming Helena as “The Best Small Art Town in America.” What is small art? I said to myself, in cheeky humor style. Over there sits the Carousel, a lighthearted horsie and ice-cream cone decorating a sign perched atop its brilliant blue roof. Now, who wouldn’t want to stop there?









Birds and Beasleys

Frayed Sew

Mediterranean Grill

Great Northern Town Center

Carousel and Ice Cream