Scott Westphal says he hasn’t really had a day off in 40-some years.
Even so, the owner of Sir Scott’s Oasis in Manhattan decided against taking a break when he had the chance earlier this year. After restaurants in Montana closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Westphal, his wife Marie, and their staff spent the end of the Oasis’s 40th year in business extensively renovating the restaurant’s kitchen and bathrooms and reviving the décor in the building’s dining area, lobby and bar.
By the time the Oasis’s official 40th anniversary date of July 1 rolled around, Sir Scott’s was once again open to customers, and business has been brisk ever since, Westphal says. Though there are fewer tables set up in the main dining area in order to comply with physical distancing regulations, those seats have been full and the restaurant’s to-go business has been brisk. Diners who choose to eat in are enjoying the freshened up interior, all of which has been completely finished for the first time in 20 or 30 years.
The renovation served two purposes: giving the restaurant an overdue facelift, and also keeping employees on the payroll. It was something positive to come out of what Westphal calls “one of the most difficult, stressful times we’ve ever experienced in the restaurant business.
“That initial shutdown just about killed me,” he said.
Westphal opened Sir Scott’s in Belgrade in January 1980, and moved the restaurant to its current location in Manhattan six months later on July 1, 1980.
“I was not unaware how difficult or hard it could be,” says Westphal, who had worked for the restaurant’s owners, Larry and Noreen Restevedt, since he was 16.
Nevertheless, the hours were long – Westphal says he worked 19 hours a day for the first 19 years – and turning Sir Scott’s into the nationally renowned steakhouse was a team effort. Scott’s father, who was a glazier in Bozeman, determined the “Early American Glass Crate decorating theme” by providing all the interior wood from salvaged glass crates. Scott’s mother worked as the restaurant bookkeeper for 30 years. And Marie’s parents were the first customers in the dining room, and offered the couple some loans in the early years to keep business afloat.
“The first couple of years were tough,” Marie remembers.
Though neither Westphal downplays how their commitment to the business has contributed to its success, they also credit its fame to a couple of lucky breaks. In 1990, the national Beef Industry Council featured Manhattan, Mont., in an ad campaign to revive the beef industry. A catchy series of television commercials playing on a “Manhattan (Mont.) to Manhattan (N.Y.)” theme put the smaller city on the map. (An example can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=beef+council+manhattan+montana+youtube&docid=608055025580704284&mid=6D1AA8CB62ACE00B94A86D1AA8CB62ACE00B94A8&view=detail&FORM=VIRE ). Sir Scott’s Oasis was never mentioned in the campaign, but tourists from all over began flocking to the city to check out Manhattan’s dining scene, Westphal remembers.
“We literally went from $400,000 gross sales to over a million in one year,” he says. “The second year, it doubled again.”
During that period of explosive growth, the staff expanded from 12 to 25 to 40 employees, and rewarded their new employers with loyalty. More than 60 percent of the current staff has been at the Oasis for at least 20 years, and 10 percent for more than 30 years.
“We’re blessed,” Marie says.
The Oasis benefited from another unintended PR boom after an untrue rumor went “viral” in the early ’90s before social media was even a thing.
The story started after Jane Fonda and Ted Turner dropped into the restaurant one night without a reservation and were unable to wait for table. The Westphals don’t know who embellished what happened and started talking about it, but before long, broadcasters across the county began telling listeners that Scott himself had come out of the kitchen and thrown the couple out of the restaurant, refusing to serve Fonda because of her anti-war activism during the Vietnam conflict.
Though Westphal has always told anyone who asked that the story was completely unfounded, people still believed it because they wanted to, he says. Vietnam veterans from all over the U.S. flocked to the Oasis to show their appreciation, and those who didn’t visit sent letters.
“People traveled far and wide, and we easily received over a million letters, cards and phone calls over a period of 10 years,” Westphal says.
Close to home, the Oasis remains a popular destination for diners wishing to enjoy an authentic Montana steakhouse, homemade salad dressings, hand-cut potatoes, and the friendly and efficient service of the restaurant’s dedicated staff. While the Westphals flirted with the idea of selling the business a few years ago, the transaction fell through, and now they say it isn’t a good time to market a restaurant and bar for sale. The Oasis may remain in the Westphal family in perpetuity, however, as their son has expressed interest in taking it over someday.
In the meantime, the Westphals continue to meet expected and unexpected challenges as they continue their lives’ work and think back over the past 40 years.
“It’s been wonderful,” Scott says.