Drink Up: Classic Western Bars
BY JODI HAUSEN
The greater Yellowstone region plays host to beautiful vistas, abundant wildlife, verdant pasture and blue-ribbon fly fishing. Not only do the deer and antelope play here, so too do anglers, hunters, ranchers, skiers and outdoor enthusiasts of every breed. And when their work or play is finished, it’s time for a little refreshment.
From Cody, Wyoming, to Gallatin Gateway, Montana, saloons dot the landscape. Here, history and fish stories run deep and music tends toward a certain twang. They’re taverns trimmed with the taxidermy of bison, moose and bear, murals depicting the Old West, cowboy artifacts, historic photographs and ranch brands. Knotty wood, well-worn leather and rustic lighting underlie it all. It’s where the region’s juiciest steaks and burgers from local ranches or fresh-caught fish from nearby rivers are served along with, of course, some of the West’s finest beer and spirits.
Talk of politics or religion is rare in these parts – music, hooch and the day’s adventures are the focus of conversation. And idle chatter can quickly turn to banter or a swagger, swing or two- step on a nearby dance floor.
Though each is unique, an overriding tendency pervades each watering hole: All are welcome. Whether you don the threadbare denim jacket of a hardworking cowhand, the age-polished boots of a longtime rancher, the waders of an angler, the wool cap of a skier or the bedazzled jeans of a tourist, you’ll find comfort and a warm spirit in these handpicked Western saloons.
On a chilly April evening, the Murray Bar is relatively quiet. Ranch brands adorn one wall while portraits of regulars (anglers with their fish-tale flies) line another. The cowboy-bar icon — a stuffed bison head — watches over the scene. Opened in 1904, the adjoining Murray Hotel offers an elegant stay and is also a museum of Western culture with artifacts from notable guests including Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Anthony Bourdain named the Murray one of his favorite hotels in the world.
Even on a calm night such as this, the Murray’s friendly atmosphere pervades as locals and visitors sip libations around the large rectangular bar. In its center, bartender Patty Glantz hesitates when singer-songwriter Miss Valeri Lopez tells him she’s touring from L.A. and asks to perform some numbers. But as her rich voice fills the tavern, his reluctance and patrons’ hearts take flight.
It’s a scene that plays out on occasion at the Murray, where old friends meet over beers after work but there’s always room to chat with new ones.
“The people are what makes the [Murray],” says Joshua “Jed” Edwards, a resident fishing guide since 2009. “This is a big place, but you’re only as good as the person standing next to you.”
The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is more than a Jackson landmark. Established in 1937, it’s the oldest surviving business on the town square.
New proprietors took ownership of the bar early last year and aim to preserve the Western heritage that has made it a favored watering hole. The classic honky-tonk saloon has undergone major restoration, from its scenic Western murals over the bar to the mounted wildlife and cobbled pine accents inside and out. The Cowboy’s neon sign was also repaired so it again rotates, which it hadn’t for over 50 years.
Even the barstools have been refurbished – but these aren’t your average four-legged affairs. Bellying up to the wooden bar embedded with silver dollars means mounting authentic saddle- topped stools.
Known for presenting world-class musicians including Hank Williams Jr., Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker, the Cowboy Bar also offers free Western swing dance lessons on Thursday nights.
The music will always be of a certain genre, says General Manager Jim Waldrop.
“We want to continue the tradition of good music – more on the rowdy side than a little mellow, but good fun.”
Overlooking the blue-ribbon trout waters of the Henrys Fork in Island Park sits the Last Chance Bar and Grill. Its high-ceilinged, timber-framed dining room is part of the fly-fishing enterprise that is TroutHunter. The lodge, with its guide service, fly shop and restaurant, is a premiere gathering place for anglers and travelers from around the world.
“You can sit in the bar and hear three or four foreign languages being spoken,” says René Harrop, one of TroutHunter’s founders. “You have that opportunity to interact with people from far-off places.”
Harrop, in his 70s, retired from the business several years ago but is still active in the community, tying and selling flies and occasionally penning a blog post for TroutHunter.
It’s not just visitors who frequent the place, though. The establishment has been a fixture in the local community of fishing aficionados for more than 20 years.
For those seeking the banter of an it-was-this-big fish story, some natter about obscure fly patterns, tasty food and drink in a warm atmosphere, Last Chance is just 15 miles west of Yellowstone National Park.
Vince Gill, winner of more than 20 Grammy awards for country music, visited Cassie’s Supper Club about six years ago. As far as he’s concerned, steak is the star at Cassie’s.
“He just stopped in, ate a lobster and a steak and played for an hour and a half,” says owner Melody Singer. It happened again a year later.
Founded as a brothel in 1922 by young widow Cassie Waters, the ladies of the night turned to serving steaks when prostitution was no longer tolerated. In 1992, Melody’s husband, Steve Singer, purchased and renovated the steakhouse, which now boasts 20,000 square feet, three floors, three bars and a large dance floor. Parts of the original building, its décor and relics still remain.
Its proximity to Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Highway makes Cassie’s a gathering place for locals and tourists from all backgrounds.
“We have people who come in [wearing] a tie and people will come in [wearing] their hiking boots and shorts,” Melody says, adding that they pride themselves “on treating all people like family here.”
Since 1937, Stacey’s Old Faithful Bar has been keeping regulars and newcomers happy as they sip from bottled beer and dig into mouthwatering steaks. On any given night here, dusty cowboys and vested ranchers with pocket watches mix easily with fleece-clad skiers in baseball caps. Adorning the walls are classic images of cowboys and rodeos.
Gary Ward, a fourth-generation rancher, has been coming to Stacey’s since he was 7 years old. On a recent weeknight, Ward joined friends Ray Vail and Ken, who goes simply by K.R. Each around 70, the men reminisce about the history of the small saloon tucked off the highway between Bozeman and Big Sky.
In the mid-1900s, they say, thousands of head of cattle were calved in pastures close enough that, on breaks, cowboys sought refreshment at Stacey’s. The joint means a lot to area folks and the visitors they share it with.
“I call it the center of the world,” Ward says.
“A lot of problems get solved here,” agrees K.R. Stacey Crosby bought the bar and steakhouse in 1963 and it’s still run by his daughter, Toni Donnelly. She’s justifiably proud of her establishment’s history and its welcoming atmosphere. “It isn’t a bar, it’s an institution,” she says. “Everybody’s family.”
Jodi Hausen is an award-winning journalist based in Bozeman, Montana, who has been published in Montana Quarterly, Outside Bozeman, and has had her work aired on Maine Public Radio.