Saturday, December 3, 2016

We Walk into a Bar in Montana

Iron Horse Bar and Grill, Missoula, Montana
Iron Horse Bar and Grill, Missoula
“There Is Always Someone You’ll Know” is the motto at the top of the web page of the Iron Horse Bar and Grill in Missoula, Montana. And I guess that was true, because when we went, Mindy knew me and I knew her.  Of course, by the time we left, we knew more people there, which is perhaps the real meaning of the motto. Frankly, I’m not sure sure what the motto means, but it sounds friendly.

John Steinbeck loved Montana, it seems
Missoula is a college town in this state known for its big sky. The people we spoke to seemed to have a great love for the state. They are in good company: John Steinbeck, who wrote a book about traveling the States long before we wrote posts about traveling the States, expressed a special love for Montana.

At the bar, we sat next to John, who moved here a few years ago from San Francisco. The Bay Area traffic was getting the best of him before he left, he said. It was getting to be “Manhattan traffic.” In Missoula, though, “It takes 33 to 34 minutes to get from my house to the city, and I love that I know it will take 33 or 34 minutes.”

Brianna, a waitress, said she’d lived in a variety of places through the years including Minneapolis and California, but was happy to come back to Montana, because it’s home.

We’d found many bars to choose from in Missoula, but a clerk in our hotel gave us the only advice we got from a live source. He said the food was good at the Iron Horse.

We went online to investigate some of the other bars in town, and the happy hour specials at the Iron Horse decided us. They had inexpensive quality spirits, so I got a Jack Daniels with Coke and Mindy a Punkuccino from Elysian Brewing Company in Seattle, which was one of the microbrew specials. There were also $3 chips and queso and discount Wild Wings. Plus the place had a bunch of awards in 2015: “Best Place to Mingle When You’re Single,” “Best Bar Food,” “Best Outdoor Seating” (but it was too cold for that), and “Best Women’s Restroom” (but Mindy didn’t need to go there, and I certainly didn’t need to go there).

Iron Horse does have a pool table and machines to gamble on -- most every place in Montana has slot machines of some variety. Most people were at tables, but the bar was pretty full too, though there were still three stools to choose from when we arrived.

The bar staff noticed when we came in and gave us menus and glasses of water. Someone on the staff mentioned that they weren’t as busy as they often were at that time, but they said another nearby spot had $1.00 sushi and another bar offered Bingo. Because it was a little slow, Brianna didn’t have anyone at her tables when we arrived, so she was able to take time to answer our two questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and “Whether you go or not, what makes for a good church?”

Iron Horse Bar and Grill, Missoula, Montana
Regarding bars, Brianna said she looks for a happy hour. “Everybody’s always looking for a special deal.” She mentioned that “Thursday night is always an uproar. We have 2 for 1 well drinks” which brings in the college students. She estimated that 90% of Thursday’s crowd tends to be collegiate. She said her place did well at happy hour. (They also have late night happy hour with drink specials from 11:00 pm to midnight.)

Brianna also said that the atmosphere is important. She noted that Iron Horse had just decorated for the holidays and that people appreciate the festive spirit. She said some people come in because they appreciate the staff, to see Daniella or other employees. She said she was happy that the staff currently got along very well. When the place was able to close early, at midnight or so, they would all go together to another bar in town.

As for what makes for a good church, Brianna said that growing in Helena, she used to love the organ and the architecture of the Cathedral of Saint Helena, which she found stunning. “I really appreciate open-mindedness.” She recalled a church in Minneapolis that was very welcoming to those in the LGBT community, providing a safe haven for victims of abuse. She noted that churches can provide people with a sense of community and that “everyone wants to fill a niche.”

We asked John, next to us at the bar, our two questions, too. He said that the best bars have a sense of community and a group of regulars. He said there was another bar in town, Charlie D’s, that had a group of what looked like rough characters. But he had wonderful conversations there with a variety of people, such as a academic from Eastern Europe. “At the best bars, you connect with people and form friendships.” He told us about an art gallery in San Francisco where certain people were invited (and could get in free) when the gallery hosted social gatherings from 5:00 -10:00 on Wednesday nights. Eventually, the event became more like a bar, and he said, “To this day, some of my very best friends came out of those nights. It was the opposite of pretentious.” He said that Iron Horse brings people in with its food (John was enjoying a plate of ahi tuna).  

As for what would make for a good church, John pleaded ignorance, “I’d have a hard time knowing what a good church was, I wouldn’t have an educated opinion.” John grew up a Catholic when Mass was in Latin, which is part of what turned him off from church. At a certain point, his dad quit going to church, and the rest of the family quit as well.

Customers had kept Daniella busy, but she finally found a moment to answer our questions. She said “people go to places depending on what they want. A bar should what they are and be that.”  She also thought a knowledgeable staff and good drinks are important. “As a bartender, I go to places where I like the staff. I’m very picky about the food and drink.”

As for our church question she responded, “I’ve never been to church. I don’t know how to answer that question.”

Missoula, Montana, Iron Horse Bar and Grill
Of course, in churches if you ask what makes for a good bar you’re likely to hear, “I’ve never been to a bar, I don’t know how to answer that question.”

Maybe it’s just our prejudice with this project, but there are some pretty great churches in this country of ours and some pretty great bars. You’re losing out a bit in life if you rule out going to either one.

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