Raising the bar 

Is Missoula’s nightlife growing pretentious, or just plain growing? The experts—from bartenders to barflies, from Charlie B’s to James Bar—weigh in on the city’s shifting reality.

“Time for another round.” At 9:15 p.m. on a recent Wednesday at Al’s & Vic’s, the rallying cry means more Happy Meals, the $5 specials consisting of either four Pabst Blue Ribbon cans served in a bucket of ice or one PBR and a shot of Jameson. Three empty buckets are scattered around the bar, each in front of a vastly different group of patrons: two college-aged women bookending a man in a baseball hat; a group of late-20s professionals, some still dressed from work; and an older couple, both maybe 60, alternately working a Sudoku puzzle in the daily paper and half-watching Premier League Soccer on a television above the bar.

photo by Chad Harder
Bartender Alesha Bowman pours one of the James Bar’s signature drinks, a Green Tea Martini.

“People come here because it’s just a Missoula bar,” says bartender Winter Sanor, a seven-year veteran at Al’s & Vic’s. “We’re just like Charlie’s. We cater to all crowds. We get everybody.”

Time for another round. A few minutes later, the call comes with an additional request for food. Sanor stacks four red-and-white cardboard trays with snack mix. They all go to a table of women seated under a series of vintage Missoula photographs. The women laugh about how, when they were younger, the pretzels and crackers might have been dinner. In addition to the free snack mix, Al’s & Vic’s customers can also purchase any of the following from a fully stocked shelf behind the bar: Lay’s potato chips, M&Ms, Hershey bars, Blue Diamond peanuts, Certs and Tums.

“I’ve been coming here for four years,” says Aneta Milojevic, 26, an office manager and the first baseman of an Al’s & Vic’s sponsored softball team, as she passes the snack mix. “It’s a more laidback, relaxed atmosphere. It’s friendly to everyone. It’s more comfortable to me than, say, next door.”

“Next door” is literally 10 feet from where Milojevic and her friends are seated. At the end of a short Al’s & Vic’s hallway and on the way to the restrooms stands a nondescript, unmarked gray door that looks like it should lead to a janitorial closet. Instead, James Bar waits on the other side.

For some locals, that door represents a Narnia-like divide between old and new Missoula.

Both establishments are owned by the same family, but couldn’t be more dissimilar. Al’s & Vic’s is brightly lit and adorned with beer- and liquor-sponsored signage. James Bar is dark save for a candle chandelier, votive candles and a large gas fireplace, and the walls showcase chic black-and-white posters of Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers and a young, un-bearded Willie Nelson.

Al’s & Vic’s features two pool tables and two rows of video gaming machines that line the walls on either side of the front door. James Bar welcomes visitors with a Hunter S. Thompson quote at the front entrance (“...Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final”) and a Jimmy Buffett quote at the back (“We are the people our parents warned us about”); both are elegantly carved in stone.

Al’s & Vic’s fashions itself as “Where the elite meet,” with regulars who often offer the unceremonious addendum “…to get drunk.” James Bar doesn’t have a slogan yet, but Frank Preston, a 30-year-old Missoulian fresh back from five months in South America, notes during his first visit that “a mix of metrosexual folks, frat-boy types and some regular Montanans” is in evidence. He calls it representative of “that quote-unquote new Missoula diversity.”

For ages, that diversity among economic, social and geographic demographics was funneled to a certain kind of downtown bar. Charlie B’s, The Ox, Al’s & Vic’s, The Silver Dollar, Stockman’s, the Union Club, The Rhino—all were and are bars built for drinking. Over the generations, they helped define Missoula’s “Patagucci” feel, its college-meets-mill-worker-crowd dynamic, its Big Sky blue-collar history. If drinkers were looking to elevate their evening to include food with their suds, their options were limited, but equally traditional. Places like the Iron Horse (in the old depot spot and in its new location), Sean Kelly’s, the Old Post Pub and the Depot all fit the bill, although, for better or worse, in a more refined, less hangdog way.

But the arrival of Missoula’s newest establishments signifies a sea change in the social scene, and mirrors a national trend toward high-end nightlife.

The Red Bird Wine Bar opened in late 2006 in the Florence Building, offering $410 bottles of Italian wine alongside $12 hamburgers. Last December, a members-only “country club without the golf,” The Loft, opened in, of all places, the same building that once housed Missoula’s iconic punk haven, Jay’s Upstairs; members pay a $2,000 initiation fee and $175 monthly—or more for corporate memberships—for access to approximately 3,800 square feet of elegant downtown space. Later that same month, James Bar opened its doors, serving lobster, ostrich, veggie falafels and spicy garlic french fries with mango ketchup. Perhaps it’s the fact that it opened so quickly after The Loft did, or that it’s next door to Missoula’s reining “Best Pour,” according to Indy readers, or that for weeks the quote from Buffett near the backdoor entrance was attributed to “Buffet.” But for whatever reason, James Bar has raised a particularly nasty backlash from many.

“I read about it every night above the men’s room urinals,” says James Bar co-owner Seamus Hammond, who grew up in the shadow of Al’s & Vic’s, which is owned by his mother, Vicky, and her husband, Dick Scharfe. “They say I’m ruining Al’s & Vic’s, that I’m ruining Missoula, that we’re some sort of elitist jerks. Those people haven’t been around, they don’t know my family’s history. They probably haven’t even been into the new bar. Who are they to say what’s right or wrong for Missoula? For all the people who have complained, we’ve had many more say this is what Missoula needed.”

Conversations regarding Missoula’s growth are nothing new. The burgeoning city’s long struggle with how exactly to expand has made good banter for barflies and bartenders for decades, one long series of “back in my days” butting up against “it ain’t how it used to be’s” and “remember whens.” The difference with the conversation today is that the emphasis has switched from typical barroom chatter to chatter about the bars themselves. What does the social shift mean for Missoula? Plenty of barflies and bartenders have an opinion.

–Happy Hour–

Time for another round. At Charlie B’s on the verge of happy hour on a Thursday, that means a shot of Old Turkey and a chaser of Kokanee for the man in the gray beard who tells a reporter, kindly, “No comments today.” The table at the front orders two pitchers of Bayern Pilsner and a smoker at the center of the bar asks for a glass of water.

photo by Chad Harder
Door number one? Or door number two? Patrons find vastly different drinking experiences between Al’s & Vic’s and James Bar.

The scene is unspectacular in every way that makes Charlie B’s Missoula’s most revered bar—rich characters coming and going, musty smell definitely staying, various age groups in various forms of drunkenness, a friendly game of pool in full swing. Most walls are still filled by photographer Lee Nye’s iconic headshots of various regulars, pictures that have been hanging since 1965 when Nye was a bartender at the then-named Eddie’s Club. Less space is reserved for the late J.R. Rummel’s original prints, allegedly traded by the local artist for credit at the bar. Charlie’s is not listed in the phone book, there’s no sign to attract customers from the street and its address is often referred to as “the corner of space and time,” as a sign above the bar reads. The history goes on, as should be expected: In 44 interviews conducted for this story over the course of four evenings and one afternoon in nine different downtown bars, 41 of them mentioned Charlie’s in some way as emblematic of Missoula’s traditional bar scene.

“Change is not a big thing here,” says Holly, 28, daughter of the bar’s owner and namesake, Charlie Baumgartner, and a regular bartender. “Charlie says what makes him happy is what makes his customers happy. He doesn’t have a motto, but that’s what he says a lot of the time.”

In fact, when asked if anything significant has changed in all the years she’s been around the bar—all the way back to her earliest memory, drinking an afternoon soda on a barstool as a kid—Holly points to the fact that two years ago the bar upgraded to computerized cash registers. She can’t think of anything else.

The clientele doesn’t change much either. John “Memphis” Thompson says he’s been on the same barstool for 16 years, and he’s well aware of the change in Missoula’s bar scene. He waits tables at the Red Bird restaurant, but drinks mostly at Charlie’s.

“When I’m here, it’s like my living room,” he says, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. “When I go to places like Red Bird or James Bar, I’m not in my living room. I’m a guest. I’m a visitor. I appreciate the great wine list, I appreciate my drink served in the appropriate glass, I appreciate fine food. There are some nights when that’s exactly what I want. But when I want a beer and I want to feel at home, this is where I go.”

Time for another round. At the Oxford on a Wednesday night, the call goes out to “Mom” for another set of Budweiser bottles, shots of tequila and a bourbon for the poker table. The front doors are unlocked, as they have been at the 24-hour establishment for more than 100 years. Rifles line a glass case on the wall above the bar. One television broadcasts Nancy Grace; the other shows alligator attacks on Animal Planet. A half-dozen people play pool or loiter near the table. In the back, where two short-order chefs work the diner, one stool is occupied by a man in a Carhartt jacket hunched over a bowl of chili. Poker players fill the table in the front window.

Kim Pier sits at the bar in a black business suit next to Colanda “Cola” Lint, who explains that her first name comes from combining a colander and a calendar—“and my mom’s name is Colleen.” Lint holds a pool cue but doesn’t use it over the course of 30 minutes.

“The Ox is my second home,” Lint says. “That’s why I call Beth ‘Mom.’ I feel comfortable here. This is like my family.”

The stories in the Ox are similar to those in Charlie B’s. Beth, the bartender—an Ox employee off-and-on for 27 years—knows most everyone’s name and a lot of the bar’s history. She quickly refutes the bar’s roughneck reputation, calling it the “nicest bar in Missoula.” She says she still gets asked about the diner’s famous brains and eggs, which the Ox stopped serving more than four years ago after the mad cow scare. Any major changes over the decades?

“Not much,” she says. “They took out the Keno machines and they closed Mulligan’s [the adjoining strip club]. That’s about it in 20 years.”

But after Beth mentions a few other little things—they replaced a front table that attracted transients with a “Simpson’s” pinball machine; they now offer free wireless Internet service—she hints at a significant shift, one that’s brought up at a lot of bars in Missoula.

“I don’t think our clientele’s changed one bit,” she says. “We’ve always catered to workers. This is a blue collar bar. But, if anything, there are just less of them. We’re not slow, but I remember when, even on a Wednesday, it went six deep in this place. We don’t get that anymore.

“Things are tight,” Beth continues. “People are hoarding their money. Then there’s the—well, most people can’t afford DUIs…You gotta admit, it’s hard to afford those things! I know all sorts of people who are afraid to come downtown” because they don’t want to deal with possible arrests, she says. “There’s all sorts of other things like that. I’ve lived here since I was 12 and you don’t need me to tell you that Missoula’s changing. It’s a different place now. This place will never change, but everything around it sure is.”

–A glass of reality–

Time for another round. And this time, just because we’re about to talk statistics, let’s make it a double. To wit: the decline in overall bar traffic, a slump that’s widely mentioned by local bartenders, mirrors a national downward trend. There are a number of contributing factors, including a sluggish economy and enhanced DUI enforcement. According to the Beverage Information Group, a Norwalk, Conn. research company that tracks alcohol sales nationwide, the number of on-premises purchases at bars and restaurants has been decreasing in recent years.

photo by Chad Harder
Kate Koehler and Casey Louis cut a rug at a 2007 Cash for Junkers reunion at Charlie B’s.

Take-home sales, meanwhile, continue to increase, with wine sales growing for the 14th consecutive year (at 294.2 million cases; up four percent) and the sales of distilled spirits increasing for 10 straight years (more than 182 million nine-liter cases; up 3.2 percent). In other words, people are consuming more alcohol than ever, but drinking it at home instead of in bars.

“Especially now with the economy slowing, people don’t go out as much,” says Eric Schmidt, research director at the Beverage Information Group. “The challenge for bars and restaurants is to find new ways to entice or retain customers.”

One of those methods, according to Schmidt, has been to open higher-end or specialty establishments. While people may be inclined to grab a six-pack or a growler of beer to enjoy at home, they’re less likely to collect the necessary ingredients for, say, a night of mojitos on the couch. They save that luxury for the nights they hit the bars, looking for more bang for their imbibing buck.

“It’s a matter of how people are spending their money,” Schmidt says. “They can’t replicate a nice restaurant experience at home, so when they do go out they’re looking for something different…That may be a place that cares more about the food it serves, or a wine bar with a menu catered to specific pairings.”

Seamus Hammond points to exactly this trend when explaining his rationale for creating James Bar as a complement to Al’s & Vic’s.

“Absolutely,” he says when asked if it was a factor, adding that he used longtime Missoula friends to redesign the bar and help create his vision. “I’ve been to a lot of bars in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles where when you walk through the door, it’s a whole new place. People want that escapism. A lot of people have asked for a place like that here. I love Missoula, but I wanted that option.”

The Red Bird Wine Bar evolved its own take on the escapism business model. The award-winning restaurant was known mostly as a destination for special occasions, limiting the likelihood of walk-up casual diners. Owners Jim Tracey and his wife, Laura Waters, wanted to maintain Red Bird’s intimate feel and elegant experience while expanding to a larger audience. The Wine Bar offered the chance to do that without compromising the restaurant.

“You’re likely to see more places like these, assuming, of course, that they’re run well and cater to your city,” Schmidt says. “This is the way things are moving in the industry. They are looking more and more to create an experience.”

At the Red Bird at 11:30 p.m. on a recent Friday evening, that could mean trying the Argentine Wine Flight, a $10 sampler of three two-ounce pours. It could also mean a $176 bottle of Merlot from Blankiet Estate’s Paradise Hills Vineyard. Two couples sit at opposite ends of the small dining area. Three more couples are lined up at the bar, each in their own separate conversations. A large party takes up the entire back section. Red accents dominate the décor, with red Japanese lighting fixtures above the bar and red curtains hiding an entrance to the kitchen. Near-empty wine glasses sit in front of almost every patron.

The bartender says last call will probably come in about 15 minutes. Asked how much people usually spend on nice bottles of wine, he says he’s never sold a bottle above about $150. “Yet.”

–Last Call–

Time for another round. On a Friday in downtown Missoula, getting one can be downright competitive. At least tonight, there’s no evidence of people staying home to drink. There’s a 30-minute wait outside the Union Club just to get in; Charlie B’s is packed from the Dinosaur Café in the back to the two front tables; college students outside a standing-room-only Stockman’s are discussing whether to fight the crowd or try someplace new; every table at the Iron Horse appears full and it’s almost two-deep at the bar. Even The Loft, the members-only social club, has its lights on.

photo by Chad Harder
“You’re likely to see more places like these,” says Eric Schmidt, research director at the Beverage Information Group, referring to upscale establishments like Red Bird Wine Bar. “This is the way things are moving in the industry. They are looking more and more to create an experience.”

Earlier in the evening, just before happy hour, only two businesswomen filled The Loft’s back conference room. New Age music played on the sound system and the front room—leather couches, flat-screen television, huge granite bar available for members to stock with their own booze—was completely empty.

“So far I only use the space for business and it’s been great for what I do,” said Maryann Hubbard, an independent consultant with Arbonne, a health and beauty product supplier. “We’re starting to use it more for [social activities], but it’s been rare.”

Now, at 11 p.m., at least one person is upstairs, spending the evening in the private club rather than at home or in a typical bar.

“It’s been interesting to see how The Loft of Missoula has been used,” says Liz Richardson, manager of The Loft in Whitefish, a predecessor to the local version. “The one in Whitefish is much more about social networking and used for social functions. The one in Missoula, so far, has been more business related and business networking. I think that will change over time, but it’s really up to the members.”

There’s no indication that The Loft is making a noticeable dent in the day-to-day social scene, but its arrival is significant nonetheless. Missoulians scoffed at the thought of such a thing, experiencing an almost allergic reaction to the business concept. The outcry was such that some members contacted for this article declined to comment, fearing some sort of retribution or backlash. It’s a reaction The Loft’s owner, Whitefish attorney and businessman Chad Wold, expected, admitting to the Indy when the Missoula location opened that it was an “easy target” for skeptics.

“I know there’s a thing about this place—I know that it made the paper’s dubious achievement awards,” says member Hubbard, a Missoula resident for 18 years. “People are curious about it. I understand that. But, I don’t know. Missoula is changing. It’s getting more sophisticated. There’s more worldliness, maybe. Missoula is changing in certain ways, but that’s not a bad thing.”

–Getting back home–

Time for another round. On a recent Monday during lunchtime at Charlie B’s, that means you’re having the usual and you’re probably a regular. And, if you’ve been around long enough, it probably means once you order your drink, you say hello to famed local author James Crumley, quietly holding court at his usual seat at the bar.

photo by Chad Harder
Some call her Beth, some call her Mom, and in 27 years of serving drinks at The Ox, she’s seen some changes. “I’ve lived here since I was 12 and you don’t need me to tell you that Missoula’s changing,” she says. “This place will never change, but everything around it sure is.”

“The bar scene changed the most when the drinking age changed,” he says, referring to the 1984 switch that raised the legal age from 18 to 21. “They lost all the crowds then and have been fighting to get them back ever since.”

Crumley smokes a Dunhill and occasionally swivels his chair to confer with other regulars before turning back. He runs through an abridged history of the Missoula bar scene—from the time in 1974 when he could have purchased all of Nye’s famous Charlie’s portraits for $3,000 (“I was living in [William] Kittredge’s basement; I had nowhere to put them”) to drinking in Charlie Baumgartner’s former bar, which is now Sean Kelly’s. He lists Missoula’s true “working class” bars, his favorites, gets to the Tenth Street Tavern and hears that it closed. He grunts.

“This is my home bar,” Crumley says. “Home bars can change. They can move around. But when you find a home bar, you stick with it. Charlie knows what he’s doing…I like it in the afternoons. I usually try and get out before the kids come in. The kids today, I don’t know. They bump into you and don’t know, like I do, that you’re supposed to say ‘excuse me.’ I leave before they come in.”

The members of the younger generation Crumley refers to have developed another opinion of what makes a home bar. They include people like Marisa Franz, 29, a local real estate agent and longtime Al’s & Vic’s patron, who says she’s taken a liking to James Bar.

“I’m ‘That One’ among my friends who would prefer to go there,” she says, sitting at Al’s & Vic’s. “I grew up here, but I went to Chicago for a few years. I want that big-city feel in a bar now.”

Darci Carlson, a 21-year-old server at the James Bar and new to Missoula, has a similar take.

“I’ve been looking for something that felt like me,” she says while folding napkins at work. “I mean, I have chest tattoos, I’m young, I’m from Seattle–where in Missoula do I feel like I fit in? I feel like this is a little more city, a little more rock ’n’ roll, a little more up-beat, but laidback at the same time. In Missoula, there are plenty of places to just get a drink. But if you want a cool, nice night out there’s 515, there’s the Red Bird, there’s the Finn & Porter. That shit’s so high-end classy; you’re hanging out with the fat, 60-year-old Rancher Man. I know James Bar gets that reputation, but it’s nice to come in and see that it’s not always that way.”

No more rounds. Back at Charlie B’s, Crumley needs to leave. He grabs his Rock Creek ballcap and cane off the bar. His friend, local playwright Roger Hedden, nags Crumley into offering one last thought, one choice quote to sum things up. Crumley balks, takes a step, and then turns back.

“Except for the bread and the coffee, yuppies are ruining the world.”

He reaches the door before any of the kids have arrived.
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