Who here has ever heard of Pavillion, Wyoming? No one? Right.
So it stands to reason that no one has ever heard of Miss Ginny’s Roost Steakhouse, either, right?
Which is really too bad. This place is classic.
Pavillion is a town of fewer than 300 hearty residents and no less than 150 miles from any major road. In the middle of nowhere, this place looks up at the Wind River Mountains, down into the Wind River Indian Reservation, and over at the endless high planes of Wyoming. For most of us, there is no reason to ever go to the town; I’ve lived in the same county for four years and had never been there until this weekend. There is no way you would find yourself accidentally passing through. It boasts a post office in a double wide, a general store with a “Basketeria” sign out front, and a bar. And most importantly, The Roost.
The owner, Ginny Warren, came to Wyoming after Katrina when she had finally had enough of the hurricanes. Why she chose the little cattle ranching community of Pavillion, I don’t know, but she brought with her a love of crawfish, Cajun spices, and the NOLA dining experience. I’ve seen it described on places like Trip Advisor as a “typical” cowboy steakhouse or saloon, and it’s really not, unless you’re talking just about the Old West façade out front. The building itself looks like something out of Tombstone. But inside, there is very little that screams “Wyoming” except maybe the prevalence of cowboy hats among the clientele. In fact, the interior looks more like something you’d find in rural Louisiana: pink flamingo décor, faded wood accents, perpetual Christmas lights, checkered tablecloths, plenty of kitsch to go around.
And last weekend, thanks to a random Facebook post and a brilliant idea, we found ourselves making the 40-minute trek from Lander, WY, to Pavillion (even compared to a town in the middle of nowhere, this place is in the middle of nowhere) for a New Orleans Easter Sunday Brunch. Like most of the seatings, The Roost features a multi-course, prix fix menu with your choice of Cajun or Creole or otherwise New Orleans main course.
Be forewarned: the service can be a bit (a lot) slow. Partially due to the New Orleans culture—which generally encourages sitting and enjoying and sitting and enjoying some more—and partially due to the small town and limited availability of servers. So come prepared to spend time hanging out and socializing; trust me, it’s worth it.
Our brunch looked something like this:
Starter: beignets (of course)
Second Course: three shooters of delicious soups, including carrot bisque, sausage gumbo (of which I could eat many, many more shots!), and mock turtle
Third Course: shrimp rémoulade
Salad: baby spinach, berry, goat cheese, and candied walnuts
Main Course: between the two of us, we tried the cowboy eggs Benedict, with medium-rare, locally-raised steak medallions instead of Canadian bacon; and sautéed shrimp and baked cheesy grits with a homemade, whole wheat biscuit
Dessert: we had the lemon cloud (basically a lemon custard with a graham cracker crust) and the dreamsickle cheesecake, which tasted just like an orange creamsickle (I mean, JUST like!)
And drinks: a standard mimosa; a brandy milk punch with brandy, milk, sugar, and nutmeg; an Easter egg basket of (very adult!) cheery vodka, triple sec, cream, grenadine, a coconut rim, and a peep for posterity; and a Louisiana Purchase, made with Grand Marnier, grapefruit juice, and…. Other stuff? Honestly, by that point, who cared? It was dry, crisp, and refreshing!
I would just like to say that everything was delicious. The beignets were bite-sized and made a wonderful introduction to the meal. The gumbo was nothing short of amazing, and apparently Ginny serves it as a main course for dinner. The rémoulade was light and just a little spicy. My sautéed shrimp was flavorful but not spicy, but several shakes of hot sauce fixed that, and the grits were perfect. And steak instead of Canadian bacon?!?!? Holy cow! And the desserts were generous and refreshing and rich. Other main courses included a pain au chocolate, grillades (apparently akin to a chicken fried steak) with baked jalapeno grits, crawfish frittata, and biscuits and gravy. Not really vegetarian friendly, but what is in Wyoming? (Answer: absolutely nothing; this IS cattle country, after all)
The menu changes every day that they are open, and Ginny tries to emphasize ingredients that are seasonal or seasonally festive, and each dish is handpicked by the diligent, if a bit scatterbrained, owner. Currently, The Roost is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday starting at 5:00 pm. Sometimes she gives Sunday brunches a whirl, and she often does special meals for holidays. Keep up with (often last minute) updates on Facebook or give her a call at (307) 857-6019 and leave a message. Reservations are often recommended just so Ginny knows how much of each course to prepare.
Pavillion, WY, is certainly not a place you would stumble on by happenstance, and because of the remote nature of the community, Miss Ginny’s Roost isn’t the kind of place you would just drive by and think, “Man, that looks interesting; let’s try it!” (though if you ever DID find yourself in town, it certainly would be the kind of place that would draw in random travelers) And though it’s off the beaten path, this unique, Cowboy Cajun hidaway is worth a stop, whether you’re passing through Wyoming on your way to Yellowstone or you’ve lived in Lander for years.
We introverts often joke about staying in bed and breakfasts… all those people you’re expected to talk with at meals and run into on your way to the bathroom before bed. The new-acquaintance banter we never seem to be too good at and the shy introductions. B&Bs are for extroverts, people people.
Don’t get me wrong, people people will adore the Buckhorn Inn, right on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a skip away from the bustling, campy joy ride that is Gatlinburg, TN. It’s a beautiful 1930s mountain home tucked into the hills and forests with fire places, snacks, a handy wine list, and plenty of comfortable lounging places to take in the social scene. But introverts can also find their own space on this quiet piece of land that includes a swan pond, gardens, a labyrinth, horseshoes and badminton, and plenty of green space to relax and recuperate.
Your hosts, Lee and John Mellor, have taken every care to provide a refuge for all their guests. My parents have been going there for several years now, and they are greeted like old friends when they walk through the doors. How are you? How is the job? How are your friends back in Cincinnati? Will they be visiting us again soon? The hosts are happy to accommodate any special requests or in-room indulgence to make your stay as comfortable (or romantic or relaxing or adventurous) as possible.
The homestead can be both friendly and private, and guests are free to choose which experience they prefer. The main house includes traditional rooms (starting at $115 a night) and premier rooms (starting at $175), many with views of the surrounding Smokies. The house also plays host to the dining room, where you can take your meals with just your significant other or family or can be more social (your choice!), a library, a wall of windows opening out onto a relaxing terrace looking out over Mount LeConte, and a gathering room downstairs, where Lee serves up delicious cookies and other refreshments in the afternoon.
If you want a more secluded getaway, check out Buckhorn’s private cottages (starting at $175), which feature kitchenettes and porches with sweeping views of the mountains and romantic fireplaces for those chilly fall and winter nights. Hosting a larger crowd of friends and family? Try one of the homier guesthouses (starting at $195), which feature multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, full kitchens (a kitchenette in Lindsay House), jacuzzi tubs, fireplaces, and porches with sweeping views of the fog-filled mountains that give this area its iconic name.
Breakfasts at the Buckhorn change daily and include your choice of tasty warm options (often with unique twists) such as brie-stuffed french toast, pan-fried trout, or wild blueberry sourdough pancakes, in addition to traditional items such as oatmeal and muesli. Each dish comes with fresh baked biscuits and the daily pastry (a muffin or a scone or coffeecake, a surprise each morning and each more delicious than the last!) and a cup of fresh fruit.
The Buckhorn also serves four-course evening meals, widely considered one of the best dining options in the area. The choices change daily, and weekly menus are available on their website a few weeks in advance. Everything is always delicious, each dish distinctly chosen for its flavors and spices to compliment the other courses (and they do make dietary accommodations with advance notice). Dining here at least once (even if you’re not staying at the Inn) is a must for a trip to Gatlinburg and the Smokies. Reservations are required (meals cost $35 per person), and while wine is available at an extra cost, they also have a BYOB policy with no corkage fee, which is a wonderful way to indulge if you’re picky about your beverage options.
Everything about the Inn is cozy, comfortable, quaint, without the overpowering Victorian stuffiness of many B&Bs. The grounds are immaculately kept, and a nature trail takes visitors through gardens, around ancient trees, over historic roads and cultural sites, and down to a pond, where the Mellor’s swans roam the waters and ask in squeaks and gurgles for bread crumbs (bring some down from the main house). Then, either hop down to visit the nearby artisans or hike back up the hill to spend some quiet time meditating in and wandering Rachel’s Labyrinth before breakfast. Here, you can be as social or as solitary as you prefer, taking in the beauty of the grounds, heading out for mountain adventure, or simply sitting on your porch with a bottle of wine, looking out over the nooks and crannies and valleys and great heights of Tennessee.
When heading to volcano country in Costa Rica, most visitors want to get as close to the geological epicenter as possible, hiking near the rim, zip-lining over the craters, getting the room with the best view. For Vulcan Arenal, considered one of the most active volcanoes in the world, the Arenal Observatory Lodge is as close as you can get.
This 48-room lodge is the only hotel inside Arenal Volcano National Park and is partially funded by the Smithsonian Institute, which does research on the volcano and monitors its activity. It’s also a working cattle ranch whose employees attempt to make the ranching as sustainable as possible. There are 400 acres of reforested land, almost 300 acres of natural rainforest and plenty of hiking trails, waterfalls, volcano hikes and wildlife to keep anyone amused for days.
Rooms are located in several buildings throughout the property. La Casona is located just down the road and, as the budget option at the Observatory, comes highly recommended. Rooms on one side have a stunning view of the volcano, and the porch looks out over Lake Arenal to the west. Bathrooms are shared but big, new and very clean, and the building has an almost hostel feel, as you tend to interact with your neighbors more frequently. The best rooms if you want to meet people. There are also Standard and Smithsonian (located in the original lodging at the research center) rooms, suites, and a villa. Most rooms have great views, though they can get pretty pricey.
As far as entertainment goes, I could spend hours just sipping on tropical drinks and staring at the volcano, trying to decide if there is more smoke coming out of it than there was yesterday. Arenal last erupted in 2010, but many of the trails to the summit — less than 2 miles away — are closed due to dangerous fumes or small explosions that have killed hikers. This is about as close you can get:
But there is a lot of ground to cover. After checking out the little museum and monitoring station, hanging out in the gorgeous spring-fed pool, taking a horseback ride in the park (they rent horses and conduct tours right on the farm), and taking advantage of the many tours they can arrange from the lobby, you can take a hike to the nearby waterfalls, around the volcano, through the jungles, or up to Cerro Chaco, an old crater that used to be the active volcano in the area, now filled with a small lake and technically not extinct. This last hike is a lot more difficult than you might think (straight up and up and up), so give yourself plenty of time, bring plenty of water, and be prepared to get caught in the rain.
If you’re into birds, this could be one of the best places in the area to catch a glimpse of plenty of rare species. A British group staying there even caught sight of a quetzal, though I was not lucky enough. But the forests around the main lodge are colorful flurries of hustling and bustling birds, and the hotel can provide you with a comprehensive birding list if you want to check off your successes. There are lots of other critters to see, but be on the lookout for pit vipers that like to hang out in the trees!
The accommodations at the lodge are all very nice, but the biggest drawback (or plus, for some) is that the Arenal Observatory Lodge can be difficult to get to. It’s several miles outside of La Fortuna, the nearest town, and from any services, notably a market to buy cheap eats. The main roads around Lake Arenal and La Fortuna (and all the way to Liberia and San Jose) have all recently been paved and are currently well-maintained (but prone to washouts from flash flooding), but the road to the lodge is seven or so miles of dirt/gravel/pitted road that, during the rainy season, is impassible to anything but a 4WD vehicle. Keep in mind that bridges aren’t as popular in Costa Rica as they are elsewhere, and fording rivers is quite common. So once they’re at the lodge, many people don’t leave to explore town or find different menus than that found at the lodge. The food in the restuarant is fine (and a small breakfast buffet is included in your room rate) but not cheap, and many ingredients are locally sourced, but the choices can be bland and boring. Most people choose to eat there for convenience and for the incredible views of the volcano from every window.
There’s something about being on the front lines of a deadly volcano that could go at any time that makes a vacation well worth the windy roads to get there…
Montezuma, Costa Rica, near the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, has a bit of a slacker reputation along the coast. There are waves, but people usually go elsewhere to surf. There is less-than-spectacular snorkeling. There is a little nightlife, but not as much as other coastal surfer towns. But still the hitchhikers and the RTW travelers and the dread-locked masses flock to this small Tico Town to sit around in hammocks and practice yoga.
There are also tropical drinks to drink and good food to eat in this beach town. There are cheap sodas, open-air diners, on every corner, but good Mediterranean food is easy to find. For a taste of southern Europe, a little romance, and the perfect beach location, head just south of town along the beach and hit up Playa de los Artistas. Don’t miss it: the only thing that marks it is a small menu and an inconspicuous open gate on the beach side of the road.
Driftwood tables are scattered across the beach, and once the sun goes down, the only light comes from a series of lanterns and candles on the beach and in the open-air restaurant. They have a menu that changes daily, and servers explain dishes for non-Spanish speakers. Meat, fish and pizza are cooked on the outdoor, coffee-wood oven, and they offer a variety of beer, wine and cocktails. Try their Costa Rican microbrews, which can be hard to find in a country full of cheap (both in price and taste) Imperial. They aren’t great but definitely a welcome change.
Service is slow and relaxed, like all service in Costa Rica, and there is ample time to wind down from your day and enjoy the waves and early tropical sunsets. The food is excellent and eclectic, and there is also sushi on the menu. Food in Costa Rica contains lots of fruits and vegetables, but “vegetarian” is difficult to find. Here at Playa, however, they take great care of their vegetarian options (try the stuffed peppers!) that cater to the yoga crowd. They also take care to use local, organic ingredients, which is a common practice not only in Montezuma but all over Costa Rica.
Playa de los Artistas is a great stop in a town not known for its food. It can be pricey, and they don’t take credit cards, so be prepared. This is also the kind of restaurant where most of the employees are from somewhere else, and chances are they speak little Spanish. One of our servers was a Kiwi and the other hailed from Bosnia, both were in Costa Rica just to enjoy the beach, live cheaply and make some cash for the summer. In fact, throughout Montezuma, English, French and Slavic languages are easily as common as Spanish. But definitely take some time to visit this perfect little spot on the Nicoya Peninsula.
“All-Inclusive” is a term that too often conjures images of never-ending cheap booze, buffet lines that lead off into the sunset, and hoards of drunk spring breakers. People think of Cancun, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic. Places often billed as “too dangerous” for young independent travelers, places that cater to the patent non-traveler.
As an independent traveler, I had always overlooked all-inclusive resorts in favor of private rentals, small hotels, scrimping and saving and always looking for the most unique accommodations for the least amount of money. I have quickly perused websites like Apple Vacations and whimsically thought about endless buffets and bar tabs, but my experience with Occidental was the first time I took the plunge.
One of my oldest friends decided on a destination wedding, and an all-inclusive option in Costa Rica seemed like the easiest solution to the ever-growing complications of modern American weddings. The wedding itself at the Occidental Grand Papagayo was wonderfully simple: the resort took care of the setting and set up, a fitting display of tropical flowers and flowing whites and purples, an ample champagne toast, a marimba band and delicious buffet dinner near the pool. The guests enjoyed bottomless, tropically-colored drinks and excellent service during the reception and ceremony. The resort provided anything we could need for the festivities.
The hotel itself has a comfortable, open-air lobby on top of the hill above the bay that catches the ocean breezes as they drift inland. The views are stunning, and the grounds are immaculately kept. You can chill out with wildlife — iguanas, coatimundi, capuchin and howler monkeys — from anywhere on the property; we even heard reports from some in our party that they had some early morning visitors on their patios and porches. As many reviews indicate, however, the guest rooms are tired and need some updating. In the tropical heat and humidity, it can be hard to keep the mildew, soft woods and crumbling corners at bay. The Royal Club rooms are definitely nicer and provide better views of the surrounding bay, and with some of the extra perks, it’s definitely worth the extra money. But the dark bathrooms and peeling paint in the regular rooms are really only an issue if you plan to spend time in your room, and let’s be honest: why? There are patios on each room with comfortable Adirondack-style chairs, ample porch space at and around the bar and swimming pool, a beautiful, Pacific beach that’s as private as you can get in Costa Rica, and a whole slew of excursions you can take advantage of (try heading down to the beach to find Johnny D. for better deals and more personal service). With so much to do, there’s no need to spend time fretting about the little things that don’t work in your room.
This all-inclusive resort also manages to skirt the Playboy stereotype, providing a calmer, more adult atmosphere. You won’t find all-night ragers or rooms full of drunken college kids. You’re more likely to find a friendly, late-night water volleyball game than 20-somethings doing shots. There is a disco, but it’s generally quite quiet. Mostly, guests mull around the romantic lobby sipping on cocktails (slip the bartender an extra couple of bucks for better drinks), talking and playing board games.
Food at the buffets is fine; many who have stayed at all-inclusive resorts said that it was pretty on par with other hotels. Meals include ample fresh fruits — perfect for days spent outside in the sweltering heat and humidity — as well as gallo pinto, American favorites and fresh seafood. The make-your-own Bloody Marys at breakfast are worth getting up for. There are also two a la carte restuarants at the resort. L’Oriental is an Asian fusion eatery, where the dishes are extremely flavorful but not very spicy-hot. The Italian is right next door and offers typical Italian fare, a step up from the buffet. In both restaurants, the romantic ambiance in the small spaces is a nice change from the buffet and snack bar, and the service is relaxed but attentive. Many people complained about the slow pace, but we found it to be delightfully unhurried. Our drinks were quietly refilled without asking, and finished dishes were swept away immediately. The pauses between courses were, we found, the perfect times to digest, sip our wine and talk. One of the great criticisms of the resort, however, is that both restaurants require reservations — made day of — and guests can only reserve one dinner for every three or four nights stayed (though we did hear of people finagling an extra reservation).
The entire resort is decidedly un-rushed, and laying around enjoying the pool or the beach or the sun or your tropical drink seems to be the order of every day. The staff is extremely friendly and concerned that you have a good time there, despite some of the resort’s other shortcomings. Throwing in a little bit of Spanish, whatever you know, helps a lot, and though some of the employees are not native Spanish speakers, some don’t speak any English at all. Some appliances, notably light fixtures and air conditioners, are old and worn and could probably use replacing, but the staff answers complaints as quickly and quietly as they can. They tend not to refill your mini-fridge, but you can always head to the bar and get some drinks to go (or order in-room dining if you’ve upgraded to the Royal Club).
If you’re looking for an uncomplicated, worry-free vacation, the Occidental Grand Papagayo — starting at $230 a night, all-inclusive — offers a great deal (check out other resorts in the area, which start at around $230 per person, per night). This might be the perfect place to get to know your friends, your partner, or yourself just a little better. Don’t expect dance parties or drama; leave the spring breakers at home. What you can find here is calmness, a retreat from loud noises and constant action, something a little slower than you’re used to.
Oh, and watch out for the magpie-jays, who will happily relieve you of your nachos, mojitos, or bathing suit top, the cheeky devils.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a must for most people who visit San Francisco. Piers full of shops and restaurants and various family attractions — including some very entertaining sea lions lounging blubberously on the docks — bring people of all ages to the strip of city that runs from Ghirardelli Square to Pier 35 along the Bay. A historic district once home to the best Dungeness crab fisherman on the West Coast, this area is full of unique, historic buildings-turned-shops, including The Cannery, home to the best draught beer selection in town: Jack’s. You can also find a collection of restored fishing, sailing and cargo ships on the Hyde Street Pier, part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Tickets to tour the ships are available, but they are pretty neat to see from the dock if you’re on a budget.
The Balclutha cargo ship, built in 1886, and Eppleton Hall paddlewheel tug, built in 1914
Further down the way, tucked behind a warehouse arcade and a more-visible submarine on Pier 45, is the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. One of the lesser-known attractions at the Wharf, it’s definitely one of the better historical sites I’ve visited. Not one for history and endless rows of plaques explaining what happened forever ago, I went for Jonmikel. For $10, you can climb aboard one of only two operational WWII Liberty Ships in the world and a rare survivor of Normandy on D-Day.
But this just isn’t a museum of WWII history.
This ship is fully operational and maintained to support a crew that actually lives on board. Kitchen works, toilets work, cabins have personal computers in them.
You can even crawl down into the 5-story engine room that served as the set for the engine room scenes from Titanic.
The crew wanders around on board, willing to answer any questions you may have or weave a yarn about their adventures abroad (many are veterans).
We entered the steamy depths, scrambling down slick ladders and across catwalks that looked down into darkness. And we stumbled out onto a group of surly, oil greased men, one with a fiery torch in hand. “Hey! You’ve come to see us start up the engines!”
Pistons began to creak and moan and shift, and steam began to rise from below our feet. The engineers showed us around, pointing out the oil stored beneath the floors, explaining how this tangle of raw machinery can burn its way onto the beaches of Normandy.
One guy opened the boiler and, handing us a plate of green glass, allowed us to glance into the very soul of the ship, watching the fire and oil spin and spin and disintegrate into nothing. It’s not often you get to poke around in the operating engine of a massive chunk of floating steel.
We spend hours on the ship, much longer than we had originally planned. With so much to see and move around and operate, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien is the perfect playground for history buffs.
A short stroll from our Painted Lady, past the modern metal pagoda, teak shutters and noodle restaurants of Japantown, we hit Fillmore Street, the backbone of the Fillmore Jazz District. The neighborhood, formerly an ethnic ghetto through the late 1800s, became a business center after the 1906 earthquake destroyed Downtown San Francisco and shops had to relocate. In the early 1900s, Japanese immigrants moved into town seeking work and achieving new-found success in the United States. When President Roosevelt relocated Japanese Americans to internment camps in 1942, the vacant homes and storefronts attracted a new wave of migrants: African American workers moving to the Bay Area to work in the shipyards, and they brought with them their art, music and unique culture. And The City’s jazz district was born.
The district is home to the historic Fillmore Auditorium, which has played host to the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Cream, Pink Floyd, and a slew of other world-famous musicians and featured in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as the center of the 1960s counterculture scene in San Francisco. The main thoroughfare also features a series of jazz and R&B clubs, boutique shops and grungy bars, each with libations to compliment the varied decor. It is in this neighborhood, along this stretch of live music venues tucked into fading brick facades and across from The Fillmore, that we found Rasselas Jazz Club.
This small, tightly-packed club features live music seven nights a week, a varied bill that includes classic and modern jazz, blues and Latin and such musicians as Tracy Chapman, Kim Nalley and Pete Escovedo. The event calendar on their website hasn’t been updated since September, but you can find more relevant information on their recently updated Facebook page. But whatever night you decide to go, you are guaranteed to see a musical performance that only adds to the sultry ambiance and the smooth taste of your favorite cocktail. The interior is dark: dark wood, dark brick, dark lights, dark dresses, each table colored with a small candle that flickers and reflects on the lounge’s brick walls. They have a full bar and a small but interesting wine list; you can also bring your own bottle for a $15 corkage fee. But try the syrupy-sweet Tej, an Ethiopian honey wine.
When we arrived, the place was packed with an elegant looking crowd, and the din was light and happy. The hostess took one look at our party of six with no reservation, smiled, and did some prompt rearranging to fit us in toward the back. The tables are close together and filled to the brim, making the experience that much more intimate. Service is relaxed, so if you’re in a hurry, try elsewhere. This is a place where people sit and linger, enjoying the music and the atmosphere, and appreciate the undisturbed experience. The restaurant features Ethiopian food, and while they do have a bar/appetizer menu with plates such as sliders and pita chips, the real gems are the traditional dishes. We ordered two vegetarian combos, the kitfo (a spicy steak tartare), the doro wat (chicken simmered in a berbere sauce of chili pepper, garlic, ginger, basil and cardamom) and a drunken chicken (grilled in tequila, ginger, garlic and lemon juice over turmeric rice), each for around $15 (this is San Francisco, after all!). The traditional dishes all come with injera, a soft, spongy flatbread that is slightly on the bland side but is fun to eat. Sauces are thick and can be as spicy or mild as you prefer, and it was great to be in a place where “spicy” actually meant it. My husband and I opted to eat our entire meal with our hands, scooping up chunks of meat and the various vegetable stews with the injera that lined the plates (we never miss the chance to eschew flatware!). The steak was juicy and flavorful with a rich, heavy flavor, and the chicken was so tender it nearly fell apart on the plate, and the proportions were ample enough to fill even the hungriest of our crowd. Copious amounts of food make it almost impossible to have room left for dessert, but Rasselas does feature baklava and tiramisu, if you need something to top off the meal.
Many people stop into this small jazz club for the bar scene and the live music, but with relatively reasonable prices for flavorful, spicy Ethiopian dishes, the menu is definitely worth a look. But perhaps most significantly, Rasselas is the perfect place to don your 30s-style cocktail dress and silk fedora, sidle up to the bar, order a slick-sounding martini and pretend to be celebrating life in the Golden Age of Jazz.
… we begin our Black Hills Road Trip with a historical venture into Buffalo, Wyoming, home of the Occidental Hotel and Saloon.
As True West’s “Best Hotel in the West” and one of the hotels that National Geographic Traveler loves to gush about, the 1880 Occidental has quite the seedy and wildly seedy reputation. It has been host to some of the most famous names of the Wild West: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stopped by from time to time on their way to Hole in the Wall; Calamity Jane passed through while pursuing in vain the notorious Wild Bill Hickok; and Buffalo Bill Cody called the hotel home when passing through town. Even Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were rumored to tell wild stories of hunting, drinking and other adventures in the building’s romantic parlor.
As history slowly faded into the shadows of the Great Depression and the modernization of the late 20th Century, plans to demolish the building nearly became reality.
But in 1997, saviors Dawn and John Wexo bought the dying hotel and embarked on a 10-year restoration project to return the Occidental to its former glory and reclaim the history of Buffalo, WY.
Today, visitors can stay in the charming rooms that sit above the bar and restaurant, take in live bluegrass music (that happens every Thursday night!) in the Occidental Saloon, and share a romantic dinner among the Bordello tassels and tin ceilings of the building’s original vaults, a private getaway in the Wild West.
The light drizzle steamed off the warm blacktop, the only reminder that only hours ago it had been a summer day. It was cold now, humid in that way only the Midwest can master, a chill-to-the-bone fog, despite the 60 degrees of warmth. Lights flickered here and there, through dusty curtains in dreary alleyways, but the only real light to be had through the rain and night was the eerie green flush that barely illuminated the weary doors of the building across the street.
The glow meant that despite the decrepit exterior of the old-style Bohemian building, windows boarded and stones crumbling, there was breath inside.
We tap-danced across the pavement, dodging puddles and cars in an attempt to stay dry. We reached the door and the minimal shelter the tiny overhang provided. The place looked generally abandoned, except for the lonely light, with boarded windows, colorful graffiti, and a general feeling of condemnation. We shook out hair and jackets and pushed through the peeling planks of wood into Schwartz’s Point.
The jazz club in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, Ohio may not have big names every night of the week like some of its competitors, but it has a dark, sultry, speak-easy atmosphere that out-competes anything in its weight class, and the ones above it. The lights are low, the fabrics are rich and red and tired, the booze flows freely, and if you’re lucky, Ed Moss, the owner of and chief musician at the club, will allow a cigar to slip through.
The musicians get into the music, closing their eyes and swaying their bodies and improvising as only true artists feel how. They each have stories to tell, too, of a world of travel, of losing a liquor license, of a random jam session in Powell, Wyoming. “Where you all from,” cooed the singer, between songs and sips of Heineken. “Wyoming, you don’t mean the state, right?” We did, actually. “Wow, you guys sure had to travel far to hear good jazz, huh?” She laughed.
Ed once got lost in Wyoming, he said. “I was at a jazz workshop in Colorado. It was a bunch of kids; they didn’t know how to groove, ya know? They didn’t dig the music the way I did.” He took a long toke of his spicy cigar, breathing out slowly and purposefully. “So I drove north, ya know? Kept goin’. Met these guys with a band in Cody, you know Cody? And we drove out together. Didn’t know where to, just goin’. Ended up in the middle of nowhere Wyoming pulling a jazz concert at some party. It was real heavy.” In Wyoming, anywhere could be the middle of nowhere, and it all often felt heavy.
And Ed was a true performer. “I love filling my living room with people I don’t know” he said, gesturing his cigar smoke toward the door of his establishment. He lived just upstairs. “It makes me feel like I’ve done something today.” He lived to play, to feel the music, and though he sometimes seemed aloof with his audience, he really dig any time he got to get them to feel it, too.
And the music at “The Point” is to be felt. It’s rich and deep and desperate, full of passion and a sad nostalgia, a throwback to the days when jazz represented the angry, the disillusioned, the boozers and the bootleggers, the subcultures and the countercultures and Bugs Moran himself.
It’s fitting, really, for Over-the-Rhine, a place with its fair share of disillusionment, to have its very own speakeasy, though ironically those locals who could truly appreciate the music and where it came from are probably too poor to afford it. Though the neighborhood is dodgy and those who live and work there swear they’ve never had any trouble, it’s always said with a nervous smile and an edgy lilt to the voice, as if they’re not sure of that fact themselves. But it looks just right, and smells just right, and tastes just right and awakens something a little daring and a little dangerous and more than a little lustful in each of us.
Schwartz’s Point (check them out here) is a fantastic little jazz joint located at the oddly triangular intersection of Vine Street and McMicken in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati. Tuesdays are the big nights, with a home-cooked buffet dinner and an entire orchestra of truly alive jazz musicians. Fridays and Saturdays are more intimate, with a crooner, Pam, a jazz singer with a day job. Come and introduce yourself to Ed Moss, the owner, a real beet of his own, with thick glasses and a cigar in hand and a flask of whatever ales you (in a homemade way) in a jacket pocket. We’d like to thank Ed and the gang for giving us a private performance a couple of weekends ago. It was one of the best jazz concerts I’ve had!
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