Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

Movie Stars Slept Here!

Posted By on December 30, 2008

DSCN0964_20081229_1912.29. “That’s a very beautiful tree,” I am saying to the elderly proprietor of the El Rancho Hotel-Motel, Mr. Ortega, who assures me that “This hotel is on the register of historic places.” And rightly so.
We had approached Gallup on the business loop of I-40, rather than going straight on to the hotel, for the express purpose of scouting what we assumed would be pretty dismal prospects for supper. And there, just at the eastern edge of town, was a massive old “hotel-motel,” the El Rancho, festooned with atmosphere, dripping with old west history and movie-star nostalgia. How had I missed this before? Built by the brother of D.W. Griffiths, the hotel in its heyday was homebase for literally hundreds of western movies. John Wayne was a regular guest, as were Paulette Goddard, Jackie Cooper, Allan Ladd, and Ronald Rea-guns. As we drove past, I noted a sign proclaiming the “49er Bar,” tucked around to the right of the grand, lodge-like main entrance. Hmmm. Roadfoodie scents an atmospheric bar…DSCN0963_20081229_18

How is the restaurant and bar at the El Rancho?” I asked the friendly desk clerk at the Econo Lodge, checking in.
“The bar there was listed in Esquire as one the best bars in the country,” he replied. This is not the sort of information one expects to hear in Gallup, New Mexico. Maybe there was a rhyme to the change of plans, after all. Maybe this is the Eureka moment of the trip! After walking and feeding Stella, and a little nap, we are soon passing through the huge, timbered doors of the El Rancho. Inside, the large but not overwhelming two-story lobby sports one of the fattest Christmas trees I’ve ever seen, festooned with hundreds of red chile lights. Up on the wrap-around second floor balcony, six-panel dark-wooden doors lead to the rooms, just visible behind the polished, rough-timber railings. Indian blankets are draped on the banisters, on the rustic leather sofas, and on the walls, along with the heads of various large and glassy-eyed animals.
A “No-Man Band”—ie, a piano that plays itself—tinkled merrily away all alone, the ivory keys rising and falling as if tickled by a ghost. The cymbal section, visible through a glass window where the pianists legs would be (if there was one) clashed away. A fire crackled in the massive fireplace, with little niche seats on either side, carved from bricks worn shiny and smooth from decades of massaging by celebrity bottoms. We reconnoiter the dining room, which is a little heavy on formica and frills (hey, no-where’s perfect) and the menu, which is cute in a sort of old-timey Hollywood way (Appeteasers, First Acts, Scene Stealers, Bit Players, etc).
The 49er Bar is unexpectedly prosaic, considering its hype in Esquire. It’s a very large room with no people, lots of long, faux-walnut tables, a big-screen TV, a jukebox, and some neon beer signs. In the corner, there’s a little bar with a lot of good tequila on the top shelf. We install ourselves, meet the bartendress (filling in from the front desk and absolutely not au courant with any standard cocktails), and start squeezing limes. As we sip, then order, and finally chow down on a nice skinny rib-eye and tasty chicken fajitas, respectively, we quiz the bartendress about life in Gallup (she prefers Las Vegas, where she used to work, because the shopping’s better), and what she’ll be doing for New Year’s Eve (hanging with her kids and her mom and going to bed early). A late arriving customer, apparently under the misapprehension that he is in Cozumel, orders a blended strawberry daiquiri; the small, wide woman in a blue sweatshirt goes white as a sheet. We step behind the bar and take over, blending up a doozy.


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