In search of the next El Rancho

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— At 8 p.m. Tuesday, I started to miss El Rancho Nuevo. I wanted to walk into a bar, disheveled as I was, order a beer and disappear behind a curtain of cigarette smoke.

El Rancho closed unexpectedly Sept. 16. There was no warning the place was going under, so there were no last-night rituals. No personal closure, just me standing across the street from dark windows and a closed sign, wondering what bar in downtown could possibly replace The Ranch.

I walked to the most likely candidate, the Steamboat Brewery and Tavern, next-door neighbor and a business owned by the same people who recently lost the El Rancho to financial struggles.

But the Tavern is a much different place from its neighbor. First of all, it's clean. It doesn't stink. There is no bouncer at the door.

The Jagermeister machine from El Rancho has been relocated behind the bar of the Tavern. Its cheap ring of white lights glowing under upturned bottles of black liquid look as out of place as hot pink lipstick and fishnet stockings at a wedding.

I started reminiscing with my companion at the next stool about El Rancho.

When I first got to Steamboat Springs, I avoided the place. Every tour of town marked El Rancho as a boy bar, a sausage fest.

To most of the people I talked with, El Rancho has become that friend that you never really liked in life, but now that he is dead, "He was so giving. Such a great guy."

Stop No. 2:

The Old Town Pub

My companion and I entropied down the street to the next bar. The walls are dark. There's a dart board at the end of the room and a rusting Budweiser sign hanging above a row of tables, but looks are deceiving.

The Old Town Pub is a reformed dive.

It's well lit and quiet. And nonsmoking.

It's the kind of place you bring a visiting friend or relative to, not the kind of place you drown your stresses in a slovenly beer stream.

Because it's not a true dive, it will never be the next El Rancho.

A dive must be dark and the bartender could care less if you have a good time. At El Rancho rest its free pool, cheap poor soul you burned more calories trying to wave down the bartender for a drink than you ingested in the actual drinking.

The bartenders loved your tips but hated you. It was great.

"Wait," I said. "The Old Town Pub has TVs. El Rancho had TVs."

"Every bar has TVs for the lonely people," my friend said. "The sound is off and they even watch the commercials."

Stop No. 3:

The Smokehouse

Before Tuesday, I had never been to The Smokehouse. It was suggested by a fellow reporter, and I, a drinker without a drinking hole, would try anything.

With taxidermy on the walls, an American flag by the door, peanut shells on the floor, The Smokehouse feels altitudes higher and populations smaller.

It was everything I was looking for. The bar was weighted down with locals; a television played a skateboarding competition.

I relaxed into a comfortable bar stool that swiveled from one interesting conversation to the next. But at 10:30 p.m., the bartender was washing glasses for the last time and we had to look elsewhere if we wanted more El Rancho Mucho Nuevo.

Stop No. 4: The VFW

The bar was empty except for Carl, the bartender.

He served us the last drink of our night and challenged my friend to a game of pool. I plugged in a few Johnny Cash tunes on the jukebox and leaned back against the bar.

A few more people trickled in. People I'd seen at the Old Town Pub.

Halfway through my glass, I disappeared behind a curtain of cigarette smoke and started sharing secrets with strangers.

The VFW will never be the next El Rancho.

In the words of the bartender, "We just don't serve much colored beer."

Maybe that's a good thing.

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