Trail Of The Unexpected: Last chance saloon, Montana

Gamble and dine the night away in Montana
  • @SimonCalder

The barman was outraged when I showed him what the Rough Guide to the Rocky Mountains said about the Oxford Saloon and Cafe. He jabbed at the assertion that booze was available around the clock. "We stop serving alcohol at 2am," he insisted. But while "the Ox" may be an alcohol-free zone between 2am and 8am, you can still gamble and dine the night away in a location that is locked in to an America of a different age.

Montana is all about the great outdoors. The state's collision of rock and snow, forest and flowers is one of the rare deserving cases for the accolade "awesome". One of the leading attractions is the splendidly named Big Sky, where the only skyscrapers are the jagged mountains. Not all the state lives up to its name, however, and as the land crumples and dwindles into a plain you drift into the well-to-do college town of Missoula. This is one of those relatively rare communities where alternative lifestyles flourish. As if to emphasise this, the country-music station I listened to on the drive into town played a tune including the memorable line: "These days there's dudes getting facials."

Yet the Oxford Saloon and Cafe remains obstinately all-American. The decor is all about chrome, neon and peeling paint rather than earth tones and raw cotton. Instead of incense, the atmosphere is thick with cigarette smoke (circulated to every corner with the help of five giant ceiling fans). The only essential oils are the cardiac-threatening fats used to fry all manner of vegetable and animal products (the house speciality is calves' brains). When, one morning, I had the temerity to ask if any fruit was available for breakfast, a tin of orange juice was slammed down on the steel counter and I was left to get on with it.

Meals are served around the clock from a menu that demands translation: calves' brains and eggs is called "he needs 'em", while "pin a rose on it" translates as: "I'd like onion with that, please." But for anyone facing a Montanan winter, the high-calorie, high-fat fare, such as "Irish turkey" – corned beef and cabbage – is just what you need.

The mood music, meanwhile, is provided by a monstrous jukebox that pumps out classic rock all day to a clientele that does not seem to have changed much since 1975, when the St Paul Pioneer Press noted that "stationed at every wall are loiterers, drifters and drunks, and combinations thereof".

And what a fine bunch they turned out to be. As I finished a beer (conveniently priced at mid-Seventies rates, at well under £1 a pint), another appeared at my elbow, courtesy of one of the prospective poker players. John Mulligan, one of several previous owners, said in 1983, "People who walk in the front door with the weight of the world on their shoulders usually leave a little happier."

Some of them leave a lot poorer – not because of buying drinks for strangers, but because of the seductive, addictive poker-table in the corner. "Please NO SWEARING," demands a sign by the table. Yet when the saloon served as de facto waiting room for Greyhound buses, it also looked after travellers' welfare: one woman who walked in at 3.45am successfully cashed a New Jersey money order for $120, enabling her to catch the 4am bus out west (this would be like going in to your local McDonald's with a travellers' cheque denominated in Swiss francs and walk out with sterling).

The Oxford Saloon has even had a poem written for it, by Dave Thomas, which ends: "Whatever happened to the cranky old boys who knew what the menu meant?" Well, Dave, they are still around: things may come and things may go, but the Ox goes on forever.

Fifty years ago, according to the definitive history of this Western saloon (Ox: Profile of a legendary Montana Saloon by Steve Smith), a young man named Harold Carr walked in to the Oxford "dead broke", and asked for a job. Later, he described it as "the best place in the world to work". Carr would still recognise it today, though he might be baffled by the Ox's one concession to the 21st century: free Wi-Fi.

Oxford Saloon and Cafe, 337 North Higgins Avenue, Missoula, Montana (001 406 549 0117; Montana Tourism: 001 406 532 3250;


Population 902,000
Area 18.3 times size of Wales Capital Helena
Union Date 8 November 1889
Flower Bitter root
Motto "Gold and Silver"
Nickname Treasure State