Years ago, Mr.D and I were driving to Utah to see family for the holidays. It was on that trip that we first passed through the darling wild west Southwest town of Durango Colorado. We have a great affection for the Strater Hotel because it was the first place we stayed, and over the years it has become one of our special occasion places for birthdays and anniversaries. An 1887 American Victorian constructed of 376,000 native red bricks, and furnished with the world’s largest collection of American Victorian walnut antiques. Walk in the front doors and you’ve time traveled to the old west.
(Note: This is a re-post of one of our most requested #TBT articles from exactly 4 years ago …)
In the corner of the hotel on Main Avenue sits the Diamond Belle Saloon. It’s the original location of the hotel’s first saloon that changed hands a few times, renting the space out for a drug store, then an investment and security company, and an employment agency. In 1957 when the hotel’s owner Earl Sr. went away on vacation, his son Earl Jr. and Bob Blomstrom restored it back to its original glory. The Belle’s history books explain that Earl Jr. decided it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. And when Earl Sr. returned from his trip and saw all of his friends having a great time at the Belle, he was thrilled and told everyone that it was his idea all along!
Nowadays you can hear the ragtime music and local musicians well before stepping into the place. The piano was a gift from famous ragtime pianist Johnny Maddox who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The portrait above it is of Evelyn, one of the early Belle Girls and also the model for their saloon girl logo. Evelyn’s portrait was painted by an artist in residence who paid his hotel bill with it, along with the nude portrait that hangs over the entryway.
When I asked who the naked lady was, I was told she remains a mystery. That’s when a bigger-than-life cowboy spoke up “That’s my girlfriend!” So there you have it. I’ve never been to the Belle when there wasn’t a crowd of tourists, business travelers, locals, families, mountain climbers and athletes, and no fewer than two cowboys.
The ceiling is the original pressed tin, with lights that hang from lion heads.
The corner table in the balcony area was the favorite of frontier story western writer Louis L’Amour.
L’Amour lived at the Strater in room 222, directly over the Belle. He said that the piano music and noise coming from the saloon set the perfect mood for his writing. His room is a literary landmark and the most requested by guests. It’s large and bright with views of Main Avenue. I saw it recently on the annual Strater Hotel Open House tour and L’Amour’s original writing desk was there.
This is (left to right) Ayla, Tony and Laura.
Ayla’s mother used to take her to the Belle for lunch when she was a little girl. From the age of 9 she wanted to be a Belle Girl. So when she turned 21, someone from the hotel offered her a job and she’s been working there for almost a year now. Laura also loves being a Belle Girl, every day she meets people from all over the world. When you talk with the staff they are like family. That familiarity and kindness is, in my opinion, one of the reasons the place is a favorite of the local community. And the girls are the most photographed people in town.
Tony grew up in Durango. He used to rock climb with one of the hotel managers and was invited to work there. As is with any bartender in a lively, popluar saloon, he’s heard some amazing stories. The hand carved bar is originally from the nearby town of Silverton. Back in the day, someone tried to rob the bar and shot a hole in the drawer that once held a safe. The hole is still there. One night while Tony was working, a local woman walked in and introduced herself as the granddaughter of the bartender who was on duty the night of the failed robbery. She knew exactly where the bullet hole was, and she still has the hold-up gun.
This is a photo of the early Belle Girls and Bartenders. (Thank you to the Belle and Strater for letting me use this image.)
The most popular signature drink is The Belle Bloody Mary. Made with their original recipe Strater Bloody Mary Mix, and green chile infused vodka. A bartender by the name of Ryan Fresh developed this drink. As you bring it up for that first sip you immediately smell the tomato and essence of green chile. It’s fresh and well seasoned. Then the heat from the chile and hot sauces hits the back of your mouth, warms your throat, lingers on your tongue. It’s hearty, a meal in a glass.
Beverage dispenser with vodka and whole roasted poblano chiles.
This is the drink that introduced me to infusing vodka (or tequila) with green chiles. For a long time I was under the impression that using roasted chiles with the skins on resulted in a bitter taste. I’ve always roasted, then removed the stems, skins and seeds. Chris, the Beverage Manager, told me that they roast whole poblanos and drop them right into the vodka. There’s no bitter taste at all, so this is something I’m inspired to try out at home soon.
With poblano chiles, expect a little heat. Not as much as a jalapeno but you will get a kick from them. I’ve also had success with the bright green banana shaped New Mexican green chiles, also called Hatch, Anaheim, Sandia, Big Jim to name a few. They come in mild, medium, hot and extra hot.
My sincere thanks to everyone at the Diamond Belle and Strater and who helped me create this article. Follows is the Strater Bloody Mary Mix recipe with a few surprises like rice vinegar and three kinds of hot sauce. Note: the recipe is in restaurant proportions so you might want to cut it into one-fourth the measurements called for.
For instructions on how to infuse vodka, here is my Green Chile Infused Vodka post and recipe. If you’re really in a hurry, infuse for at least a week. Four weeks is great, and if you happen to forget about it for 6 weeks to a couple months, even better. I find that the longer it soaks, the smoother and more flavorful it gets.
I’d order that…..
I want to verify they are the most photographed in Durango. After many green chile bloody marys I have at least five hundred photos with the beautiful Belle Girls.
Perry, it’s amazing how often we hear this!