Year-round school might sound hellacious to an angsty preteen, but, for adults who know about La Plata County’s Olde Schoolhouse Cafe & Saloon, it’s reason to party. That is, considering this school is actually Southwest Colorado’s premier dive bar, the crown jewel of après ski destinations nestled in the shadows of the San Juan Mountains.
The two-story, turn-of-the-20th-century schoolhouse with peeling white paint sits 25-miles north of Durango on Highway 550 in what locals refer to as “North County” or “NoCo.” It’s voted consistently in regional publications as the best atmosphere to complement a day of schussing, whether coming from the backcountry or inbounds at Purgatory Resort two-miles up the road.
Besides crusty locals who eat here multiple times a week, Texans and other non-native species flock to the historical relic like moths to a flame. They come from all over the world because so-and-so told them to check it out, or because it’s, like, the only reasonably-priced restaurant in the area. Besides, what’s not to love about smiling bartenders, hand-tossed, homemade pizza and excellent people watching?
In short, there’s nothing not to love about The Olde Schoolhouse. It’s downright cozy, hygge even (BYO fuzzy slippers): a bona fide, mountain town oasis where Ska beer flows like wine and wafts of baking crusts and melted cheese leave you shrugging off the 45-minute wait – in large part thanks to the pool table and mélange of weird paraphernalia stapled to the walls (more on that later).
From the rugged exterior and scandalous interior decorating, you might not guess this fine establishment has always been run by a woman. In the 1980s, Jody Barile turned the space into a restaurant open only in the winter. She had a penchant for Italian food, namely pastas and anything on sale at the grocery store in the bustling metropolis of Durango.
In 1995, Terry and Stacy Maloney purchased the schoolhouse from Barile. Lifers in the food and beverage industry, the Maloney’s worked their tails off (with help from brother-in-law, Ickes) to turn The Olde Schoolhouse into “the world’s first self/full-service bar and restaurant,” where they guarantee you’ll eventually get the food you ordered from the bar and then happily clean up after you leave. It’s a team effort, and, unlike the Bronco’s who play on TV here during football season, everybody wins.
“When we took it over, we wanted a late-night bar in the mountains,” says Stacy. “We had a bar at our house, so we’d host parties. But most people didn’t have TV up here, so, when we first started, it was a place where people could go and hangout and watch TV.”
But the burgeoning business was a simple ingredient away from establishing itself as a must-stop on the map, and that ingredient was pizza. They’d inherited Barile’s pizza recipe and spent the first year tweaking it to perfection.
Whereas Barile might whip up a couple of pizzas a night in the sole kitchen oven, the current operation upgraded to two state-of-the-art, stone-slab pizza ovens. They can pump out up to 70 pizzas “in the heart of the crazy” in the middle of winter. Other glutinous items include a delicious selection of calzones, wings and meatball sandwiches. At 8,900-feet-above-sea-level, gluten-free crust is still their greatest challenge. But no worries. There are salad options, if that’s your thing.
Regarding beverages, beloved local craft brewery, Ska, is always on tap with seasonal specials of Euphoria in the winter and Mexican Logger in the summer. Twenty-two-year-old Ska Brewing opened the same year as The Olde Schoolhouse, and the Maloney’s were proudly the first restaurant in La Plata County to put Ska’s beer on draft. Other beers are available, too, but when in Rome…
Regarding spirits, the bar is loaded with “whatever you’d like to drink to get loaded.” If you want a shot to accompany your beer, just ask for the Side Boob. And, speaking of boobs, The Olde Schoolhouse has a somewhat signature drink called the Mountain Girl. The alpine-inspired cocktail features grapefruit vodka, soda water and a splash of cranberry.
“The women up here are such bad-asses,” praises Stacy. “They have to be able to chop their own wood. They’re beautiful women and beautiful souls.”
They’re women who aren’t appalled at bras hanging from the rafters or the clean baby diaper that someone stapled on the ceiling a few years ago. They’re women who shred by day and get silly by night, comfortable in their sun-kissed skin and all of the smile lines that go with nights that present unforgettable stories, like the time a guy got drunk and took off his prosthetic leg.
“This guy came in with a fake leg,” says Stacy, a longtime supporter of Adaptive Sports. “He got drunk and took his leg off, and, so, the next morning, he came back to get his leg. But we’d tied it to the bell outside the front door. He just laughed and said, ‘Well, I can’t take it now.’ He thought it was cool.”
But wait! There’s more: another leg can be found hanging inside above the bar. That was from a guy named Harry, says Stacy. People take shots out of that one.
“So we have a few legs,” she admits.
If you don’t have a prosthetic limb to donate, fear not. People have been bringing all sorts of trinkets over the years. When the Maloney’s got tired of stuff dragged from people’s garage, they insisted folks could draw on a dollar bill and hang that up instead. Flags, license plates and foreign bills all have a presence in this random museum of sorts.
“People wanted to leave their mark,” says Stacy.
It’s refreshing to see so much randomness in an enclave that sports multi-million dollar homes, and it’s clearly a source of pride for Stacy. The Olde Schoolhouse has only raised prices once in the 22-years since the Maloney’s bought it.
“We could do it every year, but, no matter how much prices have gone up, we try and keep it so that locals can still afford it,” she says. “I’m not going to get rich, but, as long as everyone’s comfortable, we’re happy.”
Two decades after they purchased The Olde Schoolhouse, Stacy credits its longevity to a good sense of humor, a lot of patience, an entertaining staff and a devoted clientele of locals and tourists alike. They’re open year-round, with the exception of the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the occasional cleaning and maybe when an employee gets married and everyone wants to go to the wedding.
A Colorado native, Stacy moved to Durango in 1988 to earn a business management degree from Fort Lewis College. Thirty years and two kids later, Stacy’s put the degree to use creating one of the most memorable restaurants in Colorado.
“I feel younger in my soul,” says Stacy. “I’m super proud of it. We want people to walk in and feel welcome. I hope we’ve accomplished that.”
by Joy Martin
~MTN Town Magazine
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