My Facebook invitation to go redneck bar hopping draws no one, but what the hay — I wander into Ranchman's around 7:30 p.m., and instantly, I regret having forgotten my cowboy hat. Trying to decide between wearing it or a baseball cap, somehow I wound up with neither, and my balding head now stands out. The fact that my flannel shirt fits right in is some consolation.
Although it's early, Ranchman's is already hopping, if that term can apply to a crowd that's mostly middle-aged and overwhelmingly pasty white. The decor, such as it is, is pretty bland. The entrance is framed by pictures of an all-white, slightly younger co’boy crowd: members of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. The music, courtesy of the aptly named band Foxworthy, is also bland. My mental image of redneck bars was largely formed by Homer Simpson's visit to Beer 'N' Brawl, so even though there's no Lurleen Lumpkin onstage, this seems like a half-decent joint. Still, I wonder why it was Fast Forward Weekly readers’ No. 1 choice for Best Redneck Bar.
Maybe it’s the food, or rather, the grub. "The West wasn't won with Salad," a poster on the wall defiantly proclaims, and the menu bears this out. It's pretty standard, meat-heavy western fare, save for the puzzling inclusion of "Captain's Fish and Chips" in the "Ranch-Favourites" section. A rational explanation — battered trout — crosses my mind, before I see that it’s haddock. Another break with the ranches of old: all dishes available are gluten-free. I opt for dessert.
My rather-forgettable double-chocolate brownie finished, I head through the door marked "Cowboys." The washroom is clean and unremarkable (no graffiti), though I wasn't expecting to find a pay phone inside (this could be the subject of a Jeff Foxworthy gag: “You know you’re a redneck when….”). Liquor ads plaster the walls, as well as a notice telling men to stop pregnant women from drinking. (Hmmm. If men who go to bars tell big-bellied women not to drink, does that actually work?) Should men want to avoid this event altogether, there's also a machine carrying three kinds of condoms for $1 to $2 apiece (those "extenders" are evidently pricey).
I decide to check out the dance floor. It's quite large, and there's just a few couples down there right now. That means lots of room, but also lots of eyes on you. No dancing for me right now. A sign prohibits drinking while dancing (on the floor, at least), so, instead, some take their two-stepping into the seating area. Once two middle-aged women stop twirlin’ around and sit back down, I mosey over.
Karyn, a woman with short grey hair and glasses, has never heard of Fast Forward Weekly ("except for on the remote"). It's her first time here, so like me she didn't bring a cowboy hat (or, for that matter, a flannel shirt or other redneck attire). She's an itsy bit distracted by the sudden disappearance of her beer. Her friend, Patricia, is more talkative.
"It's fine until the line dancing starts," she says (it hasn't yet). "You come here so you can dance in the traditional way, and then the line dancers take over the place." (Wow! I thought that only happened at weddings where plenty of liquor is flowing.)
It's not Patricia’s only gripe. She brought her man because, she says, "You have to."
"Sleazy men, once the ladies are pasted on their own dime and they don't have to dance, they come in after 11 o’clock," she tells me. "You make clear how sleazy they are."
I wander over to the amenities. The mechanical bull isn't yet bucking, so I try out the Big Buck Hunter video game. I choose moose hunting in the Far North, and during five rounds, I kill just one bull (the goal), but also a few cows (a no-no). This could be a good deterrent to actual fisticuffs and brawling, but I’m thinking that depends on whether you’re any good at snuffing the bulls.
I wander over to the bar, where I chat with Owen, a friendly “aw-shucks” type, who's been tending the taps for over six years. I ask about any memorable incidents.
"Incidents?" he says, with a pregnant pause (which suggests he’s seen some action), but fears a scandalous exposé. “Every night's crazy" he says, quickly adding, it's also “a pretty good place." He seems quite happy with the bar’s No. 1 redneck ranking.
On my way out, I stumble upon the night's first prospective bull rider, who's haggling with management over the photo ID she needs to ride it. Nothing, it seems, will stop her from taking this bull by its proverbial horns.
"It's really important that I ride the bull," she tells her friends. “Seriously. Because I'm gonna fall off after five seconds."
No. 2 spot: L’l Big Horn Saloon
Call me crazy, but when I go to a so-called redneck bar (or any bar for that matter) at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, I kind of expect it to be open. No such luck at L`l Big Horn Saloon — Fast Forward Weekly readers No.2 selection for Best Redneck Bar. When I show up at 10:30 to find the lights out and so signs of life, my cab driver reasonably suggests it's closed, but I'm undeterred, perhaps because I find it hard to believe. I tug on the door and, yes, it's locked. Annoyed at having come all this way for nothing, I wander away from the bar muttering curses (how very redneck of me).
I later talk to Niki, a bartender there, who tells me L'l Bighorn is mostly deserted on weekends because it’s located in an industrial park. And, in fact, I missed last call Saturday by over four hours. When I tell her they came second in the redneck rankings, she laughs. Hysterically.
"I think it's pretty funny," she needlessly says. "I don't know if we're redneck or blue collar, but OK."
I should've asked her what the difference is.
Country Roads, take me there….
I'm not sure if "third best redneck bar" is a compliment or an insult, but Country Roads owns it. Inside, I notice fewer cowboy hats here compared to Ranchman’s, perhaps a few more ball caps (is that more redneck or less?) Otherwise, patrons are dressed much the same as cowpokes at Ranchman’s. The Roads is smaller than Ranchman's, making it somewhat cozier, in part because the dance floor's on the same level as the bar (Note: be on the lookout for collisions).
There are a few rather metrosexual touches. Besides condoms, a washroom vending machine sells "Ultimate Herbal Viagra," promising to "make your Johnson bigger." Cash is removed daily, says a notice on the machine. I wonder when. I'm curious how many men actually buy this stuff, then I decide that it’s got to be worthwhile or it wouldn’t be there.
The menu’s a bit of a shocker. Grilled vegetable Panini wrap and Pacific Rim stir-fry. Even the grilled Angus comes with "Cambozola cheese gratinée." What kind of a redneck bar is this? Shortly after pondering this, the band strikes up a little ditty supporting “our troops,” quashing any doubts about whether this is a true-blue redneck bar.
Looking for further signs of machismo, I try my hand at the video boxing game. My best score comes in halfway between "brutal" and "killer." This confirms it: veggies aside, no wimps here.
I chat briefly with Pam, an energetic twentysomething who loves the Roads and loathes Ranchman's.
"This is a fantastic bar," she says. "You don't have to deal with the bullshit at Ranchman's, people pretending to be country. The people here really are country. There's line dancing here!"
I'd tell her there's line dancing at Ranchman's, too, but I only have Patricia's word for it. Tamara, a perky waitress, is equally dismissive of the apparent impostor.
"Oh, well, that's not a redneck bar," she says after being told Ranchman’s got the No. 1 spot. "That's where you go after the Roadhouse."
I mention that the menu is surprisingly avant-garde, and learn the food is supplied by Botanica, the restaurant in the adjacent Radisson Hotel. Tamara thinks most customers would prefer a traditional menu, though she’s — gasp! — a vegetarian.
A middle-aged group is taking a break from the dance floor, and I stop by their table. Roy, a tall, lean manly man, is a regular here, but he tips his white Stetson to its rival.
"There's no comparison," he says. "Ranchman's is No. 1."
He chafes, though, at the redneck label.
"Not everybody here's into NASCAR," he says. "We want to get rid of the rednecks; we just make a right turn."
Compliment or insult? The jury's still out.