Opening up an entirely new restaurant is hard enough. Taking over a beloved institution, on the other hand, while keeping what made it unique and improving on it — that’s just heroic. Fortunately Stagestop Saloon & Grill’s new owner Luke Clausen is just the man for the job.
“I live in south Mandan, and Stagestop had been my neighborhood hangout,” said Luke. “This was the place to be back in 2010, but over the years everyone noticed it was going downhill fast. Rough crowd, poorly maintained, limited menu — it was obvious to me that Stagestop wouldn’t make it much longer the way it was going, which was a shame because I loved the place so much. I really wanted to turn it around.”
Luke had to sit on his hands for two years until he felt Stagestop’s former owner would accept a reasonable offer. Finally, he could get to work turning Stagestop into the place it deserved to be. Reverent to the building’s history, Luke kept its beautiful tin ceilings and other classic country accents in place, but spared no effort bringing the rest of it into the 21st century. Giant television screens now apprise Stagestop’s patrons of the latest goings on in sports, and a massively expanded bar means drinkers no longer have to clamber over one another just to get the bartender’s attention. The upstairs portion of Stagestop, once exclusively used for private parties, is now wholly remodeled with pool tables and dartboards for all to enjoy. Stagestop’s attached 3,500 square foot liquor store underwent an especially dramatic facelift, modernized in its entirety and now quite pleasingly fully stocked with fine liquors.
“My background is in the oil fields,” continued Luke. “No one appreciates better than I do how important good food is at the end of a hard day’s work. Unfortunately, Mandan has always been kind of starved for places to eat at that go beyond fast food and grayish truck stop steaks. I wanted the ‘Grill’ portion of Stagestop Saloon & Grill’s name to really stand for something — the kind of place where families and social drinkers alike could connect over great food. That’s why a big part of the renovation was ripping out the old kitchen right down to the cinderblocks, and putting in a setup where we could make truly world-class cuisine.”
True to Luke’s vision, Stagestop Saloon & Grill’s food is now head and shoulders above what you’d expect from other neighborhood haunts. Luke’s favorite thing to tuck into after a day in the oil fields — steak — is the star of the show, with juicy sirloins and ribeyes that his kitchen staff only just carved out themselves, in house. The Brutus dog, an obscenely long hot dog at 22”, may just become the reason for Guy Fieri’s next visit to Mandan. When fully loaded with all the fixings, it’s a monstrosity. Any snooty Minnesotan who tries Stagestop’s walleye fried fresh in buttermilk breading would have to admit that their state no longer holds claim to the fish, and the Rocky Mountain oysters hold true to the western theme.
But again, because Stagestop’s revival is in part a story of keeping what made it special in the first place, they’ve kept the Wimpy burger. Named after Popeye’s trampish pal, the burger is as essential to the Stagestop experience as the building itself — but increasing its patty from 1/6 to 1/5 lbs surely won’t offend the Stagestop purists. The wagon wheel pizza, homemade according to its original family recipe, is fixed to stay at Stagestop as well.
Bingo, another Stagestop tradition, is certainly not going anywhere either. The game will be held regularly Sunday through Wednesday, although it will be moved upstairs once the elevator needed to transport bingo’s more seasoned appreciators has been installed. The bar’s stage will continue to host live music such as The Whiskey Rose Band and other acts that are right for Stagestop’s motif, but soon comedians and karaoke will join the ranks. (You haven’t been entertained until you’ve watched your friend struggle through “Stand by Your Man” while they’re four beers deep.)
“Our goal is to be the uniquely and distinctly Mandan place to be,” said Luke, “and we couldn’t be happier to give that to everyone. Whether you’re coming from the neighborhood and want to see the old Stagestop better than it’s ever been before, or are coming from somewhere exotic like Bismarck and want to see how we do things over here in Mandan, you’re welcome!”
Stagestop Saloon & Grill is located at 611 6th Ave SE in Mandan. They’re open 8am through 1am Monday through Saturday, and 12pm through 1am on Sunday. You can learn more about them and see their upcoming special events at stagestopsaloon.com.
By David Scheller