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Legend and reality meet in Ridgway, where the True Grit Cafe serves up home-cooked western fare to John Wayne afficionados and genuine cowboys alike.
A ragtime piano player sets the old-time mood as the Tuttles serve dishes like chicken fried steak and cranberry salad at True Grit Cafe in Ridgway.
(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
IN THE ORIGINAL True Grit, a paddy wagon backs up to a vacant lot in front of a sign that reads “Chambers Groceries.” John Wayne, playing U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, pulls one ruffian out and boots him in the back, knocking him right through the space now occupied by the True Grit Café in Ridgway.
True Grit Café is both a shrine to John Wayne and to hearty Colorado classics like hand-cut ribeyes, homemade meatloaf and potatoes smashed with the skin on. On the evening we visited, a big, handsome cowboy sat right under the Chambers Groceries sign, preserved on the southern wall of the cafe bar. As a fan of John Wayne took a photo of the sign and the cowboy, the young female bartender teased the cowboy to “look pretty.” He flexed and she flirted until his pretty girlfriend arrived.
The cowboy looked like he was placed there for atmosphere, but he was the real deal. Located on the edge of the jagged San Juan Mountains, Ridgway is moving upscale, but a true cowboy culture still exists. True Grit Cafe feels like the perfect eating place that mixes the old and new. The street out front is still dirt, paralleling a wooden boardwalk, much like in True Grit, the film.
Inside, a ragtime piano player bangs out tunes five nights a week in the summer beneath an array of John Wayne memorabilia and an original True Grit poster autographed by most of the cast members.
Established in 1985, Tammee and Dale Tuttle have owned True Grit for the last 18 years. She’s the energetic firecracker running the show, but it was Dale who brought them to Ridgway. He first came out here in 1962 to train in the San Juans for mountaineering in Alaska and South America. “I always loved Ridgway and spent most of my life trying to figure out how I could live here,” Dale said. “Finally we just moved out and then the restaurant came up for sale, so we made an offer.”
Dale is big and tall, like the Duke, and pursued his own big adventures throughout life. Today, on their time away from the True Grit, he and Tammee still travel to Africa to lead wildlife photo safaris and climb peaks.
“What would John Wayne eat if he was here?” someone asked. “Ribeye and rye whiskey,” Dale replied.
The steaming plates come out in waves – black-bean beef chili, grilled fish, beef Philly, barbecue pork, chicken chipotle alfredo, buffalo burgers with slaw. The menu represents a collection of Colorado favorites, the portions nearly as big as John Wayne’s fame. “You won’t leave here hungry!” Tammee said.
At True Grit, the signature dish is the chicken fried steak, which arrived as big as the blade of a shovel. It’s a decadent delight, and the waitress told how some cowboys will come in and eat two of them at a sitting. It’s hard to imagine this possibility, but we bet John Wayne would have given it a try.
True Grit Cafe, 123 North Lena, Ridgway, (970) 626-5739 or truegritcafe.com.