Underneath the clutter of seasonal tourists and tourist-trap trinket shops in Manitou Springs beats the heart of a small town. There's no better proof of that than the longevity and popularity of neighborhood bars like the Ancient Mariner.
Its origin has been lost in a beery mist. At one point in time, it was called the Pioneer. Some guy from Alaska and a couple of lawyer buddies bought the building and thinking it looked like a ship (such is the imagination of attorneys) renamed it the Ancient Mariner. Samuel Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was inscribed somewhere behind the bar (such is the education of attorneys), though it has since faded into oblivion. No albatrosses haunt the bar.
Anne Stinson bought this timeless hangout at the intersection of Manitou and Ruxton avenues in 1983 and has been pouring beers and grilling burgers ever since. With the enthusiasm and talent of cook Todd Zelinger, she recently expanded into the dinner hours.
Live music (generally acoustic) from a corner of the room and a pool table in the center offer the main entertainment other than quiet conversation over a beer. It's a little unnerving to see nautical objets d'art -- fishnets, life buoys -- so far from the sea, but we got over it. The menu does offer seafood among more standard bar fare; if anything were a house specialty, however, it would be steak.
Available in an 8-ounce or 10-ounce size, the steaks come juicy and tender, topped in one case with a mushroom sauce and a dollop of barnaise, and in the other with a rich burgundy sauce. A baked potato comes on the side: Pretty spiffy for bar food. The Mariner, a sandwich to go out of your way for, dresses up filet mignon with grilled onions and peppers, Swiss cheese and Cajun sauce and serves it up on a hoagie roll.
There's a pleasant Cajun flavor to the menu, nothing overwhelming. Catfish and salmon can be blackened; New Orleans-style red beans and rice is available as a side to all burgers and sandwiches; and Cajun sauce comes with some sandwiches and, for 50 cents, can be added to anything.
The catfish, by the way, is excellent. Whether as an entree or a hoagie sandwich, the filet is lightly breaded and perfectly pan-fried. We can also heap praise on the burgers. Large but not gargantuan, juicy and flavorful, these are among the better bar burgers around. For $6.75, you've got a choice of an All-American with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion; a Shroom Burger with Swiss cheese, grilled mushroom and onions; or a Cajun Burger with grilled onions, and blue cheese and Cajun sauces. Buffalo burgers can be yours for $7.25.
The sandwiches (available at lunch or dinner) are similarly inexpensive. Bratwurst with sauerkraut is $5.75; catfish and the above-mentioned Mariner are $7.50. In between are such standards as a Reuben and a Turkey Melt. I highly recommend the Dixie Chicken, grilled chicken zinged up with grilled onions and peppers, Swiss cheese and the ubiquitous Cajun sauce.
Not many neighborhood bars offer serious salads; the Ancient Mariner does: Caesar salads topped with steak, salmon or grilled chicken (a steal at $8.95) and a mixed green salad topped with grilled chicken, cheese, walnuts and tomatoes.
Nor do neighborhood bars generally offer items for children. Here youngsters can nibble on corn dogs, chicken strips or the chicken quesadilla. Though considered an appetizer, this quesadilla with its accompanying sour cream, salsa and guacamole, was as filling as any sandwich, and as tasty. Nibblers of any age can gorge on Buffalo wings (six for $3) and peel-and-eat shrimp at 10 cents a piece.
We were served by a wonderful waitress, motherly in her calmness, friendly as a, well, a neighborhood bartender. She didn't blink as we quibbled among ourselves about lemons vs. limes in Coronas but simply brought us generous portions of both. (The citrus argument has not yet been settled.) She didn't miss a beat when we asked about dessert but told us enticingly about the ice-cream shop up the street. And she didn't look at all skeptical as we scrounged into pockets and purses for cash -- the Ancient Mariner accepts no credit cards. I suspect that if we became regulars she'd maybe even allow us to run a short-term bar tab. It's that kind of place.