CHEYENNE — Kitchen manager John Andrews served up samples of a crab-and-artichoke dip with crackers for staff and drop-in visitors to try.
The verdict broke along gender lines — women favored a plainer dip; the men liked a variety with peppers.
It was just one more detail that required attention before the Little Bear Inn north of Cheyenne reopens on June 8.
The historic inn was closed last year after a fire destroyed part of the building. Firefighters responded to the early morning blaze on June 25, 2011, after a passerby saw heavy smoke coming from the back.
While the kitchen burned and smoke damage was extensive, much of the building and its contents were saved, including a stuffed bear that strikes a menacing pose at the restaurant’s entrance.
David Bertrand, who owns the inn along with his wife, Kathryn Bertrand, said it’s not clear how much the rehabilitation work will cost since it’s going through an insurance company. But it could be about $500,000.
The fire did have one unexpected benefit. After the Bertrands took over the inn nearly nine years ago, maintenance issues continued to pile up due to the long use of the building.
“In the last year, it’s been nice to be able to fix everything all at once,” he said.
The Little Bear Inn traces its roots to a way-station for travelers on the Cheyenne-to-Deadwood stagecoach route.
In 1877, the Horse Creek Post Office was closed and moved to the original Little Bear Inn — which was located about 20 miles north of its present site — making it a regular stage stop.
With the end of stagecoaches, the Little Bear Inn became a gambling hall, saloon and restaurant. One legend holds that a tunnel under the saloon provided a means for outlaws to make a hasty exit if the law showed up.
The Little Bear Inn, billed as Cheyenne’s original steakhouse, has been operating at its present location since 1958.
An old menu posted on the wall lists a Manhattan drink for 60 cents and a T-bone steak for $3.50.
Though the prices have changed, many of the old standbys are still available. The new menu includes a mix of steak and seafood, as well as drinks from the bar.
The Bertrands said longtime customers, some of whom patronized the inn at its original site, are excited about the reopening.
“The phone’s ringing off the hook for reservations,” David Bertrand said.
And it’s not just locals, or even people in the state, who know about the inn.
Bertrand recalled travelers from Ireland who changed their itinerary to Yellowstone just so they could dine at the inn.
The Little Bear Inn will be open at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Bertrand said the kitchen typically will be open until around 9 p.m. during the week and until 10 p.m. on weekends.