The Bar Tab: At the Alpine Casino—all this and keno, too

Keno

The highlight of the visit was the keno. Supposedly the Alpine is the only bar in Billings still offering daily live keno.

Close your eyes and picture this: it’s a beautiful, warm summer morning, and a couple ventured out on a long walk. They noticed it getting a little cloudy but luckily they were in Montana, where it never rains, right?

When they were about 87 blocks from home, the skies opened up into a torrential downpour. After they huddled under an awning and cursed a while, the storm passed. On their soggy walk home the couple was overwhelmed by the delicious, greasy, intoxicating smells of a casino breakfast. They didn’t stop that day, as they were cold, wet and more than a little grumpy, but the memory never faded.

Two years later, the same couple embarked on a quest to visit every haunt, hideaway and dive in Billings. This is how they—we—found ourselves at the Alpine Casino, 1116 16th St. W.

Since we were only there to drink, we walked in and took a seat in two naugahyde-covered bar stools. Olive was in the mood for a glass of wine and asked if they had any available. The endearing bartender said they did, and asked “do you like the dark kind … or the lighter kind?”

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Olive received an adorable 6-ounce glass bottle of Merlot. Mr. Bitters asked if he could have an Old-Fashioned and she answered “What’s that?” Mr. Bitters began to explain the necessary ingredients and was informed they do not have liquor. A PBR pounder it is.

The Alpine Casino is a true neighborhood bar serving beer, wine and traditional truck-stop steakhouse food. They offer tiny, portion-controlled wine servings, as well as a decent selection of canned and bottled beers with a few local brews on tap. There are three separate areas: a bar, casino and restaurant. The décor has service station flair with metal advertisements, neon signs and gas station kitsch on every wall. A jukebox plays unobjectionable ’50s and ’60s rock, and Alpine® seasoning is available at each seat.

Surprisingly, the most popular drink being served appeared to be the wine, which led us to wonder why they didn’t increase their profit margin by offering it by the glass. Most of the patrons looked like old-timers and regulars; we significantly lowered the average age just by walking in the door.

We spotted a full attic above the restaurant that looked like it might be set up for live music or private events. We asked the waitress what it was used for and she said it was only storage. Apparently they used to make use of it, but their insurance wouldn’t cover the liability of drunks falling over the railings. Our litigious society claims another victim.

The other stools were fairly crowded with bar flies—mostly singles, which is not normally the case. Everyone was friendly and Olive had a delightful debate with a couple of women about the merits of salad dressing pre-mixed or served on the side. Nothing better than an lively conversation fueled by cheap booze.

If you don’t want a full meal they have a popcorn machine for bar patrons. It is the best popcorn we’ve had in a long time, and the machine is well-seasoned from 50 years of use—super salty, rich and delicious. We highly recommend sampling some if you find yourself in the neighborhood. There is also a diner-style dessert case by the door offering pie, brownies and other random sweets (some of which looked potentially homemade, some just old). The key lime pie came highly recommended by one customer.

If our review ended here, it would have been a pleasant experience. The bartenders were friendly, accommodating and obviously remembered regulars who came in and ordered their “usual.” Drinks were fine and incredibly cheap. But to stop here would be ignoring the best aspect of the Alpine—the live keno.

The Alpine has been open since 1960, and claims to be the only place in Billing with live keno daily. Blank keno cards are available on every flat surface, and since we forgot our notebook, they served well for taking the notes for this review. For 50 cents a card customers can try their luck.

After spotting the retro keno machine, we asked the bartender how to play. It’s important to note that we aren’t gamblers, and having lost $3 in Vegas last month, we were a little wary of continuing this losing streak. The bartender patiently explained how to play and recommended playing three to six numbers for the best return on our investment (you can select up to 10 numbers on each card).

We filled out our keno sheets and brought them up to the ball girl to give us our official cards. The ball girl told us she pulls numbers every 10 minutes, but that she sometimes forgets, so it could be a little later than that. Considering the copious amount of White Noise she was drinking, her tardiness was excusable.

We watched anxiously as the numbers flashed on the TV screens above the bar and … we didn’t win. Not even a little. But it was still a great experience and it’s always nice to have an activity while you drink. After finishing our beverages and emptying the popcorn machine, we asked for our tab. It’s always fun to be able to pay with a $10 bill and leave a 150 percent tip.

PROS
Insanely cheap
Delicious popcorn
Live keno—very fun and a unique activity
Friendly staff

CONS
Beer and wine only
Primarily a restaurant, although the bar is comfortable

Previous reviews

Chapter 1The Squire Lounge.

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