Right up to the point where I’d been COVID-displaced from where I worked on International and C Streets, I’d watched with increasing interest as the old TGI Friday restaurant and bar on the southwest corner of Tudor and C Streets started to transform every day on my way to and from work. An entirely new venue, the Bear Paw Bar and Restaurant was pushing TGI out and moving in.
I never frequented TGI unless I was dragged in there for some work function or at the whim of someone else for some reason; I don’t care for chain restaurants and bars at all; there are far more local establishments that bait my palate with unique local flair and deserve my dollar better spent to be used right here at home.
I wasn’t alone. In January of 2017, local management at TGI got frustrated with corporate oversight dictating the primarily non-local food and beer lineup and struck out to differentiate the brand with a local flair by renaming the bar The Beer Hunter’s Pub. Management got tired of people from the surrounding hotels walking in and asking where the locals eat and drink, or “how do you get to Moose’s Tooth from here?” Who comes to Alaska to eat at a chain restaurant they could visit at home? I guess locals feel the same way.
The team at TGI was able to get permission to rename the bar and ditch three of the corporate mandated beer brands and put on all local beers on the remaining taps. I don’t know why it didn’t take. I visited once and a while, but didn’t find anything distinctive that would keep bringing me back.
If you’ve been watching the news, Bear Paw has been featured more than once. This wasn’t because it’s a new venue in town, but because the venue’s scheduled opening day coincided exactly with the day the hunker down order went in place, effectively closing bars and restaurants in Anchorage indefinitely. I felt bad for the place right off the bat.
Even after Phase I and Phase II removed restrictions, it took me a while to wander in to the Bear Paw. In my travels, I noticed the parking lot was pretty full most of the time, so I couldn’t explain the hesitation.
I finally visited last weekend. When I walked up to the building, it was hard to get away from the TGI paradigm. The outside of the building is all newly appointed and “Alaskan-ized,” but it still gave me the old TGI feel for some reason. I walked into the new place with a discerning and critical eye. Why did I get the sense I was fault finding? Why did I get the sense that I was going to find the same old TGI Fridays when I opened the door?
I was instantly relieved when I walked in. Bear Paw is brighter, lighter, more open, and the bar doesn’t look like an afterthought any more. The center wall that used to divide the bar and restaurant sections has been torn out and a new, center stage captivating the view and hints of live entertainment to come. In all, it’s about 100 percent livelier, fresher, and more inviting to me than TGI ever was in it’s 15 years in that location.
Not initially interested in the food, I grabbed the drink menu and quickly did the math. If you want local beer, Bear Paw is a good bet: 24 of the 27 draft beers are from nine of our local breweries, and although I’m purely a beer guy, the craft cocktail, margarita and wine lists look pretty respectable too.
James Mooney, general manager, was overflowing with enthusiasm when we met quite by happenstance. I wasn’t in there surfing for an interview when I visited.
Ms. Fermento had the quick moving, attentive barkeep spin up a really nice Moscow Mule while I opted for an Anchorage Brewing Company The Experiment, a bottled beer selection. Ms. Fermento asked about the ginger beer used in her drink. I don’t know much about ginger beer, but when the barkeep pulled out a bottle of Cock and Bull, it struck me as odd.
“Have you heard of Beach Tribe Sodaworks here in Anchorage,” I asked her? “They’re local and make a ginger beer.” She perked up with interest about the potential for another local element. She quickly grabbed Mooney and brought him over and connected us. Mooney was instantly interested.
“Look,” he quickly exclaimed in a rush of words. “This is for us, us Alaskans, that is. Bear Paw is by Alaskans and for Alaskans and that’s kind of my motto here,” he almost cried out as if sensing my TGI hangover.
“Are you sure this has nothing to do with the old TGI or, you know, the corporate chain?” I asked, probably a little too suspiciously.
His response was emphatic and unequivocal. “None of this is at all associated with the old TGI in any way, shape or form. Period. We’re completely separate,” he said with finality.
“’Nuf said,” I mumbled to myself, and got down to business to talk about beer.
In a later interview, Mooney told me he got up here in 1996 “just for the summer after having always wanted to visit,” and like many other Alaskans, he never left. He’s an artist on the side and plied the construction and pipefitter trades through his tenure here but “I always made more money as a bartender,” he says. “I got to work inside, didn’t have to work as hard and loved being part of the local scene. I am very happy here,” he says of his new digs.
I asked about his beer exposure. “I know I like drinking beer, and that’s what matters. I’m an IPA guy and I like my IPA’s to stand out and slap me in the face. Bear Paw is the perfect place for beer lovers. I want the widest selection of local beers with a little bit of a focus on IPAs, if you can’t tell,” says Mooney.
I challenged him. “What’s going to differentiate Bear Paw? There’s only one beer in the house I haven’t had yet.”
This didn’t faze him. “We’re just getting started, but let me tell you this and you can tell every brewer and brewery you know. All local beers get a chance here. Sure, I have to carry Bud Light, Coors Light and Blue Moon, but the other 24 taps belong to the locals,” he says.
He went on. “Anything local that sounds good, I’ll bring it aboard and try it. I’m going to choose beers that locals want to drink, not the tourists. Oh, sure, the tourists are welcome here but remember, Bear Paw is for us; us Alaskans, that is.”
We talked about the current trend of high end beer lovers craving constantly changing variety. Mooney said he was reaching out to local restaurants to try to broker agreements to get one-off specialty kegs on a preferred basis.
“I have no fear of putting something on unique and eclectic and that perhaps other restaurants wouldn’t touch. I think that’s what Alaskans like,” he said, unerring from his Alaska first stance. “If it’s local, it’s right for my bar,” he exclaimed with pride.
Mooney loves barleywines, so I’m anticipating a lively winter this year when that style ripens and our brewers feature it.
As if I needed proof, he called me back after our initial chat, again, entirely over-carbonated with excitement. “I just worked out a deal with Midnight Sun Brewing Company. Bear Paw will be the only place to get one of their new beers: Freedom 45 Hazy IPA. This one’s a juicy 8 percent alcohol by volume double IPA with a hint of the background malts pushing through and a subtle, sweet finish. A true local Alaska beer to add to our local lineup.”
I didn’t need the proof; after my first visit, I was convinced that Bear Paw is bringing something new and refreshing to the somewhat beer-barren major cross section in Anchorage. I’ve already been back once, and there’s a good chance you’ll see the Fermentomobile in the parking on as I intend to frequent the place more and see what I hope is always new.