Bar Beat: The Crystal Bar

Sydney Jones

On a nice summer stroll through downtown Bozeman, the overhead neon sign of The Crystal Bar glows, catching the eye of passersby day and night. The bright red haze bounces off the brick wall as music flows out onto the street. Three more neon signs sit in the window, including another Crystal Bar logo, this one with the Budweiser symbol attached (a gift from Anheuser Busch to celebrate the large amount of its beer served). On the sidewalk out front stands a hand drawn A-frame chalk sign, informing guests of the summertime rooftop schedule and specials:  Rooftop Garden open daily at 4pm; a bucket of beers, 5 for $15.

The Crystal is a Bozeman classic year round, but when the warm weather rolls around, its Rooftop Garden is the perfect place to spend a summer afternoon. Opening its doors the day after prohibition ended in 1933, The Crystal is one of the oldest and most well-known bars in town. The boarded up windows and minimal light keep the dive bar vibes alive and well, allowing for a place to cool off in the middle of a Montana heat wave.

Inside The Crystal, old school Bozeman remains front and center, despite the ever-changing Main Street around it. With the original back bar still intact, drink coolers frame each end, their glass doors covered in amusing local stickers from all across the state. The walls and ceiling are adorned with historic bar memorabilia, some locally famous, some nationally—all carefully placed so as not to obscure the original hooks and rails used during the building’s former butcher shop days. A signed yellow goal post hangs from the ceiling, a notable moment in Bozeman’s history when the Bobcats beat the Griz in ‘02, ending a 16-year-long losing streak. Nearby stands another goal post from the ‘04 stadium renovation, covered from top to bottom in signatures and the familiar FTG phrase heard around town.

Rumor has it the hanging Rainer bottle came straight out of a Rainer commercial from back in the ‘80s. Like the massive bellows from the Anaconda smelter, each item hanging from the walls, ceiling, or back bar comes with a story. Some of them have been lost over time, exaggerated or changed, but there is always a reason for their place in the bar.

While it may go unnoticed at first, as the light changes, glimmers reflect off the brick wall. With a closer look, many of the bricks are plated, some with simple names, others with funny sayings. Over many years, people have bought a brick for this wall of fame, their name in brass alongside many others, including some famous and familiar. Just above sits a collection of old tap handles, two of which came from the Salt Lake City Olympics. Brassieres of all sizes dangle from the assortment of handles, an old tradition involving free t-shirts, and a little too much fun.

Along the back wall is an odd display of drivers’ licenses, which at first doesn’t make sense, until you realize The Crystal is a popular bar in the downtown area of a college town—one that pulls guests in with dark dive bar vibes, music chosen by patrons, cheap drinks, and a great crowd. While the wall display is funny to patrons over 21, it serves as a warning to those who are underage; fakes will be confiscated. Other Bozeman spots may have come and gone, but The Crystal is here to stay, unwilling to jeopardize its liquor license on college kids passing through.

Over the years, some things have changed about The Crystal; notably, the 2012 addition of the upstairs lookout, which was recently boarded back up. What was briefly a stage for live music eventually turned into a small gaming area, with darts and foosball. A great spot to stand above the crowd on a busy power hour ($1 drinks from 11pm to midnight) night and watch the drinks flow is now inaccessible to the public. With the pool table gone, more seating has taken its place, as well as a few more keno and slot machines for those into gambling.

Matching the chalkboard out front, a daily specials board sits at the far end of the bar, with colorful words and matching images of weeknight offerings. Among favorites are Map Mondays, with local Map Brewing beers only $5 all day. As a service industry shoutout, Sundays offer $4 Fernet shots. Other specials are available each day of the week, including a daily Happy Hour from 4-6pm.

For a long time, The Crystal held the title of the Only Rooftop Bar in Bozeman, which may sound surprising at first, but became pretty clear on a hot summer day. Oftentimes, there was nowhere to sit, and hardly anywhere to stand. The cooling mist from the AC system, paired with the hot sunshine and cold drinks, meant no one ever wanted to give up their spot, no matter how many people showed. While it is no longer the only rooftop bar, it remains as one of the best and busiest. Just off Main Street, it’s a great place to sit and listen to the weekly jams from Music On Main, catch up with friends, and celebrate these short-lived Montana summers. The Rooftop Garden may not feature any taps, but if you’re set on a draft beer it’s easy enough to make your way down the indoor winding red stairs and grab one inside. Good luck trying not to spill a drop on the way back up, and fingers crossed your friends saved your seat.

As one of the oldest bars in Montana, The Crystal has remained a favorite among locals and visitors. Its incredible, well-maintained history makes it a must-see when visiting downtown Bozeman. The fairly priced drinks, familiar faces, and daily specials keep locals coming back time and time again. As Bozeman continues to grow and change, stopping into The Crystal for a drink is reminiscent of the old Bozeman, reminding guests to take a moment and appreciate the history of our great state of Montana.

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