105 Main St.
By John Lancaster
PAVILLION—With its gravel parking lot and façade of rough-hewn planks, the restaurant known as Ginny’s Roost looks right at home in this remote ranching town of fewer than 200 people—a good place for a beer and a burger, perhaps, but probably not a candidate for the Michelin Guide. The bulletin board inside the door seems to confirm that first impression: It’s covered with thumb-tacked ads for farriers, boot repair, and a barrel race at the nearby rodeo grounds, with proceeds to benefit a local horse breeder who was injured by falling hay bales.
But then you enter the dining room and meet…Ginny Warren, the ruler of the Roost and a woman who clearly knows a thing or two about food and hospitality.
“Have some jalapeño poppers,” she says, sliding a plate across the bar. “They’re stuffed with smoked Gouda and chorizo.” They are delicious, especially when accompanied by the frozen mango margarita she all but forced on you a moment earlier. And then you notice the unexpected décor–the out-of-season Christmas tree draped with plastic Mardi Gras beads, the blue-and-white-checked tablecloths, the cloth napkins and fancy (if mismatched) silverware. And you wonder, Where am I, New Orleans?
Well, no. But thanks to Hurricane Katrina, you’re closer than you might imagine.
Let’s back up a few steps. A stylish blond woman of indeterminate age, Warren grew up in Illinois and moved to the Big Easy in 1974. She worked as, among other things, a corporate-event planner and an assistant sommelier at Arnaud’s, the legendary Creole restaurant in the French Quarter. Along the way, she married and divorced three times, gave birth to a son, and acquired a taste for the fine food and high living– sometimes too high– for which the city is famous.
“I got sober in 1990,” she says. “Up till this time it was party-hardy city.”
A few years later, Warren left her Garden District home and eventually settled in Waveland, Miss., a quiet Gulf Coast community where she purchased a bungalow eight blocks from the beach. By 2005 she was earning $1000 a day as a “land man,” traveling the country in a motor home to research land titles for pipeline companies. She was in Houston when she flipped on her television and saw the first reports of a massive storm gathering in the Gulf. She called the elderly couple who lived across the street from her home in Waveland.
“I’ve got my motor home,” she told them. “I’ll come pick you up.”
She couldn’t get out of Houston. The highway lanes in both directions were jammed with people fleeing the storm, as the eastbound highway lanes had been reversed to help evacuate areas in the storm’s path. Her neighbors’ bodies were never found.
“I know it’s not my fault,” she says, voice breaking. “But I still think about it.”
Three weeks after the hurricane, Warren finally made it back to Waveland, or what was left of it. Her bungalow and two Mercedes sedans–including the beloved 1991 model she called Silver Belle—had been inundated by the saltwater surge that swept over the town at a height of more than 30 feet. She salvaged what she could and—accompanied by her Weimaraner and two cats—drove her motor home back to Texas. Eventually she had her house bulldozed and sold the property for $11,000. Except for the ruined cars, insurance covered none of her losses.
Living with friends near Austin, Warren tried to return to work, but after she burst into tears while doing title research in a courthouse one day, she realized that she could no longer live as a refugee. So she packed up her motor home and hit the road once again—this time for Pavillion.
It was a natural choice. Her son, Tobin, had just bought a house here, having fallen in love with Wyoming as a teenager working summers on a ranch. Now married and a father of two, he runs a small oilfield-services company. Warren parked her motor home next to his house and got to know the locals– mostly ranchers, retirees and oilfield workers– over morning coffee at the Basketeria, a general store that is one of a handful of businesses in the tiny town.
She also spotted the “For Sale” sign in the window of Pavillion’s only restaurant.
Built in the 1920s or ’30s– Warren isn’t entirely sure– the Roost was a smoky, shot-and-a-beer kind of place where the most exotic menu item was New York strip, although it did have a history: a lovelorn cowboy had shot himself in the head in front of his ex-girlfriend as she tended bar (you can still see the bullet hole in the ceiling). The café’s previous owner, meanwhile, had been a notorious curmudgeon who even on the slowest of nights would turn away customers if he felt like closing early, according to Warren and a longtime patron.
“One guy got him a sign that said, ‘Sorry, We’re Open,’” Warren recalls. “He didn’t think it was funny.”
She bought the restaurant in June of 2007.
Eager to broaden the restaurant’s appeal, Warren banned smoking and gussied up the dining room with new tablecloths and personal mementoes, such as an original silk-screen poster for the 1979 New Orleans Jazz Festival, its border tinged with mildew from its encounter with Katrina. A friend gave her a collection of ceramic Chinese-horse reproductions, which now enjoy pride of place on a shelf above the bar. Other decorative touches include icicle lights and artificial pine boughs.
None of this is to suggest that the Roost has been sissified under Warren’s stewardship. Mindful of her clientele, she has kept some of the original décor—including the longhorn horns mounted on the wall—and prominently displays a T-shirt with a picture of a wolf in the crosshairs of a telescopic sight. “Wyoming Wolf Management,” the shirt reads, which will earn her no points with the Sierra Club but presumably plays well with some of the hands sipping whisky at the bar.
For similar reasons, Warren has moved cautiously in adjusting the regular menu, which still relies heavily on cattle and their various parts, including an item called “Bull Fry.”
“We go through two cases a week,” Warren says of the calf testicles, which are chopped, battered and fried. “They’re real good if people don’t know what they’re eating.” More conventional offerings include fried shrimp and “Miss Ginny’s House Special,” a 28-ounce Porterhouse for $37.95.
But Warren also finds plenty of opportunities to show off her New Orleans culinary pedigree. Every Wednesday night, for example, she serves Cajun-influenced specialties such as “bronzed” codfish and crawfish pasta, albeit with spices adjusted for Wyoming palates.
“This is training Cajun,” she explains. “In Wyoming, salt and pepper is pretty darn exotic.” She shows no such restraint when it comes to famous New Orleans desserts such as bread pudding soaked in Meyers’s Rum.
Warren also hosts an annual Mardi Gras party—the buffet this year included crawfish étouffée and alligator in red sauce over rice—and a springtime crawfish boil, with live crustaceans flown in from Louisiana by Federal Express. A recently completed outdoor dining area will serve as the venue this May, weather permitting. Other special events include Mother’s Day (“I’ll probably just serve lobster”), Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and the Mexican patriotic holiday known as Cinco de Mayo, where this year’s fixed-price ($22) menu ran to six courses.
Besides the smoked-Gouda jalapeño poppers, the menu consisted of tortilla soup; salad made with oranges and jicama (the edible tuber of a pea family vine); chicken enchiladas with green and red sauce; two kinds of tacos (catfish with chipotle cream and pulled pork with ancho chili sauce); and for dessert, Kahlúa flan and fried ice cream with chocolate chipotle sauce. All were excellent, but I was relieved to see that I was not the only one who asked for a doggy bag.
Warren’s eclectic formula seems to work. Based on my three visits, the Roost is often quite busy, pulling in customers from several of the larger towns in Fremont County, the closest of which– Riverton– is a 30-minute drive from Pavillion. Of course, that may have as much to do with the force of Warren’s personality as it does with the quality of the food. A constant presence in the dining room, often with her grandson perched on her hip, Warren greets customers by their first names and rarely misses an opportunity to give someone a hug.
“They come out here to see what the loon from Louisiana is up to,” she says.
Photographs of the Roost & Pavillion: