Visitors to Mount Rainier National Park will have a new option for food and drink this summer when The Trailhead Bar and Grill opens in Ashford with a full bar, a completely renovated interior and a beer garden.
Two longtime friends and colleagues, Morgan Utt and Jenny Hannah, have leased the former Highlander Restaurant, which closed in late 2019 after three decades at 30319 Route 706.
Visitors to the former pub will likely recognize the facade, but inside, “It’s gonna wow them,” said Hannah.
Since last fall, they cleaned from top to bottom and “redid mostly everything in the building except for the walls,” joked Utt, who has herself refinished the tables where soon you can kick back with a draft Rainier and a Whiskey Burger — there’s Jameson in the sauce — after a day on the trails.
She described the renovated digs as “industrial rustic,” with familiar wooden centerpieces, corrugated metal along the bottom of the bar, pipe shelving and new floors. Wooden support beams and paneling remain, but walls have been painted a cool gray tone that modernizes the old-lodge vibes. One element stayed put: classic, nailed-down bar stools, albeit along a new bar top.
With 10 taps and a blank slate, beverages also will feature alternatives such as hard kombucha, cider from Eatonville’s Mill Haus Cider Co. and cocktails — meaning beyond a simple whiskey and Coke, said Utt.
In addition to that Whiskey Burger, her food menu will include an elk burger, street tacos, nachos — “your typical bar food but elevated a little bit” and still affordable, she said, all with housemade dressings and sauces.
Both owners grew up in Eatonville, where Hannah lives and operates Cruiser Cafe, a popular destination en route to the park’s southern and western attractions. There, she also previously operated a frozen yogurt shop and bakery where she first hired Utt 15 years ago.
It turns out that the landlord of Cruiser’s knows the Highlander owners, and Utt happened to express interest in owning her own place at just the right time.
With a health department inspection scheduled for next week, they hope to open the restaurant by late May, just in time for the park’s high season.
“I just want people to come in and sit down, feel comfortable, get a few drinks and just enjoy themselves,” said Utt. Her husband Steven Utt will assist her in the kitchen and at the bar.
They have received some pushback from locals for changing the name, but they trust their years in hospitality will ensure good food and good service.
Many appreciated The Highlander as a place to gather, “just somewhere to connect,” said Hannah, who spent a portion of her childhood in Ashford and worked for many years at the Copper Creek Inn. Some came for coffee in the morning and stayed for the beer, laughed Utt.
The Trailhead will open earlier on weekends to serve morning joe, breakfast dishes and mimosas. An adjacent patio has been outfitted with new tables, chairs and Rainier Beer umbrellas.
“We’re hoping to be well-rounded in what we offer,” said Hannah.
Though the restaurant will no longer allow minors due to the layout, Utt added it will retain a pool table and a pinball machine with plenty of space to just hang out — when pandemic rules allow, of course.
In a mountain town of fewer than 300 permanent residents, they eagerly await serving the diverse swaths of travelers who descend upon the area from around the world every year. An estimated 2.25 million people visited the national park in 2019, according to Travel Tacoma-Pierce County. That number dipped under 2 million due to the pandemic, but the tourism board expects it to rebound this year, driven in part by regional road trippers.
Utt noted “car after car on a Tuesday afternoon” on the way through the Nisqually entrance, the only one open year-round.
“This whole corridor could just completely thrive,” added Hannah, “if people are willing to take that chance. I’ve always kind of had a build-it-they-will-come mentality. So far it hasn’t done me too wrong.”