Entrepreneur Sam'l Arnold's Fort Restaurant in Colorado Blazes Old Frontiers in Wild West Cuisine

updated 12/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sam'l Arnold loves to tell very tall, very furry stories about the 500-lb. black bear named Sissy that for 20 years was his "best friend in the whole world." He tells folks about how Sissy bit him—and how he bit Sissy right back. He tells them about the time he got drunk and snuggled up to his pal—only to get swatted when the bear smelted his whiskey-laden breath. Bearlike himself, Arnold, 64, likes to greet people with a hearty, "Waugh!" In fact, if it weren't for a few inconsistencies. Arnold would have great success portraying himself as the very model of a modern mountain man—independent, unspoiled, a little rough around the edges. The biggest kinks in Sam's story? For one thing, he has a degree from Yale; for another, he's the well-heeled owner of the Fort restaurant, which has nestled for 27 years in red-rock outcroppings overlooking Denver, garnering praise for its good Plains food.

In the frontierlike environs of the Fort—a re-creation of Bent's Fort, built in southwestern Colorado in 1833—Arnold has served dinner to Michael Jackson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Japanese royalty. He has fed Rocky Mountain oysters to Jane Pauley, cooked buffalo bones for James Beard and taught Julia Child the proper western way to open a bottle of champagne (knock the cork off with a tomahawk, of course).

Child, in fact, is still raving about her meal at the Fort last July. "We had the prime rib of buffalo," she says. "All this talk about lean, lean beef, which I think is pretty sad—buffalo is so much better."

Arnold began cooking for other people as long ago as 1942, when he was a 16-year-old at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., with his own Sterno stove. "I loved fried-egg sandwiches," he says. "You can make great friends in the middle of the evening when no one is allowed out of the dorm and the other students smell bacon."

From Andover, Arnold, the son of an electrical engineer and a homemaker, who was raised in Pennsylvania, went on to Yale and a degree in English. Shortly after graduation he moved west, to Santa Fe, N.Mex., where he worked as "a reporter, music critic, ad salesman, custodian, you name it" for a local ABC radio affiliate. Then he and his wife, Betty, whom he had married in 1948, bought a toy store. "The best sale we made was when we sold the toy store." he says now. Finally, in 1954, Arnold opened his own advertising and public relations firm in Denver, with the British Motor Co. as one of his clients. In fact, he now describes his restaurant as "the Fort that Jaguar built."

At the time, Arnold and Betty bought the 7½-acre property on which the restaurant sits with the idea of building a house. Then Betty saw a photograph of the original Bent's Fort and asked her husband if he would like to live in a replica. "It looked like a castle made of adobe," he remembers. "I said. 'I love it; let's build it.' "

Arnold, who among other things is a western history buff, insisted on authenticity. He commissioned a contractor from Taos, N.Mex., and with the aid of 25 workmen made 80,000 bricks of straw and mud. At some point during the construction, Arnold, with no experience in the restaurant business, decided he would make the $250,000 house pay for itself by turning it into a restaurant.

When the massive wooden doors of the restaurant opened for the first time in February 1963, Arnold had hired a chef, and it wasn't until Thanksgiving that year that he became involved in the kitchen himself. Among the dishes that have stayed on the menu since the beginning are 20 different versions of buffalo, which account for more than $1 million in annual sales. Other favorites, says Arnold, include such idiosyncratic local favorites as Bowl of the Wife of Kit Carson (a spicy Mexican soup), Gonzalez steak (stuffed with green chili) and Adobe Brick (a block of vanilla ice cream coated with cinnamon and sugar).

Divorced from Betty in 1967, Arnold married his present wife. Carrie, 46, in the bowl of Signal Rock, just above the Fort, Carrie, a graphic artist, designed the Sioux dress worn by the hosts and hostesses at the restaurant.

After a 12-year hiatus from the business, during which he traveled, took cooking classes and wrote cookbooks. Arnold took over the Fort again in 1985. Although he now serves only as host and has chef Dudley Cable-Larche in charge of the kitchen. Arnold still picks the recipes. He also works on his cookbooks (the third, Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, was released last month) and writes food and travel articles for the Denver Post. His other avocations include founding membership in the Society for the Preservation and Acquisition of Antique and Classic Submarines and presidency (or "Queso Grande") of the Colorado chapter of the International Connoisseurs of Green and Red Chili.

And of course, there is the perpetual attempt to portray himself as just another Grizzly Adams-type mountain man—as when he's trying to interest some diners in Taos Lightnin", a pick-me-up that he says is concocted from gunpowder, chili peppers, tea and boiled tobacco. Standing at the table, Arnold downs a glass of the brew, then intones what he calls the Mountain Man's Toast:

"Here's to the child what's come afore. An' here's to the pilgrims what comes after. May yer trails be free of grizzlies, yer packs filled with plews—an' fat buffler in yer pot!"

And furthermore: Keep your powder dry, your eyes peeled and your Brie at room temperature.

—Michael Neill, Vickie Bane in Denver

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