Legal drinking became illegal and then legal again. The prostitutes left, and illegal gambling disappeared. The downtown hub dried up, the hotel closed, and the crowds largely vanished. For many establishments, such changes would have been their death knell. Yet, despite the odds, one Bismarck, North Dakota, holdout — Peacock Alley — has survived and, indeed, thrived, rightfully holding on to its reputation as one of the finest restaurants in the city.
Situated on the ground floor of the old McKenzie Hotel — renamed the Patterson later on and now occupied by senior housing — Peacock Alley opened in 1933 just as Prohibition was ending and all the questionable activities in the McKenzie were drawing to a close. The abrupt conclusion of that heady and seductive era, and the lean years that followed, didn’t spell the end for the restaurant, but the construction of Interstate 94, north of downtown, almost did, when the new road that was completed in 1965 shifted traffic and business away from its doors — a cataclysmic development from which downtown Bismarck still has not recovered.
Despite the loss of foot and vehicular traffic, downtown Bismarck still attracts a steady flow of patrons to Peacock Alley, which wears its past as proudly as its namesake. Large swaths of material billow down from the ceiling like upside-down tents. Columns, etched glass, and stained-glass windows sporting Art Deco peacock feathers speak directly to the restaurant’s glory days. And to better appreciate it, I soaked in the enlarged and illuminated black-and-white photos of the hotel during its glory days in the Roaring Twenties and the prominent guests who stayed there, including four U.S. presidents — Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson — as well as boxers Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.
All of that history alone was a terrific visual appetizer, but now I was ready for some more filling fare.
Try This: The mixologists serve up both classic cocktails and contemporary potions, as well as a long list of inspired martinis, and my appealing selection — a Purple Peacock, a concoction of rum, vodka, blue curaçao, and a splash of Sprite — verified their talents. I began my meal with a refreshing cucumber salad with red onions and pita chips. For the main course, although a few different options are offered, steak reigns supreme. All of the restaurant’s beef is aged for at least three weeks for optimum tenderness, juiciness, and flavor, and then it’s served in a variety of cuts — just a couple of reasons why Peacock Alley won the cattle industry’s most prestigious award, the National Beef Innovator of the Year, in 2013. I opted for the beef medallions on sautéed spinach with roasted peppers, hollandaise sauce, parsley, and feta cheese, along with a three-cheese hash brown and warm popovers. From the list of homemade desserts, try the beer buns, a truly local treat made from North Dakota spring wheat, North Dakota beer, North Dakota butter, and North Dakota clover-alfalfa honey.