Bears peek out from various corners of the inside of the bar at The Place Bar and Motel — a wooden one from near a central pillar, a bear pelt baring its teeth mounted to the ceiling, and a fully taxidermied bruin inside a glinting glass case from near the kitchen entrance. Another massive bear waves at patrons from the front door, holding aloft the neon “Open” sign greeting visitors.
The bears aren’t the only Alaskana lighting up the bar. The signs directing patrons to the entrance are carved into wood planks. A long etching on a wood plank in the hallway depicts the Cook Inlet landscape. In the corner, a “We Support OUR Setnetters” sign from the community campaign in 2014 hangs on, the red paint still bright.
The tables were already busy at 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, a group relaxing at the bar while another crowd in matching T-shirts prepared to shoot darts for the weekly dart tournament.
The name is as simple as the bar: The Place. There are some small improvements that owner Grant Gratrix wants to make to the bar and to the motel rooms upstairs, but overall, he’s planning to keep it largely the same.
“We believe the place has a lot of potential,” he said. “… It’s not quite a dive bar, but it’s got a lot of character.”
Gratrix and his wife, Rossana Gratrix, took over as the new owners of The Place this month. Rossana has worked in the food and beverage industry for years, but this is Grant’s first foray into owning a restaurant, bar or hotel. Buying the business is a return to Alaska for them — they lived in the state for some time in the 1990s before moving to the Pacific Northwest in 2000. They’d been looking for a reason to come back, and when the sale listing for The Place came up, it looked like an opportunity, Grant said.
They came up to visit the bar and spent the first night incognito, just enjoying the atmosphere and observing. Interest piqued, they came back later to talk about buying the place.
“That was when (bar owner) Jason (Young) was like, ‘Hey, that was you!’” Grant said.
The Place Bar and Motel has been around in its current form since the 1980s, in the heyday of Nikiski as an oil and gas community. Owned by a gregarious community character named John Young, who went by “Grizz,” the business thrived as a blue-collar neighborhood bar. When Grizz died after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease in early 2015, his son Jason Young took over ownership to keep the place running.
The Place had been for sale for a long time before Grizz died, without much success. Young, who lives in Minnesota, came to Kenai in December 2016 to work on the bar and get it back on its feet to try to get it sold. He originally intended to stay a month. It’s now been almost a year, most of which he spent living in the motel above the bar and trying to keep the place running.
“I got to know everybody in the bank and at Three Bears, a lot of the other bar owners who looked out for me,” he said. “… I kind of kid around that I got to live a kind of ‘Bar Rescue’ Alaska edition.”
The bears in the bar go along with Grizz’s nickname, which Young said was bestowed on him when he arrived in the 1970s to work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. There is more bear paraphernalia in the back rooms of the bar, too, he said. He said he plans to leave most of it — it’s part of the bar.
Though he was raised in Minnesota with his mother, Young said he started coming to Alaska to spend time with his father when he was about 12 and spent time at The Place with him. This was the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the bar was hopping and much of Grizz’s business came from oil workers coming to town temporarily. That wasn’t an option for Young now, with oil activity drastically scaled back in Cook Inlet and Andeavor, formerly known as Tesoro, as the only major industrial plant still operating in Nikiski.
Still, the RV park at The Place could be a good way to expand the business’s offerings, and regulars have been consistent. He said that was one of the coolest parts for him — hearing stories from bargoers about his dad.
“That’s been the cool part, getting to walk in my dad’s shoes for a year,” he said. “I stayed right there at The Place all winter, and it was kind of my home and I made it my home. It was cool. Even though it’s an estate and there’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through to get all that closed out for him but I’ll look back at this fondly in ten years, maybe even next year.”
He said it’s sad for him to leave the community after spending a year in Kenai and Nikiski, but he’s excited to go back to Minnesota, where he has a 14-year-old son.
“To come up here and not be in his life was really hard,” Young said. “I was very motivated to get (The Place) sold.”
A future for The Place
Grant’s background is as colorful as the bar itself. He grew up in Anchorage, with a family history dating back to Skagway during the Gold Rush in the waning days of the 19th century. He began working as a commercial diver initially in Dutch Harbor. Pursuing a job opportunity, he left Alaska as a young man and went to Guam, where the job fell through but he stayed anyway and worked as a diver and even for a submarine tour company for awhile, operating the submarines.
He met Rossana, who is originally from the Philippines, while there, and eventually the two moved back to Alaska before relocating to the Pacific Northwest. While his family stayed there, Grant took job opportunities that had him working in countries all over the world, from Scotland to Angola, primarily as a contractor for oil companies.
Although he lived in Anchorage, he has ties to the Kenai Peninsula and to the Nikiski area. His family came down to fish when he was a child, and he and Rossana came to dipnet on the Kenai River when they lived in Anchorage. He said his grandparents also worked on the original oil rigs in the Nikiski area, so his family visited the area.
The Place also has 14 motel rooms upstairs as well as the RV park near the bluff. Grant said they plan to renovate the park for next summer and eventually include hookups and a firepit.
“We’re going to get it up and going,” he said.
In the bar, he said they plan to convert part of it to a living-room type area with couches and a TV. Within the next month or so, they plan to start serving lunch, though they’re still working on the menu, he said.
Watching the crowd at the bar Wednesday night, Grant could already point out a few characters he recognized. Jason stuck around for about two weeks to show them the ropes and introduce them to some of the bar regulars, which has been helpful, he said.
Young said he thought Grant and Rossana had good ideas for the business and he wished them success.
“I just wish (Grant Gratrix) all the best,” he said. “I’ll be sad to go and leave, and I feel like I made a footprint of my own in this community.”
By 7:30 p.m., the bar was packed as the dart tournament went into full swing. As the participants carefully aimed their darts, Grant moved back toward the bar and melded easily into the crowd already gathered there.