Part of a wall at Foster's Bighorn, a restaurant and bar in Rio Vista that houses an enormous collection of taxidermied animals. (Courtesy of Jim Ratcliffe)
It's not every day a gal gets to smooch with an enormous dead moose. But at Foster's Bighorn, a restaurant and drinking hole in the small, sleepy California Delta town of Rio Vista, kissing the taxidermied moose that hangs at one end of the bar is something of a tradition.
"When girls and guys turn 21, they get up on top of the bar and they kiss that moose down at the end," says bartender Heather Gardner.
But what started out as a rite of passage for the young has become a free-for-all.
"All kinds of people just want to get up there and pucker up and kiss him," Gardner says, admitting she has also smooched with the moose on many occasions.
Despite being well over 100 years old and rather bristly, the moose is not a bad kisser. He’s one of 255 animals adorning the walls at Foster’s. There’s barely an inch of vertical space that doesn’t have an antique giraffe, tiger, bighorn sheep or other creature nailed to it. Some of the specimens are so big, they’ve set records.
The collection fills biker Patricia DeRouen with awe. "This is something that you don't see very often," DeRouen says. "I mean, there's history here."
Restaurant owner Howard Lamothe, a fifth-generation Rio Vista resident, tells me the history of Foster's Bighorn centers on its original owner, Bill Foster.
Lamothe says Foster was a Bay Area native with Portuguese roots and a colorful past.
"He bootlegged whiskey throughout Prohibition," Lamothe says. "Made quite a bit of money."
In 1931, the enterprising Mr. Foster headed for the Delta. "He came to Rio Vista because he could escape the law," Lamothe says. "There were no bridges, so it was easy for him to hide."
Foster’s Bighorn opened its doors to the public in 1933. Shortly afterward, Lamothe says, Foster went hunting.
For the next 15 years, Lamothe says, Foster traveled and hunted widely, undertaking many trips to Africa, Canada and Alaska in search of big game.
Lamothe says Foster’s triumphant returns to Rio Vista always attracted a crowd. "My dad used to say when he was a little guy, you know 10, 12 years old, everybody would come down and see Foster’s, go in and see these magnificent animals," Lamothe says.
Foster died in 1963. Lamothe says many of the animals in the original owner’s collection are now considered protected species. He thinks of the place as a unique museum.
"This is kind of like the West Coast version of the Smithsonian Institute," Lamothe says. "You’ve got free access to see this stuff."
And, like a curator, he spends a lot of time taking care of the artifacts.
"We wash everything real good," Lamothe says. "We clean out the antlers and the horns, the eyeballs, the noses, and the mouth -- when they're open. And then we vacuum them off."
These days, there are some would-be customers who don’t care for the art on display at Foster’s Bighorn. "People that are uncomfortable, they usually come in, turn around and walk out," Lamothe says.
But for the many that stick around, the Bighorn Bison burger still tastes delicious -- even when there’s a massive, shaggy bison staring down at you from the wall.