How the West Was Fun: Pioneertown’s Red Dog Saloon Serves up Western Nostalgia and Craft Cocktails
We’ve got the skinny on the joint and a few recipes that are a big step up from a shot and a beer.
You could swear you hear the jingle of spurs when you walk the dusty main street of Pioneertown, California, and find yourself hitting the cadence of a gunslinger’s saunter. You pass the apothecary, the potter, and the Likker Barn. Old TV fantasies of a West that never was die hard in Pioneertown, the little Roy Rogers–built cowboy town that served as a set for The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show, and other black-and-white Westerns.
Virtually unchanged in its 75 years, Pioneertown is an easy drive from Los Angeles and checks the boxes of so many of the clichés, which goes toward explaining why there’s a 50/50 ratio of families and Echo Park hipsters on any given weekend. There’s an OK Corral, its sign and posts framing the mountains and nothing much else. Hitching posts, discarded wagon wheels, and a little church where people still come for worship. You stomp your way up onto the porch of the Red Dog Saloon, belly up to the mobile bar (which they’ve pushed to the door to keep outdoor dining and drinking where it should be for now) and you order yourself… a barrel-aged Negroni.
Cowboys drink much better cocktails than they used to at the Red Dog. The Red Dog Saloon is the latest endeavor of Mike and Matt French, two brothers who took over Pioneertown’s neglected motel some six years ago and turned it into a just-right escape for visitors to Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, and whoever else is searching for that ever-diminishing sense of being on the edge of nowhere, without having to travel too far. The motel became the preferred crash pad for rock climbers, European tourists searching for the real “America,” and folks checking out bands at Pappy and Harriet’s, the restaurant and bar known for its Santa Maria–style barbecue and ability to get folks like Paul McCartney, Leon Russell, and Lucinda Williams to play a spot smaller and more remote than their usual concert venues.
While travel restrictions were in place, that didn’t keep the high desert from becoming the escape for city dwellers in Southern California and nearby states. It’s got all the good stuff you want these days: fancy soaps infused with desert botanicals, Pendleton blankets, cornhole, and wooden benches and firepits out back so you can look up at the stars. The brothers have a knack for reviving neglected spots with good bones. Their reboot of Captain Whidbey Inn on an island near Seattle is a case study in Wes Anderson–adjacent hospitality design. And now it has the Red Dog, which opened in the thick of the pandemic. Right about when everybody desperately needed a drink.
Just as the Pioneertown Motel upgraded the amenities and style quotient, at the Red Dog they serve drinks that are a serious step up from a shot and a beer. The Frenches brought on bartender Eric Alperin of the pioneering (pun intended) modern speakeasy the Varnish and his brother Jean-Michel, among other heavy hitters from L.A.’s hospitality scene. The house cocktails are all pre-batched, a combination of top-shelf spirits and mixers. The consistency of pours and ratios ensures a consistently delicious drink, each Manhattan as dialed in as the next.
And that’s where the bells and whistles stop and the nostalgia comes back. The Red Dog is the kind of saloon they don’t make anymore, with the right kind of wrong wood paneling, vintage neon beer signs, mismatched Naugahyde swivel stools, and a gouged up bartop with hundreds of names carved into it—including those of Pappy and Harriet, who evidently would steal away for a drink here when not minding their own bar.
And so on a sunny late spring day with the world a happier place than it was the previous spring, you see more and more smiles on faces up and down the main street of Pioneertown, and on the porch of the Red Dog there are daytrippers, rock climbers, and families tucking into tacos and eating chips and the kind of chunky guacamole that just calls for a margarita. If you can’t make it to the Red Dog, we’ve got some of their recipes here, along with their backstory narrated by saloon partner and bartender Eric Alperin. Read on, drink up, and dream of a town and a time that never were.