As anyone who has ever spent any time around Joshua Tree and the Yucca Valley areas of California will attest, there is a certain magic in its surreal desert landscape. Only a few hours from Los Angeles, the dust and rust-coloured boulders have long drawn artists, dreamers and drop-outs to its stark terrain.
In the 1940s it was Hollywood legends like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry who set out to build facades and spaces to replicate a 19th-century western town; a film set, with an old-fashioned saloon, post office, bowling alley and a trading post that they would call Pioneertown.
Today, a new posse walk the length of the town’s Mane Street (yes, as in a horse’s mane), as the community and surrounds enters their second act, becoming a hub for modern-day creatives, escaping the cities to de-stress, create and reinvent themselves.
And it is here, in the midst of the incredible Mojave desert that the iconic spaghetti western saloon, the Red Dog is being reborn under the guiding hand of a partnership that includes James Beard-nominated bartender, Eric Alperin.
While you might know Alperin best for the edgy bars he has created and co-owns in LA, such as the Varnish, the Half Step, the Slipper Clutch and Bar Clacson, his new venture at the Red Dog has a much more rustic feel. “This is the project you wait your entire life for and you don’t know that it’s going to happen,” he said.
“It plays on those Western fantasies that you had as a little boy (or little girl) running around, playing in your backyard,” he continued. “We all have a love for the romance of that wild west fantasy, so this one is pretty special.”
Sounding a little like the plot of a film where everything fits far too neatly to be true, the story of how the Red Dog’s revival has come about is one of serendipity. As Alperin tells it, a friend came into one of his bars in LA and showed him a picture of one of the old facades and asked the simple question, “What do you think about putting a bar in that place?”
As it turns out the owner of the Red Dog is an architect who has his office above one of Alperin’s bars and is a loyal punter who has been drinking with him for years. And while the architect and his wife had bought the Red Dog as a weekender, they have long wanted to turn it back into a function bar as it had been in the ’60 & ‘70s.
This is the project you wait your entire life for
And with that began a partnership of about eight people who have all brought together their skills and abilities to get the old dog back on its feet. “And so we went in there and basically just had to bring things up to code, redo the kitchen, redo plumbing, mostly mechanical, electrical and plumbing. And then just blow off the dust on some of the design,” explained Alperin.
“It really was a beautiful marriage of partners and operating partners,” he continued, “so the stress was different. It was good to have more people because it was a little more difficult to figure out vendors and to figure out contractors and subs that would do the work. I mean there are challenges being out in the desert for sure. It did take a little longer.”
And that design became important, as even the isolation of the desert has not been impervious to the reach of Covid-19. Although originally conceived to help cater to the breakfast crowd and take-aways, the partnership agreed to install two to-go windows, just outside the kitchen at one end of the wrap-around verandah.
“And lo and behold, thank God we did that,” Alperin points out, “because now that’s our entire service model. We’re doing all our service out of those windows where we actually, our landlord Ben, owns the lot next door. And so we’re turning that into an area we’re calling it the Dog Park where we have set up picnic tables where people will hang out. So it’s really worked out.”
Alperin explains that due to the lack of density and the abundance of outdoor space, the ABC (the liquor control board) have allowed Red Dog to extend its footprint. “We had to make that difficult choice of how do we open this place so that we can provide something to the community. People need to eat and they still want to go out and have a drink. Our challenge was to work out how to do that in a very safe way.”
Yet even with that challenge, it seems the to-go windows suit the streamline service model that the Red Dog had planned. Looking to create a bar restaurant with a much more casual style, the kitchen is producing Tex Mex and the cocktail programme is all batched.
“So it’s coming out of taps,” Alperin explains, “and we have everything from lightning margarita, Paloma, a Moscow mule, an old-fashioned. We have a twist on a Manhattan called a dazzlin’ Dallas Manhattan. That’s after one of the ladies that used to play the piano and dance on the bar back in the day when it was open in the 60s and 70s, and then we’ve got a Negroni, barrel-aged Negroni.
“For the time being, we’ll be serving out of those two to-go windows, as well as opening our front doors and pushing a mobile bar unit that has taps attached to this unit that’ll sit right in the front doorway. All the ingredients are fresh. So we’re squeezing our juices, making our syrups fresh and putting them into kegs. It’s basically like making cocktails for a giant.”
And in the midst of that wide-open serenity, where the sky is all-encompassing, it’s easy for any project to take on a feel of being larger than life. At night, a glow emanates nearby from the legendary Pappy & Harriet’s, a Wild West-style roadhouse, watering hole, restaurant and music venue that was for many years the only thing for miles around.
Pappy & Harriet’s has hosted musicians including Arctic Monkeys, Peaches and more recently Paul McCartney. “Pappy & Harriet’s gets packed. They get so packed that people wait hours and hours, and sometimes they don’t even get to sit down. So we’re hoping to offer a more accessible and convenient food and beverage program.
“You feel that you’re part of a vein of the community,” Alperin explained, “because since there’s not much here, we immediately see how we’re going to become an intrinsic part of the community. And that’s super important to opening up any place, especially in a place like Pioneertown, where you have a lot of old-timers that have been a lot longer than a lot of us.”
The combination of its proximity to Los Angeles, its affordability, its sense of space and sheer quirkiness, the desert has now become a refuge for creates rather than outlaws. As Alperin says “You’re getting a lot of people in LA moving out here,” so it would seem that the Red Dog has arrived at the perfect time.
“It’s pretty magical,” Alperin explains. “It’s one of the more magical bars that I’ve ever had the opportunity to open. It definitely feels like it’s from another time, very playful, you really want to walk up to it and become a part of what’s going on.
“The reaction has been very positive and as my partner said, when she texted me on her way up, she was like, “Eric, people keep telling me they’re coming out from LA this weekend. We’re going to get annihilated.” And so we’re getting ready to be very, very, very busy this weekend.”