Anchorage

Curious Alaska: What’s the deal with Anchorage’s free bar food offerings?

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Question: What’s the deal with free bar food (popcorn, soup) in Anchorage?

For decades — before the pandemic, at least — a person could walk into any one of a half-dozen old-school Anchorage bars and grab a ladle of free soup from a crockpot.

Split pea soup at Crossroads. Chili at Reilly’s Irish Pub. Ham and beans at the Buckaroo Club. Nachos at the Pioneer Bar.

While bars everywhere offer patrons snacks like pretzels and peanuts, the elaborate complimentary bar food situation seems to be an Anchorage Thing.

“In the old school bars, it’s just one of those things,” said Jennipher Jenner, owner of the Crossroads Bar & Lounge in Fairview. “It just makes sense.”

It is not mandated by law. Bars that give away bowls of chicken soup and hot dogs to their patrons do so because they want to, according to the top alcohol regulator in the state.

“There is no regulatory or historical requirement for bars having food,” wrote Glen Klinkhart, the head of the Alcohol Marijuana Control Office, in Anchorage.

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Jeanne Reilly, the owner of Reilly’s Irish Pub on Fireweed Lane, traces the practice back to the early 1980s, when laws around serving alcohol in Anchorage tightened. Instead of closing at 5 a.m. and reopening three hours later at 8 a.m., a municipal ordinance forced Anchorage bars to shut down at 2:30 a.m. and reopen no earlier than 10 a.m., according to a study from UAA at the time. Around then, Reilly remembers some bars started offering free food.

“It was a suggestion,” Reilly said. “Not everybody did it.”

Reilly says the tradition may have been knocked out by the pandemic.

Some bars, like Crossroads and Reilly’s, have stopped or scaled-back their free food offerings after a year of COVID-19 restrictions left their businesses barely hanging on. Serving free food from a communal pot just isn’t possible right now, for multiple reasons, said Jenner. Reilly too said her bar likely won’t resume free food, though she does offer a few products for sale, like a Jimmy Dean sandwich.

Walking into a dimly lit bar with a crockpot on the counter is the bar’s way of making you feel at home, Jenner said.

“In Alaska in January you’d pick up your worst enemy if their car was broken down on the side of the road,” she said. ‘”That’s the idea of feeding people. We’re taking care of each other.”

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