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Sizing up Alaska's classic bars, past and present

  • Author: Mike Coppock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 20, 2014

There is a palpable fear within Alaska's drinking population that the classic Alaska bar is dying out.

Anchorage's The Monkey Wharf, with live monkeys behind glass taunting patrons, is long gone. Cocaine-fueled nights at Dutch Harbor's Elbow Room, where patrons slicked down the floor with beer to see how far waitresses could be slid, had its last call long ago.

The bar bell has rung for Anchorage's Blues Central for the last time. The Pitch and Roll bar on the aging Alaska state ferry Tustumena will not be duplicated when a replacement vessel is built, according to state officials.

"Owners get old and retire or die," said Dale Fox, president of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant, and Retailers Association. "Or they don't keep up with the times. And times do change."

But now, a new crop of entrepreneurs are taking their shot at preserving legendary watering holes, with the re-opening of Alice's Champagne Palace in Homer and Louie's in the Southeast community of Douglas.

Louie's was closed in 2013 by the Internal Revenue Service for nonpayment of taxes going back 14 years, while Alice's was closed in February of this year as a financial decision by its owner, the English Bay Corporation.

Alice's can be traced back to 1946 and was dubbed Alice's in 1980. Louie's rose out of the ashes of the Great Douglas Fire of 1937, which incinerated downtown Douglas -- though the bar was not called Louie's until 1974.

'Part of our town was missing'

Homer's Matt North, along with Todd and Beth Boling, felt things were not right each time they drove by the shuttered barn-like Alice's Champagne Palace earlier this year.

"It was like part of our town was missing," said 38-year-old North on the trio's decision to reopen the Homer establishment. "I would drive by it, and it just sat there empty like a hole in the community. It was the center of everything that had been going on here." At times deafening, Alice's thundered live music and laughter into the early morning hours for generations before it closed last year.

North, who works for a local office of Edward Jones, along with the Bolings, owners of a local surgical clinic, formed a partnership to buy Alice's from the English Bay Corporation, the Nanwalak corporation that had owned it since 2005.

Neither the Bolings nor North have experience operating a bar.

"It was a decision of the heart," said Boling, 46. "Neither one of us knows the restaurant business. I'm from the Midwest, where everything in a bar is pulled out of a can pre-packaged. Alice's is an old Alaska bar. You can't pull that out of a can."

They will have competition. Homer is also home to the Salty Dawg, Down East Saloon, Duggan's and a host of other watering holes.

But "Alice's has a following," said North, unconcerned about the competition. "And we want to bring them back."

They hope to have Alice's doors open by November.

$145,000 for Louie's

Nearly a thousand miles east of Homer, Abigail Trucano and her parents, James and Arbe Williams, reopened Louie's Douglas Inn in July. They were unhappy the landmark was forcibly closed by the IRS because of unpaid back taxes amounting to $1 million. Family members were regulars, as were many in the Southeast community of Douglas.

"We thought this bar was so important to Douglas," says Trucano. "I used to come in here all the time." The Williamses snatched the bar up last summer for $145,000 when the IRS auctioned it off. Their daughter, a co-owner, took charge of operations. Trucano had worked six years as a bartender at Juneau's downtown tourist destination, Red Dog Saloon, dealing with swarms of cruise ship tourists.

The family contacted Louie Pusich, the former owner, obtaining his permission for the use of his name. The 76-year-old attended the grand opening in July.

Though the goal for opening Alice's is to keep it intact, the Williams family had the interior of Louie's renovated, giving it a modern look.

"We actually didn't have much of a choice," Trucano said. "The place was in really bad shape."

Makings of a classic Alaska bar

So what makes a classic Alaska bar?

"What makes a good bar is the personality of that bar, and that comes from the owner," Fox said. He cites Darwin Biwer of Darwin's Theory, Jan Wrentmore of the Red Onion and the late Richard Hiland of Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn as owners whose bars reflect their personalities.

"Look at Chilkoot's," Fox said. "The place is a good example of a guy who has adapted over the last 30 years."

That guy is owner Mike Gordon. Under his guidance, Koot's has increased its number of dance floors and reconstructed the classic Bird House Bar within the structure. "People need to stay fresh and keep the crowds coming."

Ultimately, a classic Alaska bar is a magical mixture -- a touch of danger and a place where characters gather, featuring a strong relationship between bartender and patrons. More than fun, a classic Alaska bar is educational in a perverse sort of way. Past customers bring them up in conversation. People outside Alaska know of them.

Perhaps for some, the image of a dark and dank watering hole with sawdust on the floors and dollar bills and a bra or two nailed to wooden walls comes to mind. Classic watering holes like Rose's in Pelican, the Salty Dawg in Homer, Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn, and Fox's Howling Dog fit such a description.

Not all, though.

Despite some Alaskans' disdain for tourist destinations, Skagway's Red Onion Saloon is certainly a classic. So are hotel bars like The Alaskan, in both Juneau and Cordova. The narrow Darwin's Theory in downtown Anchorage would be high on many lists of classics – as would be neighborhood bars like Sitka's P Bar, Ester's Golden Eagle and Haines' Fogcutter. Restaurant bars such as Kodiak's Rendezvous, Anchorage's Peanut Farm, Haines' Bamboo Club and The Chatanika Roadhouse may also fit the bill.

As for classic Bush bars, Nome's Board of Trade is legendary, as are Eddie's Fireplace Inn and King Ko's in King Salmon, Galena's Hobo Bar and a metallic building called the Akutan Roadhouse located on far-off Akutan Island, 770 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Playboy magazine declared Dutch Harbor's Elbow Room and Naknek's Red Dog classic Alaska bars – while shooting two pictorial spreads of Talkeetna's Fairview Inn, which was put up for sale at $1.8 million three months ago.

In 2007, Esquire magazine declared the Alaska ferry Tustumena's Pitch and Roll Bar, with its barf bags and convenient handles to hang onto in rough seas, one of the top 10 bars in America.

Famous folklore

Typically, T-shirt and souvenir sales enhance a classic bar's fame. Folklore also helps. Poet Robert Service got off the boat in Juneau for a few days and witnessed a shootout in the Missouri Saloon, today's Imperial Saloon. Many think this inspired his famous work "The Shooting of Dan McGrew."

Skagway's Red Onion Saloon was a brothel when Soapy Smith, Jack London, Big Mike Heney and others walked the town streets. The Alaskan in Cordova has a long mahogany bar dragged over from the ghost town of Katalla, 50 miles southeast of Cordova.

Haines' Bamboo Room and Pioneer Bar has its origins from Lou LaMoore operating a combination bar, brothel and bootlegging concern during Prohibition for the benefit of troops stationed at nearby Fort William Seward.

Decorated with old Tang posters and a wall of Polaroids of mountaineers who fell to their deaths on the slopes of Denali, the Fairview Inn was built in 1923 and is on the National Register of Historical Places. After all, Warren G. Harding, the first president to visit Alaska, died not long after christening the Alaska Railroad and stopping to eat dinner there.

Serving booze since 1957, Homer's Salty Dawg is the merger of a cabin dating from 1897 and a local schoolhouse and post office dating from 1909.

Nome's Board of Trade Saloon boasts of being in operation since 1900, a time when Wyatt Earp, future President Herbert Hoover and novelist Rex Beach walked Nome's boardwalks.

Plenty of hurdles

Anyone wanting to reopen a classic Alaska bar faces hurdles. Alaska has 27 different types of liquor licenses, according to Fox. A full beverage liquor license allows for hard liquor and beer to be served. Fox estimates the going price in Anchorage for such a license is around $250,000. Beyond that, transferring a license to a new owner requires the approval of Alaska's Alcohol Beverage Control Board. ABC staff conduct a background check involving fingerprints and a criminal background check. Then there are local liquor requirements tacked on by the borough or the municipality.

Finally, any new owner must have the personality to make the place work, as well as the financial skills to keep the bar afloat during hard times and the offseason.

Consider the fate of Dutch Harbor's Elbow Room. Larry Shaishnikoff decided to sell in 2004 at age 74. The new owners changed the name, trying to bring in a new clientele, but could not make it financially. The Elbow Room closed.

Today it is the Alexandria House, a place for the homeless, who come to town for work on the crabbing fleet after watching the TV show "Deadliest Catch," which sometimes mentioned crew parties at the Elbow Room.

Mike Coppock is an Alaska freelance writer.

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