We've seen those old saloons in the Westerns. Someone is playing the piano, a curmudgeonly bartender or friendly barmaid slaps a whiskey on the bar, the regulars check out the newcomer. But Hollywood doesn't begin to do justice to the real "thirst parlors," as the genteel used to call them, that still survive in the West.
Comfy, cozy places, rich with the patina of years, these saloons continue to offer the pleasures of liquid refreshment, companionship and, often, some decent grub. They usually have a colorful history, strange aged objects hanging on the walls, a piano tucked somewhere and, yes, an appropriate barkeep.
In these days of gentrification and yuppification, it is getting harder to find the genuine article, but I found five tucked into the small towns of western Sonoma and Marin counties.
This colorful thirst parlor started its life as a hotel for the hardy horseback and buggy travelers in 1868. The Nicasio Hotel burned in 1940 and was rebuilt in its current form. The minute you walk in the door, you know you have found the real thing. This place boasts the most impressive collection of hunting trophies you can imagine: a bear, an African Cape buffalo, elk, caribou, wild boar, a rare miniature deer and that joke animal the jackalope (a rabbit with antlers).
The place has changed ownership from time to time over the years and now belongs to Bobby Brown of rock and roll fame. It has quality live music on weekends. Nasso, with a dry sense of humor and built like a bouncer, is the head bartender.
One story locals pass on is that on Election Day in 1927, authorities showed up to see if alcohol was being served. But the locals got word and all traces of drink had vanished. A baseball field outside the saloon has served some players who went on to the big leagues. 1 Old Rancheria Road, Nicasio. 415.662.2219.
Dating from the early 1900s, this place has slaked the thirst of folks in Point Reyes Station with style for almost a century. Some of its regulars have been known to enter the place on horseback.
Two nudes, one antique and one more modern, hold court over the bar. Although they don't have official names, one local fondly referred to them as Trixie and Trashy. In its colorful past, not all the nudes were on the wall. In its heyday as a brothel, ladies resided behind doors marked with their floral names. When the place was under repair the owner found transoms with names like Rose and Daisy painted on them.
This thirst parlor does not serve food, but bartender Helen Skinner points out that the Chinese Chuck Wagon parks outside six days a week. Some notables have made it a point to visit the venerable Old Western, including England's Prince Charles. His photo taken in the doorway stands as witness.
It has been owned by Judith Borello for the last 37 years. She leaves the day-to-day management to her staff, but sometimes shows up riding in her golf cart with a Rolls Royce grill in front. When you pay for beer in this place, it gets rung up on a cash register that dates back to 1913.
On weekends, there is live music on the dance stage. Alas, the old Wurlitzer jukebox that held such gems as "Rag Mop" and "Earth Angel" is no longer functioning, kept now solely out of nostalgia. 11201 Hwy. 1, Point Reyes Stattion. 415.663.1661.
This gem on Stony Point Road in the countryside between Rohnert Park and Petaluma began as a stagecoach stop in the 1859 and is famous for its ceiling. Yes, ceiling. Once, long ago, a rambunctious patron demonstrated his six-shooter and shot a hole in the ceiling. The angry owner insisted he'd have to pay to fix it. The gun-totin' fellow climbed up on a stool and tucked a dollar bill into the bullet hole and said that should take care of it. Since then, thousands of folks have done the same using thumbtacks instead of bullet holes. The ceiling is completely encrusted with money.
Cheryl Jensen has inherited ownership and takes excellent care to preserve its unique atmosphere. A nude named Lydia presides over the saloon. She was painted by a man named Flint in 1896. A variety of junk adorns the wall in back of the bar—old musical instruments, boxing gloves and such. And of course, there's a piano against one wall waiting for a musical customer. Stony Point and Roblar roads, Cotati. 707.795.4544.
Don't let the name fool you, there is no gambling here. It was named by the Casini family, who have owned the building since it was built in 1874 as a general store to serve the small town of Bodega. Evelyn Casini laughs, "They sold everything, even insurance."
Almost 60 years ago, she and her late husband turned the place into the town institution it has since become. Today, Greg and Elizabeth Schimpf, the new owners, are maintaining the traditions, although Evelyn, known as "Mom" by many, still holds court.
The entire town donated its deer-hunting trophies over the years. There is one corner Evie calls "the freaks." It has deer with malformed antlers and a raccoon. Old photos of Bodega and antique beer signs make visitors nostalgic.
There's a small theater in back that is going to get smaller soon.
"We desperately need storage, but we'll keep a space for local performances," Elizabeth Schimpf says.
Years ago, Art Casini hired a sign painter who painted the door to dining area and piano with a sign that said "Dinning Room." No one would let Art change the sign ("We can make noise in there"), so the Dinning Room houses ad hoc town meetings as well as parties, weddings and occasional poetry readings.
There's home-cooked food—cook's choice at very reasonable prices—and the Casino even offers late-night service. It is a family-friendly place. There are pool tables and an old-fashioned pinball machine. A grassy outdoor area offers up barbecued oysters and other goodies on summer weekends.
Alfred Hitchcock's crew used to eat lunch here while filming The Birds. The crew gave Evelyn a couple stuffed crows from the movie set that stand guard over a teddy bear up on a tiny decorative balcony. 17000 Bodega Hwy., Bodega. 707.876.3185.
Dating from Occidental's rowdy railroad days of the mid-1800s, the Union was taken over in the early part of the 1900s by the Panizzera family. The Italian-born patriarch made some very welcome changes to the menu.
"My dad worked hard, but it was my mom's cooking that really made the place a success," Lucille Gonnella remembers. The second generation of Gonnellas runs things now, but the Union Hotel Saloon has remained the same. A lovely lady in skimpy flowing robes graces one end of the bar, and the regulars decorate the rest. It is plastered with odd and puzzling signs that some of the patrons have been trying to fathom for years. Only the bartenders really know the answers to the trickiest ones.
"One of our secrets of success is that we've always had really good bartenders," Gonnella says.
In fact, some locals are convinced that the ghost of one, the late John Wagner, who died in 2005, still presides benignly over the saloon. He worked there the longest, 26 years.
Two other friendly ghosts haunt the Union, Lucille's late husband, Mahoney, who used to play music on Friday nights, and her son, Mark, who ran the saloon most of his life. But there are plenty of live folks to keep the Union jumping.
The kitchen serves up food that has taken gold medals at the Harvest Fair, and is renowned for its pizza and bruschetta. It, like the Casino, is very much a family place.
There may be other thirst parlors out there, but with these five you can't go wrong. And oh, if you figure out the sign in the right-hand corner at the Union, please let me know what it means. 3731 Main St., Occidental. 707.874.3444.
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