The Old West is on its last breath. Let’s face it, the neither the western nor the cowboy are really in style of late. True there was a time when John Wayne ruled the big screen and Gunsmoke ruled television, but those days have been over for a long time.
It’s kind of sad, really. With the sunset of the cowboy and all things fastened to him also comes the dawn of all the trappings the Old West included, and for us the tragedy is the disappearance of the saloon.
The birth of the Western Saloon actually in 1832 when the U.S. Congress passed the Pioneer Inn and Tavern Law, which allowed establishments to serve alcohol without having the customer lease a room for the night.
From that act, the saloon followed settlers and pioneers (or perhaps preceded them) across the continent.
In every town, in every village and settlement, a saloon—or many saloons—were found quenching the thirst of the miners, the cowboys and the trappers.
The five saloons below are the real deal—opened when the West was wild and still serving drinks just like they did in the 19th century. Summer presents a great time to explore this nation, why not get back to its roots?
Menger Bar, San Antonio, TX
Menger Bar is one of the oldest bars in America. Built as part of the original Menger Hotel in 1858 by German immigrant William Menger, this place is dripping with history. According to their records (and local myths), the Menger Bar has seen more cattle deals consummated than any other single location in the United States.
In fact, Captain Richard King, founder of the famous King Ranch, was said to regularly carry $10,000 in cash while drinking at the Menger Bar, always ready to buy cattle (he died in the hotel in 1885). King is one of many celebrities that has tipped a glass here. Ulysses S. Grant, O. Henry and Teddy Roosevelt all drank here at one time. Roosevelt in fact recruited many of his Rough Riders from the bar.
When you enter you’ll notice the place drips with varnished mahogany and looks little like an Old West Saloon. That’s because it was remodeled in the late 1800s to be an exact replica of the pub in England’s House of Lords. They make great margaritas, but with respect to the history of the place, a local beer seems in order.
204 Alamo Plaza,
San Antonio, TX 78205
Crystal Palace, Tombstone, AZ
This entry will no doubt spawn at least a little bit of controversy from those who think the Crystal Palace is little more than a tourist trap. While there is a bit of kitsch here (costumed gunmen who put on reenactments and waitresses dressed like Hollywood’s version of Old West call-girls), the place has some great history and is well worth your time seeing.
Originally built in 1879 as the Golden Eagle Brewery, the building was damaged by fire in 1881, then totally destroyed by yet another fire in 1882. When rebuilt in mid-1882 as a saloon it was reported that a fountain in the center “spouts forth streams of pure water.”
The place was a popular spot for locals; Doc Holiday was known to deal Faro here and Virgil Earp had an office upstairs. It was a rough place, but as the town died so did the saloon, which eventually turned into an ice cream parlor and bus stop. It was bought and remodeled to bring back its Old West character in the 1970s and today continues the tradition of the saloon.
They serve local beers but our favorite order is a straight Rye Whiskey—which is what Holiday reportedly sipped while dealing cards.
436 E Allen St,
Tombstone, AZ 85638
Capitol Bar, Socorro, NM
The tiny town of Socorro, NM, hosts a great treasure for authentic Old West saloon lovers. The Capit0l Bar was established in 1896 by wine maker and merchant Giovanni Biavaschi to showcase his wines. While other saloons in the mining town were thrown up with canvas and wood, Giovanni used stone, adobe and brick to create an elegant lounge and wine cellar.
This was the age and stomping ground of one of the most colorful characters in the west, Elfuego Baca, who was sure to have frequented the place. Through some mysterious business deal Biavaschi lost his saloon and it was bought and run by a district judge named Amos Green, who—in addition to using the place as a bar—also held court and jailed people in the back.
During prohibition there was a speakeasy downstairs and it is today a hugely popular spot for students from the small, local college. The place is much like the original (expect for the wine), so a shot and a beer are to be ordered here.
110 Plaza St,
Socorro, NM 87801
Denver’s famous saloon was founded in 1893 by Henry H. “Shorty Scout” Zietz. Zietz himself was a local legend. At the age of 10 he ran away from home and met Colonel William “Bufallo Bill” Cody.
Within two years he was one of Cody’s scouts. Later he was also a rider for the Pony Express, and then finally a bodyguard of Leadville's silver millionaire H. A. W. Horace. Tiring of this wild life he settled in Denver and opened his saloon, which catered to railroad workers and travelers stopping at the depot across the street.
One of those travelers happened to be Teddy Roosevelt, who hired Zietz to be his personal guide on a hunting safari across Colorado. In fact when you enter the place you’ll notice there isn’t a square inch not covered with taxidermy. The bar was moved upstairs and the bottom floor was turned into a restaurant, but the spirit of the Old West saloon never left the place.
When you visit have a Buffalo Bill Cody Cocktail, a blend of bourbon and apple juice that Cody himself was said to drink whenever he’d visit his friend Henry.
1000 Osage St,
Denver, CO 80204
There has been a saloon at this corner of San Francisco since 1858. The original one was destroyed after the earthquake of 1906, but the owner of the property loved his watering hole so much he had it rebuilt bigger than before.
San Francisco was still a wild place at this time (the famous Barbary Coast continued until about 1911), so the saloon surely saw a number of unsavory characters and occasions.
After a century of use the place was a broken-down dive in 2003 when owner H. Joseph Ehrmann bought it. After months of remodeling and replacing most of the floor, supports and so on, “H” reopened Elixir and now has one of the finest original and lasting saloons in the country.
They specialize in seasonal cocktails and their own beer, so try one of their signature drinks.
3200 16th St,
San Francisco, CA 94103