Step inside and unwind at these California bars with memorable ambiences—all stumbled upon in my excursions as a Lyft driver across the state. **No need to worry, as I can assure you that sparkling water was my beverage of choice at pretty much all of these.
First and Last Chance Saloon (Oakland, CA)
Paper boy hats, sports caps, top hats, helmets, and lifeguard inner tubes hang from the shredded ceiling of this bar that’s been around since the early 1900s. Years of smoke rising from the stove, lanterns, and cigarettes have given the ceiling a burned appearance.
Jack London used to come here after class to write. He’d take breaks to chat with the stevedores and sailors who stopped by for beers in between voyages. The 1906 earthquake left the floor permanently slanted, which makes for a precarious but adventurous sitting experience.
Since it’s Halloween month, ogre-like rubber hands three times the size of mine rest against the circular wooden tabletop to my right. One grips a butcher knife in between its long black fingernails. A rubber string barely visible in the dim lighting connects it to the ceiling. Every two minutes or so, the string causes the hand to move, sufficiently scaring the shit out of me each time.
Ideal if you like intimate surroundings, a little coziness and history with your bar, and the feeling of being tucked in.
The Lighthouse Bar and Grill (Isleton, CA)
“I understand that by signing this document I am waiving my right to sue Lighthouse Bar and Grill, Lighthouse Marina and Resort, and their parent companies in the event that I am INJURED or KILLED.”
So reads the waiver I have just signed—which grants permission to jump off a yellow water trampoline into the marshy waters of the Delta.
I look out the window at the mind-clearing water view. Next to the trampoline, a small white waterslide curls from the top of the ladder to the water’s surface.
Next to those expansive windows, a cocker spaniel naps on a black leather couch. Her floppy ears shield her soulful brown eyes, covering her paws like cozy blankets. To her right, live music equipment waits to be brought to life later in the evening, while a family eats around a window-side table. Bell peppers and mayo drip from their burgers onto their plates.
“Do I need to sign a waiver for this?” jokes the bearded black man standing next to me, motioning to the beer that the bar-tender has just handed him.
Outside, down the slide I plummet. Through the air I fly. There’s a smack then a splash before the cold water of the delta submerges me. Temperatures out in the Delta reach the 100s, so the coldness is welcome. The sun hits my skin the second I surface.
At the Lighthouse Bar and Grill, which Evan Duran described as “a veritable toy box of good times for big kids,” swimming isn’t the only unconventional bar activity that one can take part in. Blackberry-picking from kayaks is another. Paddle them out to a secluded cove, where blackberries await you from their spots on the vines.
Foster’s Big Horn (Rio Vista, CA)
Can one be a taxidermist and also an animal lover? is a question I ask myself as I set foot into Foster’s Big Horn.
The bar is the main draw of Rio Vista, a town with a population of 11,250 (yet still one of the most populous in the Delta region), located about 18 miles north of Antioch. A Yelp reviewer writes of the community (which requires crossing a steel bridge that runs over the delta in order to get there): “A stroll down its main drag, untouched since the 1950s, is very Back to the Future.”
The animal lover in me had qualms about going. Big Horn had been marketed as a “hunting bar”, founded after “late owner Bill Foster went on a 25-year hunting spree starting in the 1930s.” Foster brought home “some 300 specimens, including an enormous, very rare African elephant that dominates the rear dining room” (according to their introductory pamphlet). He opened the bar in 1931 and passed away in 1963.
I try to be open-minded. Someone put his soul and passion into the place, I tell myself. He left his mark on the bar. Despite my ethical qualms with its theme, can I respect the passion and artfulness that made it possible? Maybe? Eh…
The bar’s narrow interior makes me feel like I’m inside an antique train car, or a 1950s diner meets hunting lodge. Deer, giant trout, bobcats, buffalos, salmon with mouths open wide enough to fit one of the aforementioned buffalos, and a wise baboon with small beady eyes all look down on us. I try to imagine that all the heads are fake, or here just as symbolic representations of the animals in their live form.
The timber wolf’s facial expression brings to mind a teenage girl posing for a selfie right before going down the big drop on Splash Mountain. Nearby, a trout’s head seems to mimic a similar pose, while a giant moose’s face conveys a message of “nothing fazes me anymore because I have seen everything.” Between the bighorn sheep and the antelope hangs the head of a skinny-necked creature with horns that swoop and twist like curly fries. “Oh no you didn’t, did you really?” and “tell me more,” are two things his neck positioning seems to say at the same time.
In summary: interesting when examined from the lens of a tourist or a journalist. As an animal lover though, not the kind of place I could spend too much time inside. It requires some pretending and self-delusion to be enjoyable.
Logger Bar (Blue Lake, CA)
“White Russian— hold the alcohol, extra milk,” the orange cat shouts to the bartender, paw raised in the air to get her attention.
The bar-tender calls him high-maintenance. I cannot commiserate with him just yet, as I will not be diagnosed with Celiac for another three years.
Okay, so this isn’t exactly what went down when I visited Logger Bar in the former mining town of Blue Lake, California. I did, however, watch an orange cat wash himself unabashedly at the bar, inches away from an Australian man’s half-consumed Guinness. I later learned that his name was Kevin.
A dimly lit fireplace and a woodsy and warm interior contribute to a homey ski lodge vibe. Smoothed-out tree stumps, none of them a perfectly even circle, function as tables. Glued to the walls are three lumberjack saws the size of children, next to orange construction hats. Vintage framed black-and-white photographs cover the walls inside a room where men play pool.
Humboldt County’s oldest bar, Logger Bar opened in 1889. After Kate Martin from Boston took it over in the ’70s, the clientele transitioned from primarily older, toothy logger men to an influx of students. The decor, however (including the saws on the walls), stayed mostly the same.
Kevin later comes to sit in my lap and purr while I write. For about thirty minutes we coexist, neither of us inconveniencing the other or detracting from each other’s experience. It was pretty lovely, I do have to say.
Really sad to see that logger bar is permanently closed. Martin closed it during the pandemic. I hope this little blurb can serve as somewhat of a eulogy though.
Wild Corgi Pub (Denver, Colorado)
*You’re right—Colorado is not California! Still wanted to sneak this one in here though, because it was too good not to write about.
When I heard Denver had a corgi bar—which opened in 2018 in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and was named after co-owner Dusty Jones’ corgi pup—it seemed unthinkable for me to not stop by before flying off.
Inside, watercolor and oil pastel portraits of (who do you think?) hang from the brick walls. One poses with hipster glasses. A corgi stuffed animal perches behind the bar. People around me drink corgadors (spicy tequila, pineapple, splash of lime), corgiritas, and corgroni (gin, sweet vermouth, bitters). The cotton candy drink “corgi tail” really does resemble the puffy behind of this lovely breed.
Non corgi related, but still cool: the bar puts on an event almost every night of the week, and on Sundays they do drag brunches.
Constructive feedback: Show corgi videos on one of the big-screen TVs (instead of football games on all four of them). If this is not possible, consider putting a corgi screen filter so we’d all be watching the games through the prism of corgi patterns.
Scatter additional corgi stuffed animals throughout the pub—one on a bar seat (with stacked books or a child’s booster seat beneath its paws to help it reach the bar); another leaned against the beer tap; another on top of the TV; and perhaps one more as a table centerpiece.
Lastly, provide either corgi cups or corgi table-cloths (just one or the other though—both might be overkill). Also I am not sure if they let dogs in, and I wonder how corgis feel about that, or whether the word “appropriation” is in their vocabulary.
Cats Saloon (Los Gatos, CA)
Enticed by a Yelp review that touted their food and Wild West atmosphere (“If the wind is blowing right, you can smell the hickory and apple wood smoke from the smokers behind the restaurant wafting onto Highway 17”), I head to the Cats Saloon on my way back up from Santa Cruz.
Upon arriving, two stone cats welcome me outside. Blond waitresses greet me as I pass through the front door. I listen as one of them tells diners that Cats was once a notorious speakeasy and whorehouse. It also served as a way station on a stage line running up and over the Santa Cruz mountains.
“I can hear it softly mooing,” an old lady says about her rare steak, as I glimpse bar seats with horse saddles slung over them.
A band called The Gold Truth plays. One of its members, an older Latina woman in a salmon-colored cardigan, lets loose on the hand drums while leaning back and crooning, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Behind them, a black and white canvas drawing stretches from one side of the brick wall to the other. A steam train choo choos across inside of it, paying homage to the roadhouse’s 1800s way station origins.
The Udder Place (Turlock, CA)
It used to be uncool to admit this, but I’ll proclaim it unabashedly now: I love country music—even more so when it’s performed live. I find it so fun. Live country music vibes are contagious in their joyousness. Listening to it transports me back to summer camp as a kid, back to riding a tractor at a farm, back to laying down across a huge trampoline with eight other girls next to the pool at my childhood friend’s ranch while eating guacamole for the first time under a starry night sky.
When Garth Brooks sings of simpler times, I think of riding a horse out to total freedom. I think of square dancing with my dad at the 7th grade father-daughter dance class (where both of us wore blue jeans, plaid shirts, and red bandanas).
That said I was extremely excited to take my bathroom break at the Udder Place in Turlock, after hearing about the country bar from a passenger I’d driven earlier that night.
Here are just a few of the details that made Udder Place an udderly fantastic environment:
*A multi-colored cow painting greets you just past the entrance.
*Live guitarists and country singers perform while people dance buoyantly on the dance floor next to the Udder Stage, their beers resting on the surrounding barrel tables.
*Dart boards hang in a room off to the side, next to hay bales meant for sitting on.
*The place is so expansive that even when packed it doesn’t feel claustrophobic.
Spending time here inspires an idea for a gothic cow bar that I’d call Udder Despair. Paintings of emo cows would hang from the walls. Bands similar to My Chemical Romance would add to the melancholic vibe.
My own idea for a bar: The Bojack Bar / The Hollywoo Lounge
*If you haven’t watched Bojack Horseman, this might not make much sense.
A Hollywoo sign would hang from the wall. Wooden roller coaster tracks would circle the room (above bar-goers’ heads), reminiscent of the makeshift roller coaster Todd tried to build (the one that ultimately went up in flames).
The drink “Princess Carolyn’s Delight” would be purple and sweet, but also laced with some tequila fire. Cotton candy would float at the top, in the shape of her whiskers.
“Mr. Peanut Butter’s Grand Gesture” would be Dipping Dots ice cream spiked with green apple vodka (meant to look like the ball pit he prepared for Diane’s birthday—the one Diane didn’t want and considered over the top).
Bojack would be a sloppy mess of contradictory ingredients; an abyss in a glass, whose taste would vary from sip to sip—all of it interesting, but none of it very comforting.
If you start to get bored in there, feel free to meander into the various other themed rooms: An aquarium-like “No Talking” room in reverence to the underwater episode (an introvert’s heaven); a room with a colorful ball pit like the one Mr. Peanut Butter made for Diane on her birthday (for optimal experience, pair this with drink “Mr. Peanut Butter’s Grand Gesture”); among others.
Mr. peanut butter ball pit— https://twitter.com/jennyowenyoungs/status/1225139674206752768
First and Last Chance–https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-bars-that-made-america-great
Big Horn Grill-http://www.russellrazholder.com/eventpics/2008/080316Fosters_ElkHorn/dcp_2287.jpg