Bar/fly: Red Dog Saloon, Juneau, Alaska

By Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade goes north to Alaska for a taste of tourist-oriented gold-rush era hospitality.

The building that houses the Red Dog Saloon has moved several times. The bar was first established in a tent on the beach during the 1880s gold rush. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
The building that houses the Red Dog Saloon has moved several times. The bar was first established in a tent on the beach during the 1880s gold rush. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Double bat-wing doors, actual sawdust on the floor and Wyatt Earp's pistol on the wall behind the bar - this can only be a saloon and, since it's 2014, that means it has to be a tourist trap.

And it is: on a day when cruise ships are lined up along the wharf in Juneau, Alaska, the Red Dog is crammed with out-of-towners looking either slightly horrified at finding themselves there or already bleary-eyed from one Duck Fart too many (a shot of Baileys, Kahlua and whisky).

There's a man in a bowler hat and waistcoat playing honky-tonk music with raunchy lyrics, a tip jar labelled "Blind Puppies Fund" on his piano. Efficiently pulling glasses of draught beer and cider are barmaids in low-cut blouses with full skirts, the bartenders wearing braces and sleeve garters.

All over the walls and ceilings are state and national flags, signed paper money from around the world; and animals, stuffed and very dead.

There's a rearing bear with fearsome claws and teeth on the wall above the bar beside a huge halibut, and other bears elsewhere, one of them chasing a goldminer up a pillar.

There are mounted salmon and a dall sheep with curling horns, a bearskin rug, the heads of deer, moose and bison, assorted antlers, and the penile bone of a walrus - it's a house of horrors for Peta members.

It's loud, bustling and crowded, and the ambience is non-existent. What it is, though, is fun - and, surprisingly, fairly authentic.

That really is Wyatt Earp's gun, left behind in 1900 on his way to Nome. The building, moved several times, is "the oldest man-made attraction in Juneau". The bar was established in a tent on the beach in the early days of the 1880s gold rush.

Miners' tools and fishermen's paraphernalia hang on the bare-wood walls with other historical memorabilia and photos of the old days, when Ragtime Hattie played the piano in her white gloves and silver-dollar halter-neck top.

There are also more recent records: visitors are encouraged to add their names to the thousands already inscribed on walls, tables, chairs and bar stools.

The bar list offers liquor drinkers a choice of "Cheap Shit, Expensive Shit and Really Expensive Shit" as well as the Duck Farts, but beer is the wisest choice.

Alaskan Summer Ale, light and crisp, is popular but, even though it's pulled from a pump with an Orca handle, the Belgian-style Alaskan White, a wheat beer, is my favourite and slips down easily on a hot June day.

Waiters whisk past with trays of potato skins, reindeer sausage and burgers; local fish battered in a bun seems popular, and the pulled pork sandwich has a big fan at the next table.

The service is fast and bills are presented promptly, encouraging patrons to vacate their tables for the next customers, and to exit through the gift shop alongside. There, the usual caps and T-shirts are supplemented by more unusual knick-knacks such as braces ("suspenders" in American), red ribbon garters and personalised condoms.

Subtle and elegant it's not, but the Red Dog Saloon is a memorable must-visit for anyone passing through Juneau.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Alaska.

- NZ Herald

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