Andrew Smith
The Red Dog was relaunched by a group that includes a Los Angeles restaurant consortium, an award-winning mixologist and a celebrity chef. Credit: Andrew Smith

The Red Dog Saloon first opened in 1946, and in 2020, the historic Pioneertown honky tonk got a relaunch. Driven by increased tourism, this relaunch is part of an ongoing revitalization in the high desert—and a literal resurrection for Pioneertown.

Pioneertown is a virtual oasis in the San Bernardino mountains, a 10-minute detour off the main road that runs through Yucca Valley. The town was built as a Western movie set by a group of investors that included such names as Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. A walk up “Mane” Street might make you think of places like Universal Studios—but Pioneertown doubles as a fully functioning community. There are a few facades, but most of the stores, the post office, the bowling alley and, of course, the Red Dog Saloon are all real.

In addition to hundreds of movie credits, Pioneertown was the home of long-running series like The Gene Autry Show, The Cisco Kid and Annie Oakley. Living and breathing as a working town, it became a second home for many stars of the 1940s and ’50s.

As one of Pioneertown’s original buildings, the Red Dog Saloon epitomized the town’s duality: It was a filming set during the day and a watering hole at night. Obviously, all those actors and production workers needed a place to unwind. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Roy Rogers was a regular. While I can’t confirm this, rumor is that his horse, Trigger, would hang out inside the saloon, too.

There were grand schemes for Pioneertown that included an airport, a golf course and more. But logistical issues, most notably a lack of water, led the focus away from urbanization, and Pioneertown’s sole industry was movie production. As the Western genre faded into the sunset, so did Pioneertown. For almost 50 years, it’s basically been a ghost town.

A 1967 fire saw the end of the Red Dog Saloon. It was deemed accidental, but rumors—fueled by the burning of another building days later—suggest otherwise. A couple of relaunch attempts never really took off, and over the years, the saloon’s building had been used as a yoga studio, a post office and a church.

In modern history, Pioneertown has been wholly synonymous with Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a bar and renowned indie-music spot. Over the years, it has attracted almost every rock star imaginable and has grabbed the attention of younger visitors from around the country. As many people keep discovering (the late Anthony Bourdain among them), the food there belies the aesthetic of a grunge bar: Pappy’s makes fantastic outdoor barbecue and steaks, and the chili-cheese fries have become my own monthly ritual. But that’s another story for another day.

The growth of Pappy and Harriet’s has brought new life to Pioneertown. At one time, you’d have been lucky to find one or two stores open, but today, you’ll find a half-dozen or more. The bowling alley, where Gene Autry both filmed and rolled, is being restored, and the town also has a walk-in movie exhibit.

Adjacent to Pappy and Harriet’s is the Pioneertown Motel. It had something of a Bates-like eeriness to it until two investors renovated and reformed it, turning it into a trendy, curated modern boutique. Those same owners then turned their eyes to the Red Dog Saloon. It reopened in August, and the relaunch seems to be on solid ground, supported by the growing foot traffic the town is attracting despite the pandemic. There’s a host of hospitality experience behind the project, a group that includes a Los Angeles restaurant consortium, an award-winning mixologist and a celebrity chef. (Our attempts to get an interview with an owner were unsuccessful.)

We’d scoped out the Red Dog Saloon a month prior, after adding our names to the one-hour waitlist at Pappy and Harriet’s. Unfortunately, we were too early for the Red Dog’s 4 p.m. opening time. More recently—a few days prior to the December shutdown—we discovered that the saloon had advanced its opening hours to 11 a.m. My wife quipped that many of the customers, like us, probably had their name on the Pappy and Harriet’s waitlist, too. The Red Dog is fortuitous in its design: While the saloon was primarily built for an indoor experience, management has added a side window for quick grab-and-go food orders—and that window now serves as their COVID-19-shutdown business model. They’ve also added a 100-seat, alcohol-approved, outdoor enclosure with picnic benches.

The current menu is Tex-Mex, centered around a variety of elevated, gourmet tacos. When I say “elevated,” some will notice the elevated price: It’s $5 for a taco, but the cost is justified by the quality and size. The larger tortillas are loaded. The cider-braised carnitas and chicken tinga—with fire-roasted tomatoes, avocado and cotija—are especially delicious. However, my new fix is the delectable Wagyu beef brisket taco: It just melts in your mouth. My wife, the vegetarian, was equally impressed by the vegan mushroom rajas taco (which is $4). The tacos are well supplemented by sides like the elote (braised corn on the cob with cream and cotija) and the full-flavored Rancho Gordo black beans, from which my rustic house-fried chips couldn’t stay away. Subsequent research popped up numerous rave reviews for the queso, something I’ll have to try on my next visit.

The bar menu is heavy on tequila, mezcals, bourbon and rye, with several cocktails on tap. They’re true handcrafted cocktails—but made in large batches for expediency—with names like the lightning margarita (infused with jalapeño and cucumber). The saloon also offers a two-month-barrel-aged Negroni, a mezcal paloma, and a couple of twists on the michelada. Cocktails are also conveniently served in to go cans. Personally, I was pleased to see a craft-beer menu that included locally brewed Joshua Tree Brewery beer.

Post-COVID, you’ll get to check out the elaborately renovated Old West interior. It incorporates original elements like the bar top and back bar, augmented by a vast collection of period-specific memorabilia. Meanwhile, the outdoor dining area offers an equally captivating experience. It’s a surreal combination of the Joshua Tree vibe, a 19th century frontier town, and some of the best food and drink that modern-day California has to offer.

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Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith been writing about craft beer for more than 20 years—and turned to food-writing after working for many years in the restaurant industry. His passion for good food correlates to his limited...