The Historic Saloons of Central California | Travel | Smithsonian
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Founded as the Palace Hotel in 1912, the Far Western Tavern has been attracting accolades for its Santa Maria-style barbecue from near and far. (Brian Hall)

The Historic Saloons of Central California

Not even rumors of apparitions could stop a group of eager drinking companions from investigating these ghost town bars

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The owner of the Pine Street Saloon in Paso Robles, California, had a problem and requested that my traveling companions and I drop by to solve it. His security cameras were picking up a presence, but was it a mere illusion or something more ghostly? With that end goal in mind, our six-man entourage embarked on what just may be the most authentic and doable old-school saloon tour on the West Coast: a journey from the damp desires of Cold Spring Tavern in the hills above Santa Barbara to the Prohibition-beating trapdoors of the Elkhorn Bar in San Miguel near the Salinas River roughly 100 miles north, with more ghost legends, dollar bills tacked to ceilings and animal heads on walls than you can point your dowsing rods at.

The Pine Street Saloon wouldn’t be the only place where we’d find a use for those rods¬—lent to me by someone who claimed to have used them to rid his childhood home of ghouls years before—and the “ghost meter” purchased on eBay. Our visits to a handful of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county’s longest continually ale-slinging establishments would indicate that ghost stories may be as old as the saloons themselves.

The Stagecoach Route

Our apparitional adventure kicked off bright and early Saturday, with a venison and buffalo chili omelet, coffee and perfectly spiced bloody mary at the Cold Spring Tavern, a stagecoach stop since the 1860s located in a shady, spring-fed canyon between downtown Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Though the tavern might be most heralded these days for its tri-tip sandwiches and raucous rock ‘n’ roll sessions every weekend, we were drawn to the secluded collection of cabins — from the transplanted Ojai jail to the “Road Gang House” where Chinese laborers slept while carving out the then-treacherous San Marcos Pass, to the creaky-floored main restaurant and roadhouse-style bar.

Following an old stagecoach route, we made a brief stop at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos, only about a 15 minute downhill drive on Highway 154. Built in 1886 by the Swiss-Italian ranchero-turned-hotelier Felix Mattei as an inn and restaurant in anticipation of the coming railroad, today it is home to Brothers Restaurant, owned by cookbook authors and siblings Jeff and Matt Nichols. While spending a few minutes checking out the historic plaques and peering into the windows of the white-walled building, it wasn’t hard to imagine the locally famed Chinese chef Gin Lung Gin whipping up one of his dove pies for the hungry railroaders who’d stop at Mattei’s overnight during trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Another stagecoach stop-cum-railroad station is the town of Los Alamos, about 20 minutes by car from Los Olivos up Highway 101. Compared with the rest of California’s increasingly modernized Central Coast, Los Alamos is proudly locked in yesteryear — or as one of my companions noted, “It’s like every other building here has the ‘established’ date posted on it.” That was certainly true for the 1880 Union Hotel, established, of course, in 1880, and today featuring 14 rooms to rent — all appointed with Victorian-era niceties — as well as a bar that was already quite lively by 11 a.m. on a Saturday. On tap was their 1880 Ale, an excellent blond beer (made especially for the hotel by the award-winning folks at Firestone Brewery, which was founded just a few miles away), as well as billiards in the enchantingly — some might say hauntingly — dark back room and shuffleboard in the front bar, where you can also order empanadas stuffed with beef, olives, and egg or bratwurst with sauerkraut from the saloon menu.

Though the friendly bartender said she personally had only heard of ghosts in the place, I was crossing my fingers for a sighting of Michael Jackson, who filmed the video for “Say, Say, Say” here with Paul McCartney back in 1983, or perhaps Johnny Cash, who supposedly played the dining room in the 1950s. No dice on either front, but there was plenty to keep our eyes occupied, from the vintage signs (“check your guns,” of course, but also ads for corsetry shops and gunfighter paintings) and historic maps (showing the old stagecoach routes through the area) to the wacky collection of antiques — from snow skis to cellos — hanging on the walls. Upon reaching the bottom of our pints, we decided to leave our own mark in the saloon style, signing our names upon a dollar bill and employing a long pole to tack the greenback to the high wooden ceiling, where hundreds of other dollars flittered in the breeze.

Guadalupe’s Ghosts

Though most of my companions had lived in Santa Barbara County for more than a decade, almost none had visited Guadalupe, a small city along the banks of the Santa Maria River near the endless dunes of white sand where Cecil B. De Mille filmed The Ten Commandments and a mystic-minded community known as the Dunites lived in the 1930s and ‘40s. Taking in all the cowboy-hat-wearing Latinos who work the land in this rural northwestern corner of our county, a visitor to Guadalupe can be forgiven for thinking he meandered into a Mexican farming village. Well, at least it used to be that way, as the Guadalupe of 2011 seems almost deserted, no doubt due to the recession, but also because most of the main drag’s buildings are built with brick and have not been reinforced to withstand the next big quake. They sit empty, adorned with black-and-white signs to warn of the dangers of entry, an unfortunate sign that the whole town might slowly be turned over to the ghosts.

Inside the Far Western Tavern, however, there was a lively lunchtime crowd. Founded as the Palace Hotel in 1912, the establishment was taken over in 1958 by Clarence Minetti, who used to end his days of picking hay by chowing down on rib steak and spaghetti at the hotel’s restaurant for 65 cents. With his wife Rosalie and her cousin Richard Maretti, Minetti set about restoring the place’s former luster, keeping such elements as the mahogany bar (which some say came on a ship that sailed around the tip of South America), while changing the name to Far Western Tavern and adding the ranching-life touches (landscape paintings of cowboys working the hills, local cattle brands singed into the bar, etc.) to suit the new name. It’s been in the family ever since, attracting accolades for its Santa Maria-style barbecue from near and far, but even the Far Western is suffering from Guadalupe’s ailing brick bones. We were told over our Firestone Double Barrel ales that after many tears and tough decisions, the tavern will be relocating later this year from its birthplace to Old Town Orcutt, a little neighborhood a few miles to the south where there’s a food, drink and entertainment renaissance underway.

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