“It’s a fake town built in 1946 to look and feel like 1880,” says Mike French, wryly describing the moment when a handful of Hollywood investors—Roy Rogers and Gene Autry among them—planted their flag in a rocky, windswept prairie framed by the San Bernardino Mountains and built an ersatz frontier town to serve as their own private Western movie set. Unlike the production facilities two hours west in Hollywood, these buildings were not merely false fronts: In addition to functioning as film locations, the cafés, hotels, feedstores and saloons were actually used by permanent residents and visiting crews. Now, 74 years later, the center of nightlife in that fictional town has officially reopened its swinging doors as a real bar and restaurant called the Red Dog Saloon.
Mike French and his brother, Matt, settled in Pioneertown—40 minutes north of Palm Springs—in 2014 and bought a tumbledown hotel once occupied by actors and filmmakers. They spruced it up with cowhides, sunburst textiles and tiled bathrooms, converting it into a uniquely desirable Old West-style lodge. The 19-room Pioneertown Motel quickly generated outsized fame, contributing over the last five years to the town’s rebirth as a legitimate tourist destination. The French brothers, alongside Adam Weisblatt and Holly Fox of Last Word Hospitality, then turned their attention to the Red Dog.
Like most of Pioneertown, the saloon was constructed as a location for The Gene Autry Show and The Cisco Kid (in addition to dozens of other films and TV shows), but it doubled as an operative watering hole where outlaws, movie stars and genuine and cosplaying cowboys would get soused once filming wrapped. Aside from two ill-fated attempts at a relaunch, the Red Dog has mostly sat idle since 1967, but tourism has finally brought it out of hibernation. The aim is simple: Court the conspicuous demand without compromising the Red Dog’s unique aesthetic. Accordingly, the interior remains virtually unchanged, packed with priceless ephemera. “It was an exercise in bringing history back to life,” French says.
The liquor cabinet is crowned with the same broad longhorn mount; patrons of yore have etched their names in every square inch of the oaken bar top; and a massive, brilliantly patinaed mural of “Dazzling” Dallas Morley, local songstress and honky-tonk piano player, is painted on the floor (French’s personal favorite detail). “Between these three elements, you’re stepping into the true experience. People around here not only remember it, they lived it.”
The menus have more contemporary signatures. Developed by James Beard finalists Eric Alperin and Ari Kolender, the Red Dog’s offerings include a mezcal paloma, spicy margarita and barrel-aged negroni, as well as a gamut of quality Tex-Mex (street tacos, mushroom asada, grilled corn dusted with cotija) available inside or from a takeaway window—an innovation equally useful for residents and tourists. “It’ll take three seconds to get a margarita.”
With a growing emphasis on hospitality, a glut of lifestyle boutiques, craft shops and bodegas has sprung up along the dusty Twentynine Palms Highway between Pioneertown and Joshua Tree. The meteoric rise in popularity has drawn comparisons to modish destinations like Montauk and Tulum, but French rejects the notion that it’s becoming a suburb of Los Angeles. “The desert attracts a unique type of person,” he says. The scale and austerity of the landscape act as a natural buffer.
And there are still plenty of authentic experiences to be had. After all, an admittedly fake town built to indulge Hollywood’s fantasies is perhaps the most accurate representation of the mythic American West. It’s a paradox that locals and visitors of Pioneertown seem to wholly embrace. And now there’s a new place to toast the irony: on the wraparound porch at the Red Dog, underneath a desert sunset so vibrant it looks artificial.