The Bunkhouse Saloon: Downtown's Favorite Outpost is Back and Ready to Make Some Noise
The Bunkhouse Saloon was a venerable if sometimes slightly sketchy Fremont Street bar like, at one time, many others in an authentically decaying Las Vegas. You could blow a paycheck on the video poker, chow on a sub, and drown your sorrows in cheap beer and whiskey.
First opened way back in 1953, the Bunkhouse Saloon grew into a place where a mix of mostly local bands could squeeze onto the tiny corner stage while crowds maneuvered around the small dance floor, sat smoking around tables on an elevated area, and played video poker at the well stocked and welcoming bar. It wasn’t fancy, and sometimes the sound was terrible, but the old Bunkhouse inspired many fond memories and drunken revelries.
The old Bunkhouse closed a year ago. Now a new Bunkhouse Saloon has revolutionized the joint – while maintaining something of the best elements of old aesthetic. The most obvious change – stunning, really, for a grizzled old neighborhood scribbler like your author – is in the physical layout of the bar. There now is a large outdoor area for talk and play and dancing and drinking and just enjoying the late summer evenings.
This is a project of entrepreneur Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, which is swiftly changing the face of downtown Las Vegas, and like most of the Downtown Project’s efforts, there are quirky touches that put the fun into funky. There’s a booth for eating and drinking with friends in the bed of a 50-year-old pickup apparently permanently moored into the large outdoor area. There’s a “listening tree,” with many dangling headphones providing individual soundtracks. We sampled the some, not all, of the fruit of the tree – one channel had Edith Piaf, one Led Zeppelin, another big band, and one carried the eerie squeaks and whistles of some sort of cetaceans, our seagoing mammal friends the whales or dolphins.
The best part of the new Bunkhouse experience is the music. Downtown Project folks won’t tell us how much they spent on the Meyer Sound System, but it sounds great. Instead of the old entry on Maryland Parkway, folks last week entered from a large (and safely secured and lighted) alley from Fremont Street, next door to the place where you can rent Airstream trailers. Walking down the alley, music from the stage (or the bar, when there’s no band playing) is piped into the area. The same music is piped into the outside area. That significant – if you dig a band playing at the new Bunkhouse, but can’t score a ticket, you will get pretty much the full audio experience hanging out gratis on the huge patio. If you, however, dropped the $10 or so for the ticket, inside the sound system is equally impressive. It’s loud but clear. The electronics are hidden behind drapes on stage, but they’re there, and they work.
That’s good news for fans of local and visiting music. Some of the bands already scheduled are the Breeders, Bob Mould, and last Monday night, at the public opening, indie stalwarts Built to Spill, plus local rising stars Rusty Maples, headlined the show.
“It fills a great void to bring a small- to mid-sized music venue downtown,” says Michael Stratton, the Bunkhouse general manager. He says the year-long, near total reconstruction of the 60-year-old tavern required time to “step back and do things correctly.”
“A great downtown needs great shows,” music booker Mike Henry agrees. “We’ve built something here where we can bring a lot of great performances… We’ve built the kind of place where I would want to see music performed.”
The bar itself has been expanded, from about 2,900 square feet to more than 3,700; while some of that additional space went to the kitchen, the main band space feels roomier and more comfortable than the old saloon. There are some other changes: Gone are the cloudbanks of tobacco smoke and clingy heat, cleared by a no-smoking policy and a powerful new ventilation system that blasts chilly air. Also 86’ed are the banks of video poker machines that used to be on the bar. That’s consistent with Downtown Project efforts that leave the video poker and cigarettes for others; but with the comfortable outside tables, smokers will still find plenty of room to indulge their habit.
The old Bunkhouse had lots of food choices on its bar menu; the new place has food, not as many choices, but what is has, it does well. Slow-cooked turkey, pork, beef and vegetarian sloppy joes, hand and cheese sandwiches served with a bacon-jalapeno jam, deviled eggs and mac-and-cheese: The menus focuses on a sort of down-home country style that serves the rustic character of the place.
The idea, Stratton says, was to have “great bar food, but not the kind of food you find in every bar.” For $12, you can grab a sloppy joe, made on site, and a cold beer. That’s not a bad deal anywhere, but especially for hand-crafted food made from scratch on site.
Ultimately, Stratton and more than 25 employees hope that the Bunkhouse, now a sentinel of good music, food and drink on East Fremont, will attract company.
“It’s nice to be the first on the block, that’s for sure,” he says. “Hopefully this will be the spark that brings in more.”
For more information and tickets: 124 S. 11th St., (702) 854-1414 bunkhousedowntown.com