The Palace Restaurant and Salon on famed Whisky Row in Prescott is more than just an Arizona saloon. It is ranked by USA Today as one of the “…10 Best Historic Bars in America*” –and is among the smallest cities in the U.S. to lay claim to such history. Only Key West, Florida has a smaller population, and the bar there is the renowned Sloppy Joe’s, made famous by author Ernest Hemingway.
Others are located in iconic cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco.
What is more, The Palace Restaurant and Saloon is celebrating an anniversary of significance. It has been 20 years since it was renovated and reopened in as closely as possible to its original state by its current owner Dave Michelson.
It is, as best can be determined by serious historians and anthropologists who study such things, an accurate replica of the original bar as it was constructed in 1877 – almost 140 years ago.
Of course, some concessions have been made to the 21st century – electricity, running water and plumbing, says Michelson, the owner who spent hundreds of thousands on that renovation.
But otherwise, Michaelson boasts, “When you walk through the swinging batwing doors, you’re stepping into the oldest frontier saloon and the most well-known restaurant in Arizona.
“You’re standing on the same floor where Wyatt Earp, Morgan, Virgil and Ellie Earp and the other Earps stood. You’re looking at the same bar and some of the same cabinets and historic artifacts that Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate spilled liquor on, and where patrons lined up to gamble.”
Step Off the Street Into Western History
In the 1860s, after the Civil War and in following years, Prescott grew from a roughhewn log cabin settlement to a modestly planned town. According to historian Agnes Franz, the Union Army working out of its location at Fort Whipple, helped design the town’s layout. By 1876, the community’s first school had been established. Cowboys, miners and lumbermen filled downtown with horses, mules and wagons.
In 1877, frontiersmen built the now internationally famous Palace Bar on “Whiskey Row”— a street filled with saloons and other businesses on Montezuma Street.
Michelson affirms the Earps and Doc Holliday and other gunfighters made famous in Western lore did claim The Palace as home until they left for Tombstone in 1879.
Except for a small fire in 1893 and the “Whiskey Row Fire” on July 14, 1900, the doors have been open ever since – approaching 140 years of authentic Western history.
Michelson, who abandoned his native Southern California for Prescott two decades ago, agrees that a lot of mythology, inspired largely by movie and TV shows, distorts the lives of the Earps and their peers.
“While it’s true that some of the gunfighters were hard-drinking, rough and tumble rowdies, Wyatt was never that way. In fact, he was a teetotaler. But he was tough. He did kill a couple of men in gunfights out in back of The Palace. And Doc Holliday stabbed one belligerent miner to death.”
Michelson continued, “Something else. Those cowboys really didn’t drink that much of what we’d call whiskey. The local distilled stuff was pretty rotten, so they preferred other drinks, like beer or gin. Cowboys with money – like Doc Holliday – could afford better liquor. He drank Old Overholt – and we still serve it. It’s not very good, but it has history behind it.”
Owner Michelson and his well-trained staff take pride in telling patrons that history. “When the fire started down the street a few doors, the brisk evening summer wind carried the flames north on the street and all those building burned to the ground. But before fire gutted The Palace, the cowboys and miners teamed up. They lassoed the bar and dragged it across the street to what is now the Courthouse Plaza. The barkeeps and customers hauled beer and kegs of liquor across the street. They continued partying through the night as fire burned the gambling halls and saloons down. They set up roulette wheels, faro tables and gambling tables. They even had a player piano.”
Following the devastating fire, The Palace was rebuilt and reopened in 1901. It rapidly regained its reputation as a favorite “watering hole,” and had an opium den and gambling in the basement and “professional ladies” upstairs. Those attractions lasted for years.
Family Atmosphere Now Characterizes The Palace
Michelson and his staff of around 35 full-time employees are pleased the popular bar is no longer a raucous “…rough and tumble honkey-tonk as it was for years,” he said. “We want to appeal to families, travelers and we want to sense the genuine history that’s unique in this place. What they see in here is authentic. The Palace is truly a historic destination.”
Staff members wear historically authentic Western costumes to reinforce the authenticity of the experience.
Michelson gestures toward the hardwood Brunswick Bar. “It’s the original – the one that was dragged across the street.”
The bar was built in New Jersey, shipped down around South America and on up to San Francisco on a freighter – and then packed across the California and Arizona desert and mountains on a pack train to Prescott.
On a back interior wall, under the sheet metal stamped ceiling, a hand-painted mural features Steve McQueen and the other actors from the award-winning 1972 rodeo movie “Junior Bonner” which used The Palace as a location for key scenes, including a memorable barroom brawl.
Operations Manager Scott Stanford says he cannot begin to count the thousands of people who have posed for pictures with the mural as background.
During the school year, it is a regular event to have school groups tour to get a sense of genuine frontier history. Prescott Chamber of Commerce guides routinely include The Palace in their historic tours, too.
Michelson said he does not know how many television shows have featured the The Palace as a “…place you have to put on your bucket list.”
A visiting middle-aged couple from Rollingford, Connecticut, Ed and Sue Dunn, stopped Michelson to say they had returned to Prescott and The Palace on vacation three years in a row because they enjoyed their experience so much. “We especially enjoy the dinner shows that feature local and regional talent, especially the country and western tribute shows,” Dunn said.
Shaking hands with customers as they enter or exit, Michelson tips his Stetson and smiles, “We’re really pleased to celebrate our 20th anniversary this month, and I hope we’ll be doing the same thing again 20 years from now.” QCBN
By Ray Newton, QCBN
Photo by Ray Newton