During the wild Gold Rush Days circa 1900, over 22 saloons were reported to be flourishing in Dawson City, many using women and gambling as an added incentive to lure gold-dust-heavy miners in to drink. Among the town’s heritage museum buildings is the Red Feather Saloon, beautifully preserved, which has a great window display about this licentious part of local history.
I’m told that come the summer season, a dozen-or-so establishments will be in high gear in modern-day Dawson City, and there will be virtually round-the-clock partying to go with the round-the-clock sunlight, reinforcing a reputation as “the Vegas of the North.” But, now, in winter, many places are closed for the season, and there are basically four bars to choose from in town. In the interest of thorough journalism, I have investigated them all.
There is one Dawson tradition that a visitor needs to be aware of, by the way. Each drinking hole has a brass bell hanging over the bar. If you ring this bell, you’re buying a round for the house. The practice apparently hails to the days when miners would return from their claims with a big nugget in hand, and celebrate their good fortune — and allegedly this still occasionally happens today. I have rung a bell a handful of times, but I suppose those occasions when I’m the only customer in the place don’t really count.
The Billy Goat Tavern (everyone simply calls it The Goat) is a bar attached to the local Greek restaurant, called The Drunken Goat. It seems to me they have the names backwards, but I’m just a cheechako, so what do I know? While the restaurant side closes down in winter, the bar stays open year round. Aside from offering some ethnic variety to the available local restaurant fare, I have a special fondness for The Goat because it was there that my four-person trivia team earned the title of undisputed Dawson City Trivia Champions.
The Eldorado Hotel, referred to locally as The Eldo, is a stately and well-kept building rebuilt in the turn-of-the-century frontier architectural style that is mandated by local ordinance, including the wooden sidewalks, which I love. Inside, there’s The Sluice Box Lounge, which is a spacious and comfortable bar, with a decent bit of variety on the food menu. The Eldo also has a large TV set behind the bar, giving it some of the ambiance of a sports bar, although most of the time the patrons seem to prefer rural-based reality shows.
The Downtown Hotel is somewhat similar to The Eldo, in terms of vintage and architecture, being first and foremost a hotel. Its watering hole, The Sourdough Lounge is legendary as the home of the Sour Toe Cocktail. This is a bizarre Dawson City tradition that involves an amputated human toe preserved in salt, which is ceremonially used in a drink. They have relaxed the original rules, and your drink need not now even be alcoholic to earn the official certificate, but, in their own words, “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.” Over 65,000 imbibers are said to have joined the Sour Toe Cocktail Club. As I have tried explaining to the local ladies, my lips prefer touching toes that are sweet and attached, so I have not succumbed to this act of alcoholic cannibalism yet.
The bar at The Westminister Hotel, called The Pit, is the bar in Dawson City in my opinion. It’s hard to explain why, because on the surface this place has everything going against it, yet the uneven pieces come together in an odd and very cool way. First of all, I should explain that there are really two Pits, not one, right beside each other. The smaller lounge is known as The Snake Pit, and opens at 9 a.m. I choose to think some of those patrons come there for the coffee. It seems to be dominated by a boisterous local clique, but has some interesting Klondike décor. The main lounge, although officially named The Cabaret Lounge, is generally known as The Arm Pit. This one has live music on Fridays and Saturdays, and although it is often completely dead earlier in the evening (hence my bell ringing), inevitably has a lively and diverse crowd by last call. If someone says, “Meet me tonight at The Pit,” the odds are that’s the space they’re referring to.
The Westminster Hotel building itself is ancient, and there is not a straight line in the joint, although the locals joke that everything will appear plumb and level by the end of the night. During our recent cold snap, the story goes that the hotel guests had to be evicted, because their space heaters were blowing the old glass fuses, and a new supply had to be ordered up from Whitehorse. The Pit also has an off-license, which means customers can buy alcohol to take home — something you can’t do in Ontario. The Pit is purportedly one of the very last bars in North America to ban indoor smoking, a testimony more to the fierce independence of Yukoners, than the wisdom of wanting to light matches in an old building that just screams fire hazard. Mind you, I suspect part of their stubborn resistance to the change in smoking regs may have had something to do with not wanting to step out into -40° temperatures for a cigarette.
I have only one complaint about the saloons of Dawson City, and that is that they are located down near the river. Berton House, on the other hand, is at the very back of town. Five or six blocks may not seem like a great distance to walk, but it’s all uphill and sure feels like a struggle at the end of a night of investigative bar journalism. When you’re bundled up in forty pounds of cold weather gear, the home stretch up to 8th Ave., which has a serious slope to it, is especially the pits.