I work as a bartender at one of the most distinctive bars in Laguna Beach, The Saloon. It’s just an honest-to-goodness bar. There’s no food, video games or pool tables — only a cross section of locals, tourists and wonderfully entertaining eccentrics expounding upon their philosophies on life, love, sports…and the art of consuming alcohol.
Although it’s quite a simple little joint, this long-standing saloon holds a special place in town. Established in 1934, this mainstay is housed in the historic Peppertree Lane, a picturesque pedestrian walkway lined with restaurants and stores situated amid a huge peppertree. Once inside The Saloon, patrons usually are struck by its size—or rather the lack of it. The bar itself barely fits into the space, which is only slightly bigger than a walk-in closet in a Newport Coast home. The back bar is made of solid mahogany and dates back to 1906, giving The Saloon a pub-like feel and an authentic old-time atmosphere. Bartenders here are asked more questions per square foot than any other establishment at which I’ve ever worked. Here are some of the most frequent inquiries:
Q: What ‘s in the jar?
A: Once guests begin browsing the drink selection, which seems entirely too large for a bar this size, they typically stop on the large glass centerpiece filled with spirits and “something else”…and it’s definitely something they want to make sure to order. The large vessel sitting among the bottles on the shelf is filled to the brim with perfectly stacked slices of pineapple bathing in a tub of vodka. The by-product of this process — pineapple vodka — results in a naturally infused fruity liquor that provides the base for The Saloon’s signature cocktail, the “Pino-crano-kazi,” (“Pino” for short). The Pino consists of the infused vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and a lime, either shaken on the rocks or served as a martini. But, wait. This isn’t The Saloon’s only specialty drink. Another favorite concoction among local patrons is the mysterious “No-name shot.” This drink may only be discovered by the uninitiated if recommended by a fellow patron or bartender…or if someone sees it being poured from its unlabeled bottle and asks, “What’s that?” The actual ingredients of the elixir are as guarded as the formula for Coca-Cola and never given out: No matter how drunk you are, we still won’t tell! We will tell you, however, that the drink is a special blend of spirits served with coffee — either in shot form or as a cocktail — and topped with whipped cream. The mad scientist who invented this potion was “Popo,” a bartender who worked at The Saloon more than 30 years ago. He always kept the recipe a secret, so to honor him after he died the employees of The Saloon continue to do the same.
Q: Is there any food?
A: With a cold “Pino” in hand and warm “No-name” shot in the belly, the next question patrons begin pondering is whether or not The Saloon serves food. The answer is, “No.” There’s no kitchen. This adds to the establishment’s charm, because most bars are required by law to provide eats. The Saloon, however, is grandfathered in under a Type 48 liquor license that exempts them from serving food. For those who just have to have tidbits to nosh on, The Saloon does provide pretzels and Goldfish crackers. All of the bartenders are more than happy to recommend excellent restaurants within walking distance.
Q: Who is that in the painting?
A: With a drink in one hand and some Goldfish in the other, patrons new and old feel right at home. This is due to The Saloon’s warm ambience. There are no neon lights or liquor advertisements plastered on the walls. Instead, the walls hold original paintings and framed prints that may have been won on a bet offered to settle a tab. The most prominent piece is a self-portrait of a handsome, elderly man who timelessly gazes over the room. The subject is Frank Interlandi and he gave the painting to The Saloon before he died in 2010. Interlandi was an editorial cartoonist for “The Des Moines Register” and “Los Angeles Times.” A Sicilian, he lived in Laguna Beach for nearly 60 years and his twin brother, Phil, was a cartoonist for Playboy magazine and several other publications. A couple of their cartoons can be found under the self-portrait. Speaking of art, Laguna Beach has long been known as an artist colony, and The Saloon has always been a spot for many of the city’s creative pioneers to refuel. In fact, the ceiling has aged to the color of the “Pino” due to the wafting cigar smoke of Interlandi and his fellow artists and writers. And the walls — if they could talk — would repeat the years of cunning and witty banter that they’ve bequeathed.
Of special note: I was lucky enough to have the privilege to serve Frank Interlandi in his later years, and it was with the understanding that this was, without a doubt, his bar and I was just visiting.