A SPIRITED CITY
Saloons carry deep history in Virginia City.
WRITTEN BY CHRISTINA NELLEMANN
PHOTOS BY ASA GILMORE
Bill Migan, owner of Old Corner Bar in Virginia City
Considering they were built on the discovery of gold and silver, the Comstock towns of Virginia City and Gold Hill often are remembered as the settings of frequent gunfights, deadly card games, and mine accidents — features of everyday life here 150 years ago. However, so were industry, invention, sophistication, and cultural offerings. While the writings of Mark Twain hold a place in this area's history, the saloon was the thread that held it all together.
Virginia City was founded in 1859 after the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit in the United States. After only four years, the town had swelled to a population of about 15,000, which supported about 115 bars and saloons. Today, life here is a lot less violent, but the spirit of the saloon lives on. Several of the original saloons and bars still exist and have maintained their 19th-century appearance.
Visiting the saloons of Virginia City and Gold Hill requires a little time. The pace is slower up here, and the bartenders and their clientele are happy to discuss the fine nuances of this town with the crooked, wooden sidewalks. A drink, whether it be a craft beer or a Bloody Mary, is your ticket for deeper immersion into Virginia City life.
Virginia City bar crawl
The best way to experience the Comstock's saloons is to build your own bar crawl. The majority of the bars are located on C Street, but be sure to zigzag up to B Street and down to Gold Hill for some hidden gems.
Drink like a local and start on B Street at the Old Corner Bar, tucked into the first floor of the historic Piper's Opera House. Owner Bill Migan is proud to say his establishment never closes — even on Christmas, when the bar throws a potluck. Beer and punch, such as vodka mixed with cranberry juice, are favorites for the locals and visitors alike during the city's various annual bar crawls. Bill "Sourdough" Owen is a regular.
"I have to list Bill (Migan) as a dependent on my income tax," Owen says with a laugh. "The city is like the alcoholic Disneyland of the West, but you have to pick and choose your bars since you sometimes deal with tortuous hills or stairs."
Speaking of hills, let's head back down to C street — the street of spirits. This historic town also is recognized for its haunted buildings and cemetery. Ghost hunters, including the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures crew, have visited the area to catch glimpses of spectral entities.
"We are all about the paranormal here," says CeCe Rosky, bartender at The Washoe Club.
The Washoe Club has the distinction of being the oldest saloon in Virginia City and was once the den of the city's millionaires.
Rosky's spooky recommendations include the Lemon Orb, made with Zarina Vodka and lemonade, and the powerful Ghost Iced Tea, made with Zarina Vodka, Sauza Tequila, Calypso Spiced Rum, triple sec, gin, sweet-and-sour mix, and Sprite.
Ghost patrol also is popular at the Gold Hill Hotel & Saloon in Virginia City, which is said to be haunted by William and Rosie (the scent of roses supposedly fills the air when she's around). Bar manager Jett Aguilar serves up the Yellowjacket Margarita in the cozy bar complete with a woodstove and rock walls covered with dollar bills. Named after the supposedly haunted mine behind the hotel, the drink contains Patrón Tequila, sweet-and-sour mix, triple sec, and a float of Grand Marnier. The eerie Tommyknocker cocktail contains Malibu Rum, Blue Curaçao, and pineapple juice.
While at the Gold Hill Hotel & Saloon, pick up some Cemetery Gin. Distilled and bottled by Frey Ranch and flavored by Nevada pine nuts and lavender, the gin is used by several Virginia City and Gold Hill bars.
Back up on B Street, you will discover what could be Virginia City's only speakeasy — the bar at the Cider Factory. Built in 1863, the Cider Factory was used to manufacture cider and vinegar for the Comstock. Tucked into Edith Palmer's Country Inn, the tiny bar is tended by Michael Findley. He sidesteps the typical whiskey or gin drinks and specializes in Bavarian hefeweizen and ciders. His bar is stocked with five of the seven world famous Trappist beers, including Westmalle Tripel and La Trappe Quadrupel.
"I specialize in beverages that you don't normally see up here," Findley says. "I'll have customers who are former military recognize a bottle from their trips overseas, and they are so happy to see it again."
For something akin to dessert, Palace Restaurant and Saloon is known for its potent milkshakes. The Palace has been serving the community since 1875 and stocks more than 40 tequilas and 35 vodkas in the bar.
"People come back here over and over to ask for the spiked milkshakes," says bartender Sage Green.
She recommends the Godiva chocolate milkshake with Godiva Liqueur, Absolut Vodka, vanilla ice cream, and Hershey's syrup.
Just up C Street and at the bottom of a steep staircase is the Silver Dollar Saloon. With its walls festooned in dollar bills and women's bras, this bar is a hidden local hangout. Wes Francis, the saloon's bartender, a part-time reverend and gunfighter for the city's Wild West shows, says that whiskey and beer are popular choices, but you also can order the Cunnaly.
"It's named after a local guy who always orders it," Francis says. "It has vodka, soda, and a splash of cranberry or orange juice. Whatever he feels like at the moment."
Bloody Mary madness
Francis also claims that the saloon has the "best Bloody Mary on the Comstock."
While on a Virginia City bar crawl, you will quickly notice that other saloons also claim to have the best Bloody Mary in town. Trying them all might be the only way to narrow down a winner. Challenge accepted.
"For some reason, this town is really into the Bloody Mary," says Robert Villegas, bar manager of the Bonanza Saloon and The Delta Saloon. "I make gallons and gallons of it all week long. It's my own recipe that I developed 12 years ago, and I don't discuss what goes in it."
Wes Francis, bartender at Silver Dollar Saloon, claims to make the best Bloody Mary on the Comstock
While the ingredients are secret, Villegas' Bloody Mary does include a forest of toppers, including asparagus spears, green beans, artichoke hearts, limes, and a "big tree of celery."
The Red Dog Saloon serves up the Pork Mary with bacon-flavored vodka topped with a piece of bacon. At The Delta Saloon, home to the famed Suicide Table, you can order the Suicide Bloody Mary. Other bars and restaurants such as The Delta Saloon, the Mark Twain Saloon, and The Canvas Café, deliver their own versions of the hangover staple.
Of course, no Bloody Mary crawl would be the same without a stop at the infamous Bucket of Blood Saloon — a city landmark since 1876.
"We have to have our Bloody Mary on the gun (the term used for the device that sprays premixed drinks or soda into a glass) or we would be here all day," says Laura Zam, a bartender at the Bucket of Blood. "We make so many of them."
Christina Nellemann is a writer and Nevada local who still counts Virginia City as one of her favorite bar haunts.
For details, visit Visitvirginiacitynv.com.
Virginia City and Gold Hill Saloons
27 N. C St. • 775-583-6005 • Find Bonanza Saloon on Facebook.
The Bonanza is known as the home of the 100-mile view across the mountains and high desert.
Bucket of Blood Saloon
1 S. C St. • 775-847-0322 • Bucketofbloodsaloonvc.com
Constructed after the Great Fire of 1875, the Bucket of Blood was built on the remnants of the Boston Saloon and is a national landmark.
Café del Rio
394 S. C St. • 775-847-5151 • Cafedelriovc.com
Known mostly for its Gospel Fried Chicken, the Café del Rio also serves a mean margarita.
420 S. B St. • 775-847-0331 • Find the Cider Factory on Facebook
Serving up drinks and Italian-inspired dishes.
The Delta Saloon
18 S. C St. • 775-847-0789 • Thedeltasaloon.com
The Delta Saloon is one of the oldest buildings in Virginia City; both food and drink are served here.
Gold Hill Saloon
1540 S. Main St. • Goldhillhotel.net/dining-saloon
The Gold Hill Saloon is located inside the oldest working hotel in Nevada.
Mark Twain Saloon
62 S. C St. • 775-847-0599 • Marktwainsaloon.com
Named after Virginia City's most famous resident, the Mark Twain Saloon has a 24-hour casino.
Mellow Fellow Pub
171 S. C St. • 214-914-9155 • Mellowfellowpub.com
Located inside Firehouse BBQ, the Mellow Fellow Pub specializes in American craft beers. Ask for its hidden menu featuring seasonal cocktails.
Old Corner Bar
12 N. B St. • 775-847-4900 • Find Old Corner Bar on Facebook.
Located in the Piper's Opera House building, Old Corner Bar has a wood stove for winter visitors.
106 S. C St. • 775-847-7210 • Find Ponderosa Saloon on Facebook.
After 150 years, the Ponderosa Saloon still is hopping. Enjoy a drink at the bar and take a 25-minute, guided, underground mine tour.
Red Dog Saloon and Pizza Parlor
76 N. C St. • 775-847-7474 • Reddogvc.com
Formerly known as the Comstock House and 1960s hangout of The Charlatans and Janis Joplin, the Red Dog is home to Ruby the rottweiler.
28 N. C St. • 775-847-0440 • Silverqueenhotel.net
Built in 1876, it's named after the "Silver Queen," a portrait of a woman wearing a dress inlaid with 3,261 silver dollars and 28 twenty-dollar gold pieces.
The Palace Restaurant and Saloon
54 S. C St. • 775-847-4441 • Find The Palace Restaurant and Saloon on Facebook.
Along with its well-stocked bar, the Palace offers a full lunch menu.
The Washoe Club
112 S. C St. • 775-847-4467 • Thewashoeclub.com
Originally known as The Millionaires Washoe Club, this saloon features the original 1862 chandeliers.
Virginia City Bar & Grill
5 N. C St. • 775-847-4188 • Find Virginia City Bar & Grill on Facebook.
Overlooking Six Mile Canyon, the Virginia City Bar & Grill serves casual food and cocktails.
Virginia City Brewery and Taphouse
62 N. C St. • 775-847-7064 • Virginiacitybreweryandtaphouse.com
The Virginia City Brewery and Taphouse is the only brewery in town and serves locally made craft beers.
Virginia City Cigar and Bar
69 N. C St. • 775-847-7003 • Find Virginia City Cigar and Bar on Facebook.
Located in a former morgue, this full-service cigar bar offers drinks in its sunroom.