Travel

Bikers, BBQ, and Ex-Beatles: This Desert Bar is a True California Legend

Just a Western film set-turned-biker bar-turned legendary music venue.

Photo by Sarah Prikryl, courtesy of Pappy & Harriet's
Photo by Sarah Prikryl, courtesy of Pappy & Harriet’s
Photo by Sarah Prikryl, courtesy of Pappy & Harriet’s

Picture it: You’re wandering through the dry California desert. It’s been days. You’re tired. You’re parched. Lo and behold, a mirage appears on the horizon, silhouetted against the sherbert haze of a setting sun. You hear music and smell barbecue in the warm desert air. But this isn’t the pool-and-palm trees-style oasis you might have envisioned.

Instead, flanked by agave plants and spindly trees, it’s a classic Western movie set-turned-Hell’s Angels hangout-turned-legendary music bar. Inside you discover a time-tripping crew of actors, bikers, rock stars, artists, and starry-eyed travelers, all congregated together under one roof in the name of good times. Also, Paul McCartney is there. Congratulations: You’ve arrived at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.

Photo by MJ Kim, courtesy of Pappy & Harriet's
Photo by MJ Kim, courtesy of Pappy & Harriet’s
Photo by MJ Kim, courtesy of Pappy & Harriet’s

A beloved institution of Joshua Tree, California, Pappy & Harriet’s has lived about as many lives as souls who have passed through its doors. In its first life circa 1946, it was one of several buildings that comprised Pioneertown, an enormous Old West film set founded by the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Complete with saloons, stables, and jails, the town acted as the backdrop for productions like The Cisco Kid and Annie Oakley. (In modern days, we must note, it was also the set of the Kidz Bop music video for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”)

The building that became Pappy & Harriet’s served as a cantina set until 1972, when it was purchased by Harriet’s mother, Francis Aleba, and her husband, who turned it into an actual burrito bar mainly patronized by outlaw biker gangs. (Allegedly, Aleba was dubbed an honorary Hell’s Angel, meaning the place was cool as hell from the jump).

Eventually, it was passed down to Harriet and her (now late) husband, Claude “Pappy” Allen, who fashioned it into a quiet family-friendly restaurant. But the Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace we know today began with two best friends from New York and the club’s current owners: Linda Krant and Robyn Celia.

BRIANPIRWIN/SHUTTERSTOCK
BRIANPIRWIN/SHUTTERSTOCK
BRIANPIRWIN/SHUTTERSTOCK

In the mid-90s, Krant was working on a movie set in Pioneertown. Krant and Celia started flying out every New Year’s Eve to countdown at Pappy and Harriet’s, falling deeper in love with the joint and the Joshua Tree community each time. 

“Whether it was the rock climbers or the dirtbags or the artists or the musicians or the business owners-we were all friends,” Celia recalls. “It was a real community. Everybody was rooting for each other.”

Then, one year, the duo returned to California and discovered their favorite desert outpost was up for sale. A leap of faith and a few hasty credit card loans later, the keys were in their hands and the next phase of Pappy & Harriet’s was underway.

The Hell’s Angels were among the first to welcome them to the neighborhood, leaving a little lawn ornament shaped like the Statue of Liberty out front. (“That has since been stolen, by the way,” Celia notes.)

Photo courtesy of Pappy & Harriet's
Photo courtesy of Pappy & Harriet’s
Photo courtesy of Pappy & Harriet’s

For a good chunk of the early aughts, Krant and Celia focused on booking local acts and steadily scaling the business. The bar played refuge to a reliable stream of regulars, wanderers, and weirdos: “There was one night early on, this bus pulls up and I swear to God, about a hundred people dressed as pirates just walked into the bar. Nobody even looked up.”

Then, the 2008 financial crisis struck. Artists, musicians, and creative types priced out of LA began finding their way to the desert, along with visitors heading to Joshua Tree National Park for a cheap getaway. What was once a humble desert pub began seeing larger and larger crowds-especially during the Coachella Valley Music Festival.

J-Tree’s proximity (about an hour’s drive) to the fest helped establish Pappy & Harriet’s as the unofficial after-party spot, drawing huge national acts to its stage and sealing its fate as one of California’s most iconic music venues. Lorde. Lizzo. Peaches. Lucinda Williams. Future Islands. Glass Animals. You never know who you might see-even Robert Plant once popped in to perform an impromptu set with the house band.

But by far the most storied surprise guest was Sir Paul McCartney, who decided to play a secret show back in 2016. The bar’s spacious outdoor stage, lit with string lights, tends to draw the big names-but according to Celia, McCartney’s show was different. “[His people] were like, no, Paul wants to smell the audience. He wants to play inside.”

Pappy & Harriet's
Pappy & Harriet’s
Pappy & Harriet’s

After nearly 75 years, Pappy & Harriet’s has stayed true to a kind of California cool that’s difficult to find outside of Joshua Tree anymore. Aside from the line of patrons waiting to get in, its facade remains nearly indistinguishable from the old fashioned cantina it once was. Wooden barn doors swing open to reveal walls decorated with antlers, license plates, and memorabilia. Come-one-come-all picnic benches and pool tables abound. The shots are poured tall. And the sense of freedom inherent in its Wild West environs wraps everybody in a lovey dovey desert daze. 

Even the food honors the joint’s roots: Their staple giant racks of ribs (“It’s like something out of the Flintstones, like a big brontosaurus on a plate!”) comes hot off a single grill, alongside huge helpings of mashed potatoes and Harriet’s famous cheese fries-which haven’t left the menu since it was created in ‘82.

For the moment, things have slowed down a bit. Closed Mondays through Wednesdays, P+H is offering limited takeout and outdoor dining and reducing their live shows. According to Celia, it feels out of step for a venue known for its intimate gatherings that usually leave the place packed wall to wall-in the best possible way.

“How many years have I been here, and I still go… ‘Oh my god, the crowd’s amazing!’ and [someone’s like], They’re on mushrooms, Robyn!

A magical oasis, indeed.

staxnet/Flickr
staxnet/Flickr
staxnet/Flickr

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Tiana Attride is a rock n’ roll pirate sailing across the Mojave Desert. She’s also Thrillist’s Associate Travel Editor.

Travel

8 Suburbs Near Phoenix You Should Absolutely Visit

You could use a little space.

Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ

Phoenix is pretty great. There’s the burgeoning culinary scene, the diverse culture, the arts, of course, the sports, the great outdoors, and don’t forget about the more than 300 days of annual sunshine. We could really go on, and on, about how great this place is, but all of that greatness can blind you to all the excellence just outside it. The suburbs across The Valley are not to be missed. To encourage you to actually explore them, here’s what the best of ‘em have to offer.

Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism

Tempe

Notably, Tempe is recognized as home to one of the largest universities in the country, Arizona State. But this Phoenix suburb is so much more than a college town, although it does add to its undeniable magic. Downtown Tempe plays hosts to epic arts festivals, dragon boat races, marathons and triathlons, and dozens of other events that all take place a short-distance from Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile long perennial reservoir and urban park that attracts cylicts, rowers, and active types. Break a sweat with a hike to the top of A Mountain and take in a panoramic sunset view. Or, just belly-up to the bar at one of Tempe’s innumerable craft breweries. Both are solid choices. And both can get you acquainted with this laidback Phoenix suburb.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho

Scottsdale

Nearly half of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to open spaces and untamed desert. Outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, road cycling, horseback riding, and kayaking reign supreme here, and the city certainly leans toward an active, wellness-centered lifestyle. And while there’s no shortage of desert to explore, Scottsdale also claims some of the best spas in the world, award-winning restaurants, world-class golf courses, it’s the center stage for major events like luxury car auctions and sporting events, and it’s even got a bustling arts scene. This Phoenix suburb checks all of the boxes, really.

Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert

Gilbert

Not too long ago Gilbert was a sort of sleepy, far-away farm town. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Gilbert has grown exponentially, but its agricultural roots are still readily present in its personality and charm. Downtown Gilbert is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which have a local, farm-to-table approach, naturally. And then there’s Agritopia, a friendly neighborhood with its very own shared garden and community spaces that include Epicenter and BARNONE, where you can order a wood-fired pizza, a can of experimental natural wine, and camp out under a canopy of trees in the open-air. It’s practically a utopia.

Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography

Cave Creek

A gateway to Horseshoe and Bartlett Lakes, Cave Creek’s position on the outskirts of Tonto National Forest makes it a primo spot for outdoor activities like biking and hiking and adventure by way of air balloon or horseback. Modern cowboys and gals can mosey over to The Buffalo Chip Saloon where bull riding and swing dancing are just part of a typical day. Additionally, Cave Creek has its own botanical garden, raptor rescue, and a gallery packed with person-sized crystals. And it’s all yours to discover.

Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr

Mesa

Point your GPS east and you’ll arrive in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. Whether you’re after outdoor adventure, looking to explore the arts and culture scene, or searching for locally made ciders and craft beer, Mesa has it all. There’s a hip, growing downtown area lined with storefronts, restaurants, theaters, and tasting rooms. And if you’re game for a little outdoor recreation, Mesa is your jumping-off point to scenic Sonoran Desert trails including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, and San Tan Regional Park. Mesa is also just a short distance from The Salt River where you can cruise by wild horses and native wildlife via paddle board and Saguaro Lake is just up the road.

Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills

Fountain Hills

At the center of this Phoenix suburb is an expansive urban park and monumental water fountain that tops out at 560-feet. The fountain in Fountain Hills is larger than the Washington Monument, and it’s three times as high as Old Faithful. Pack a picnic and spread out in the park for an afternoon where you can traverse the walkable paths, cycle around the waterway, or play a competitive bout of frisbee golf. If you swing more towards traditional golf, there’s a shortlist of premier golf courses to tee-off at. And like many of the Phoenix suburbs here, Fountain Hills is surrounded by wide-open desert and scenic vistas just waiting to be explored.

Camelback Ranch - Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale

Glendale

Arizona sports teams including the Coyotes and Cardinals have home turf advantage in Glendale. Over the years Glendale has hosted three Super Bowl bouts and will host another in 2023. But Glendale’s not just a sports mecca for fans of professional football and hockey. This Phoenix suburb is homebase to Camelback Ranch, a modern ballpark with all the amenities where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field each season as part of Cactus League Spring Training. Take your time in Glendale into extra innings and visit Historic Old Town Glendale. Here you’ll encounter eclectic antique and vintage stores, restaurants, candy shops, and coffee houses.

Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery

Chandler 

Museums, urban parks, art galleries, and growing neighborhoods like Uptown Chandler and Downtown Chandler give this Phoenix suburb lots of appeal. Rows of palm trees line the Downtown area where you can start your day with a locally roasted coffee and organic breakfast bowl. Downtown Chandler regularly hosts community-focused events and it’s a popular hangout for craft beer drinkers. SanTan Brewery, Pedal Haus, and The Perch, with 40 beers on tap and tropical birds at every turn, all call this Phoenix suburb home.

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Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based multimedia storyteller, photographer, and content creator. Her work has been featured in travel guides, national publications, and the social feeds of some stellar local restaurants. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram @hungryinphoenix.

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