If this incongruous structure of Pioneertown reminds you of an Old West cowboy flick, your memory serves you well. Back in 1946, when the public couldn’t get enough of Western movies, silver-screen cowboy stars Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (and other investors) saw an opportunity, and created this 1870s-era frontier town–style movie set about 30 miles north of Palm Springs, in hard-scrabble desert near Joshua Tree National Park. The site, called Pioneertown, had camera-ready façades resembling saloons, jailhouses, and stables. Inside, the buildings doubled as tourist attractions, with a bowling alley, an ice cream parlor, and motel. The site that’s now Pappy & Harriet’s was used as a “cantina” set for Westerns well into the 1950s.
When Western movies died, the building became a burrito joint popular with outlaw biker gangs. In 1982, Harriet and her husband, Claude “Pappy” Allen, turned the site into the more family-friendly (but still quirky) Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, where you could relax with a cold one, order some Tex-Mex food, and listen to the couple and their granddaughter Kristina sing. When Pappy died in 1994, Pioneertown lost its way, until two women from New York who had visited and loved the site found out it was for sale.
“When I first walked into Pappy & Harriet’s as a customer, it reminded me of the first Star Wars, when they walked into the bar and saw all the aliens just drinking and having fun,” says Linda Krantz, who bought the business with Robyn Celia in 2003. Fixed up but forever eclectic and low-key, Pioneertown still brings together a colorful mix of people. “From bikers to grandmothers to hipsters to cowboys,” notes Krantz. Pappy & Harriet’s now attracts a mix of really good musicians and performers, such as indie-pop favorites Miike Snow and the Shadow Mountain Band. For a just-about-perfect day, hike a Joshua Tree trail, then head here to dig into a bowl of signature carne asada chili (rumored to be made with a secret blend of tequila and coffee), and dance, clap, and hoop it up while the band plays into the night.