Anchorage seems like the edge of the earth to those of us from the lower forty-eight. As you fly over a thousand miles of mountain ranges, you become increasingly aware of the isolation from the main party. The expansive sky, usually fluffed with silver, touches the Chugach Mountain Range in the West, while the surrounding water sends warm air to greet the colder jet streams from the north.
The people who live in this area are diverse in nature. Some have come as pioneering spirits, ready to begin their lives again in a new genre. Others are Native Americans built with a physique that naturally protects them from the winter cold. Some residents are Army brats or have a similar military connection, while a few seem to be born and raised here and cannot imagine living anywhere else.
Businesses try to match the needs of the locals, and Chilkoot Charlie’s, one of the most well-known night club bars in the country, is no exception. Be prepared for an experience that takes you on a tour through time and across the globe. Ten bars take you from the early days of the Gold Rush through the red-hot sizzle, and onward through global expansionism.
“Koots,” as the locals affectionately call it, morphed through constant levels of change to achieve recognition as a knock-your-socks-off social gathering center. The section that is now the Bird House is a replica of the Birdhouse, a bar originally located halfway between Anchorage and Girdwood on the Seward Highway. What began as a logging office in 1901, transformed into a tawdry watering hole, where it gained a bawdy reputation for the heat and sizzle – “ladies of the night” signed their push-up bras, thongs, and panties and tacked them up on the walls. Captivated by tales from Bartender Wicked Wanda, 73, we were taken back to a time when “the Birdhouse was nothing more than a large cabin with dirt floors…with walls and ceiling so heavily laden with these ‘artifacts’ that the average burly Alaskan man had to tilt forward to walk through.”
That original Birdhouse caught fire and burned to the ground, but was so beloved that it was rebuilt in 1963. Only a year later it was again destroyed – this time by the earthquake of 1964 that re-shaped the bar from an “even” level to one that changes height by as much as 18 inches…18 inches of nostalgia. Dick Delak resurrected the Birdhouse and ran it until 1993, when he died in a plane crash. The Birdhouse continued until 1996 when it again burned to the ground.
On January 1, 1970, Chilkoot Charlie’s opened at its current location, where it had been a former piano bar known as the Alibi Club. The original bar, bought by Mike Gordon and a silent partner, was Alaska-themed, and only took up a small area that is now the South Long Bar. Gordon also had a “proper job” at KHAR radio, where he met Ruben Gaines, a prominent Alaskan author and popular radio personality. Looking for a bar mascot that would add spark to his enterprise, Gordon was captivated by the iconic strength of one of Gaines’s characters, Chilkoot Charlie. During a lunch appointment with Gaines, he obtained exclusive rights to the character. In exchange, Gaines would gain rights to sell his books, cartoons, records, and other memorabilia from the bar. An American legend was born!
Over the years, Chilkoot Charlie’s prospered as the imagination and enthusiasm of Mike Gordon infused constant energy into the club atmosphere. Costumed bartenders, outrageous antics, an original bar band known as The Rinky Dinks, and a piano player named Mr. Whitekeys added to the charm. Expansion happened again and again, and with it, a new bar and new theme each time. It expanded to include world famous performances by such bands as: Aerosmith, Bad Company, The Beach Boys, Berlin, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Cracker, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Celicio & Kapono, Great White, Greenday, Joe Satriani, Journey, Lynard Skynard, Megadeath, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Ratt, the Scorpions, Styx, Ted Nugent, Warrant, White Zombie, and scores of others.
A quick run-through of the various bars:
The Bird House
As a replica of the original Birdhouse, the walls and ceilings are still laden with personal unmentionables, signed by their proud owners. Neon signage screams “Birdweiser” and “Bird Lite” in fluorescent colors. Floors are sawdust. The bar is u-shaped, with the two parallel sides sliding at an angle through 18-inches of height – a leftover tribute to the skewed bar after the ’64 quake. The inside of the bar is lined with bumper stickers from nostalgic days: WYOOSYOOB (When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer). A comedic, bawdy bartender serves local brews and micro lagers, along with legendary pickles that are hotter than the atmosphere and boneless chicken dinners (hard boiled eggs) to anyone naïve enough to nod his head.
The Swing Bar
Taking you back to the 1940’s, swing is king in this taste of the past. Secret recipe martinis accompany Big Band music, while black-and-white films play out the night.
The South Long
Long and narrow, this was the original bar. A flavor of the past is felt in the sawdust floors, neon signs, and padded, rustic wood tree-stumps that serve as seating.
The Live Band Bar (The North Long)
A huge, flat-screened TV decorates the far wall across the performers/dance floor. A sound room is staged in the rear, while low tables invitingly beg you to stay. Neon signs play with your head with such platitudes as ”Ignore This Sign.”
The Horseshoe Bar
Located between the Swing Bar and the North Long, this watering hole is shaped like…you guessed it…a horseshoe and is a central location for meeting up with your friends and lovers.
The Ice Bar
As the largest ice bar in the world, the bar-top is, literally, solid ice, with neon lights of blue and green shining through from underneath. Chilled vodka is served in iced glasses. This used to be the Shooter Bar, and has been reconstructed as a continuation of the Soviet Theme. Beyond the Ice Bar, you walk past the Berlin Wall, marked with the date of its infamous fall.
The Show Bar
Located next to the Ice Bar, the Show Bar has a stage, backed by showy drapery, where glitz and glitter reign.
The Alibi Room
By day, photos of mountain-climbing expeditions stretch along the full length of the room. Koots sponsors at least one climb each year. Owner Mike Gordon, pictured in several of the poster-sized photographs, is no stranger to the mountain, and is an avid participant in many of these expeditions. By night, the pictures disappear, and the Alibi Room opens up as a large bar, complete with competition-sized pool tables.
The Deck Bar
Outside, the Deck Bar awaits the Midnight Sun. An old van that looks like it went through the earthquake of ’64, serves as a kitschy bar.
The Russian Tea Room Bar
Remembering that Alaska was once a part of the Russian Empire, the upstairs Russian Tea Room seems to announce itself as a tribute to the past. Décor of tradition greets your eyes as you ascend the stairs. Walls and ceilings are decorated with symbols from old czarist Moscow. Encased in glass, an antique Russian samovar and fine china breathe with secret stories. The walls of a narrow hallway, The Soviet Walk, are lined with medals, certificates, and memorabilia behind protective glass cases. As you descend down the back stairwell, it seems as if you are entering the Soviet subway, and you are delighted to find yourself back in the middle of Koots.
The Old Spenardi Bar
Adult smoothies - Raspberry Margaritas or Sex on the Beach - are the focus here. The room is lined with trophies and beads from past “Spenardi Gras” celebrations and a wall of antique beer cans.
Could Chilkoot Charlie’s be a museum in disguise? It is no wonder that it draws record-breaking crowds and non-stop applause from across the country. As the best bar in Alaska, it has earned “Best of 8” ranking in 8 Magazine for several years running, and continues to gain praise in the Anchorage Press as Best Bar in the annual “Press Pick Awards.” In 2000, Playboy Magazine named it “The No. 1 Bar in America.”
A not-to-be-missed experience!
View Chilkoot Charlie's Photo Gallery Click HERE!