This Iconic Alaskan Dive Bar Looks Like a Giant Game of I Spy
I spy...dollar bills, stuffed squirrels, dentures, and more.
It’s the off-season in Homer, Alaska. The wooden shacks that shell out fish ‘n chips and seaside souvenirs during the busy summer months sit silent, boarded up and covered in snow; nearby, the cold, empty beaches and the docks of the Kachemak Bay look lonely as ever.But inside the Salty Dawg Saloon, every bar stool is occupied, and laughter, jukebox tunes, and fishermen’s chatter dissolve into one another—a warm respite from the freezing gusts of wind outside. My eyes take their time adjusting to the cave-like darkness as I sip my IPA under a canopy of dollar bills in this bar at the edge of the world.
The Salty Dawg is the sort of joint that feels familiar, even if you’ve never been before. Dive bars often have that effect, but this one hits differently, probably because Homer is impossibly quaint and beautiful with a unique allure that seems to suck visitors in and transform them into locals. The fact that it’s had its fifteen minutes of fame—thanks to owner John Warren’s stint on Discovery’s Deadliest Catch—also helps. But his family bar was an Alaskan icon long before that.
Constructed in 1897, the Salty Dawg is actually older than the state of Alaska. The original building was one of the first cabins built in Homer and has moonlighted as a post office, old-timey schoolhouse, railroad station, coal mining office, and even a grocery store. Drinks weren’t slung across the wooden bar until 1957.
Sixty-four years later, the cash-only Salty Dawg has quite the reputation—and quite the interior decoration job. As I sit saddled up to one of the communal tables, my eyes scan the names and messages etched into the pub’s every nook and cranny. A hot pink bra dangles from the ceiling, and I’ve lost count of the bright orange life preserver rings that line the room. It appears any plot of wall is fair game—so long as you can find space to leave your mark amongst the thousands of dollar bills that coat the place.
“By the end of the season, you can’t see a life ring in here. It gets so thick in some places. People will stick a dollar on anything—there’s even some outside!” says the bar manager, Jean Murphy. Originally from Georgia, Jean is one of many who came to Homer for the summer and never left. We sit chatting beneath worldly bank notes, proof of faraway visitors; South Korean won and Thai baht are just some of the international tender that flap in the breeze as the door swings open and shut.
We’ve all been to watering holes riddled with dollar bills, but the Salty Dawg’s story beats all the others. Before it was a novelty, it was an act of kindness: Knowing their pals would eventually turn up parched, regulars would leave money pinned to the walls to pay for their friends’ drinks.
“If you went out fishing, had a good haul, and wanted to buy someone a drink, you’d put their name on a bill,” Jean explained.
Although the gesture isn’t as practical anymore, the Salty Dawg keeps the spirit of paying it forward alive. A few times a year, they have to “thin out” the ever-growing coat of dollars. Charities in the community benefit from the clean-out; the Walk For Life cancer society, local children’s hockey leagues, and hospice are just some of the causes that receive Salty Dawg bucks.
“A woman who used to come in here had prosthetic legs. She wanted them on display here in the bar.”
Nostalgia runs deep in the dive, too. It’s the type of place people return to, family in tow, years after a memorable fishing trip. The type that becomes a community staple. The type that… you write into your will. My eyes land on a pair of prosthetic legs perched in the rafters and I nearly choke on my beer.“A woman who used to come in here had prosthetic legs. She wanted them on display here in the bar,” Jean explains. Prosthetics, dentures, and even a taxidermied squirrel from the house of the infamous “Eagle Lady” of Homer (an institution unto herself) currently reside in the Salty Dawg.
I ponder the stories behind the dollars as I try to quell my sudden craving for franks. (The bar’s two specials include the Salty Dawg martini—an oversized can of Foster’s garnished with a pair of olives—and, according to Jean, “the best microwaved hot dog you’ll ever have.”) I wonder if Jazelle stayed “wild,” and what drink Chelsie bought with her birthday dollar from Mike, and whether Jim deemed himself the “Halibut Slayer” or his friends bequeathed him the title.
“It’s earned every bit of its existence,” Jean says. “It’s not just someone’s crazy decor idea, but rather, what has grown and developed over more than half a century. What makes it unique is the collection of not just stuff, but of stories and people.”
A four and a half hour drive down the Kenai Peninsula from Anchorage International Airport, you don’t come to Salty Dawg for the stellar service, beer on tap, or an immaculate bathroom. You go for the people—and the entertaining reading material, obviously. Shoot a game of pool, swap stories with a local, indulge in some epic people watching, and leave your mark somewhere in the bar—it’s tradition, after all.