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.

a group of friends in front of Pappy and Harriet's
Pappy & Harriet's: for hot-off-the-grill BBQ and face-melting concerts. | Photo by Sarah Prikryl, courtesy of Pappy & Harriet's
Pappy & Harriet's: for hot-off-the-grill BBQ and face-melting concerts. | 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.

Sir Paul McCartney performing at Pappy and Harriet's
Is it really a musical oasis without Sir Paul McCartney? | 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 a couple from New York and the club’s current owners: Linda Krantz and Robyn Celia.

motorcycles outside Pappy and Harriet's
Cool motorcycle guys (and people who wish they were cool motorcycle guys) welcome! | BRIANPIRWIN/SHUTTERSTOCK

In the mid-90s, Krantz was working on a movie set in Pioneertown. Krantz 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."

“One night, a hundred people dressed as pirates walked into the bar.”

Then, one year, the pair 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.)

people in the beer garden at Pappy and Harriet's
As you can see, the vibes at Pappy & Harriet's are immaculate. | Photo courtesy of Pappy & Harriet's

For a good chunk of the early aughts, Krantz 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."

crowd at the outdoor stage at Pappy and Harriet's
Whether you're in town for a post-Coachella show or a local set, the place is usually packed to the brim. | 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.

Parking lot at Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace
Pull up anytime for a good time. | 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.
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