FAIRBANKS — Doug Vandegraft knows a thing or two about where to find a good drink in Alaska.
And he should, after all. For 14 years, he researched the state’s most famed watering holes in search of those haunts where you can toss back a stiff drink and revel in the glory days of the state’s past and its present. Vandegraft is the author of “A Guide to the Notorious Bars of Alaska,” out now and published by Epicenter Press. The book is a look at the most well-known bars in the state, offering anecdotes and glimpses of Alaska’s love affair with a good bar.
“I think it says something about the people who not only go there, but the owners and managers who, over the years, made that decision to keep them the way they are,” Vandegraft said. “In D.C., restaurants and bars come and go. That so many of those places have remained in Alaska is historical and should be noted. While there are still people around who remember it, I want to document it.”
Vandegraft moved from Arizona to Anchorage in 1983 at 24 years old when he took a job as a cartographer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An eventual promotion sent him to Washington in 2000, a year after he started formally researching bars for his book. In D.C., he spent weekends and his off time scouring the Library of Congress for historical documents chronicling Alaska’s most notorious drinking spots. With the book finally published in 2014, Vandegraft returned to Alaska to promote it with a series of historical bar tours in cities throughout the state.
With the help of the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society, Vandegraft led a group of bar and history buffs on a walking tour of downtown Fairbanks on May 9, chronicling the city’s infamous Second Avenue. Noted for its numerous drinking bars and torrid nightlife, especially during the state’s early oil pipeline days, Vandegraft led the tour from the Midnite Mine to Mecca Bar to the Big International, stopping along the way to talk about the creation and early days of each spot visited.
“It’s amazing when I look at photos of the Mecca,” he told the group, which was huddled outside the bar under its bright neon sign in a light spring drizzle. “It’s still the same. It’s the last of its kind, a lone survivor. Let’s go have a drink.”
To decide what constituted “notorious,” Vandegraft narrowed his criteria to three metrics for inclusion in the book. First, he decided the bar must have been in continual operation for at least 25 years. Second, it must be located in the same city, town or village it originated in. Thirdly, it has to be still named the same or still known by its former name.
The book covers 135 bars still in operation today. It’s divided into five sections — Southeast, Southcentral, Interior, Southwest and Western — with each region’s bars’ given a detailed account and review. Vintage photographs and advertisements punctuate the sections of the book. While the book focuses on bars that are still in existence, the walking tour of downtown Fairbanks delved into the past as well. Vandegraft stopped along the way and pointed out spots where Fairbanks’ most infamous bars once stood: Tiki Cove, The Cottage, Elbow Room, Savoy, The Leprechaun, Flame Lounge, Savoy, Fairbanks Bar, The Persian Room, The French Quarter.
Second Avenue had a slew of them, and it’s a historical note stoked by the city’s more seedy vices. With easy cash flowing from the oil pipeline construction, drugs, pimps and prostitutes were a common sight both on the street and in bars.
“The hookers, they had no shame. They would proposition everyone,” Vandegraft said while standing on the sidewalk of Second Avenue near the building that used to house Flame Lounge.
The book itself is short — an easy 171 pages — but one that serves as a guide to the state’s noted establishments that have withstood Prohibition, scandal and scorn.
“Particularly in smaller towns, bars are a unique niche,” Vandegraft said. “People make that move here, and with the long winters and the dark, that creates a need. Bars fill that niche.”
We wanted to know author Doug Vandegraft’s thoughts on the state’s bar scene as he led a historical tour of downtown drinking spots on May 9. Here are some insights into what he had to say.
Vandegraft’s favorite bar in Fairbanks?
“The Boatel. I went there the first night I was in Fairbanks. I had dinner at the Pump House, one of my favorite places, and by 9 p.m. I was at the Boatel with people on the deck overlooking the Chena.”
Vandegraft’s favorite bar in Alaska?
“I can’t do it. I really don’t have a favorite. I like a lot of them a lot. That’s hard for me to nail one down out of 135 I wrote about.”
The bar Vandegraft has spent the most time in?
Chilkoot Charlie’s in Anchorage.
Bar with the worst reputation that’s not half as bad as people think it is?
“The Panhandle in Anchorage. It has a horrible reputation, and I hope that my book would help change that. If nothing else, you have to respect a bar that’s been open that long, since 1933.”
Where to find it
“A Guide to the Notorious Bars of Alaska” is available in Fairbanks at Gulliver’s Books, 3525 College Road.
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.