During its heyday as a film and TV set — from the late 1940s to the late '50s, roughly — Pioneertown was the backdrop for any number of acts of generic Wild West mayhem. Set against convincing façades of a livery stable, feed store, bank and saloon, cowboys and caballeros with bronzed skin and bleached-white teeth traded choreographed blows and blasts from pistols loaded with blanks to sell a fantasy of lawlessness to little boys lying on their bellies in front of black-and-white TV sets. The good guys usually won, and bad guys suffered fates too terrible to show onscreen, but chaos and coyotes still lurked just around the corner.
On a recent spring evening — April 20, incidentally — some of the fledgling outlaws standing in line outside the now-legendary Pioneertown music venue Pappy & Harriet's are attempting to shift the balance of good and evil yet again. OK, that's an overstatement, but several concertgoers among the 900 or so who've shown up to see Baltimore synth-pop trio Future Islands have gone inside the restaurant, purchased alcoholic beverages and brought the drinks outside to sip while waiting for the gate to the outdoor stage to open. (Among other crimes committed: a preponderance of very on-the-nose Coachella fashion and waaaay too many short shorts for a chilly night.) But in the desert, order is tenuous, and a security guard makes his way down the line confiscating the beverages. It wouldn't be a Wild West town without a sheriff.
Still, Robyn Celia, who's co-owned Pappy & Harriet's since 2003, likes to think that she and business partner Linda Krantz have preserved a sort of “lawlessness” that can't be found at other music venues, a remnant not only of the town's days as a Western movie set but from the decades after that, when the bar-restaurant was a biker hangout for actual Outlaws. She thinks it's part of what draws people to the middle of nowhere to see bands they probably could've just seen in L.A. “I went to a show at a House of Blues somewhere,” Celia says, lamenting the hokey, controlled, carefully crafted environment. “I understand now.”
A former saloon façade and a functioning cantina since the early 1970s, Pappy & Harriet's opened in 1982 serving up Tex-Mex and live country music. After Pappy's death in 1994, the restaurant fell on hard times and changed hands at least once before Celia and Krantz came along and bought the business on credit cards. Krantz had made a film about Pioneertown in the '90s, and she spread the gospel of the slightly bizarre little village to friends in New York City. They began an annual ritual of visiting for New Year's Eve, and one year discovered the place had changed, “closing at 9, gingham tablecloths,” Celia recalls. “It was definitely like they were trying to reach an older clientele.” Shortly thereafter, they bought the place and headed West “before all the shit hit the fan with the world,” she says, referring to the financial collapse.
You could say that Pappy & Harriet's has become a destination despite the fact that it's situated in a sort of no man's land northwest of the tiny town of Yucca Valley, with no cellphone service in the middle of the desert. Really, it's more likely that it's become a destination because of those things, for bands — Lucinda Williams, Paul McCartney, Rufus Wainwright — and fans alike.
There's also Celia's pragmatic approach to dealing with the talent: “If they want 10 bottles of Patron, just fucking give it to them. They're going to tell people how much they liked it here.” Same goes for patrons — the tequila isn't free, but the drinks are big and affordable for a live music venue. And people seem to like the food. We showed up about an hour and a half before the bands went on and were basically told we wouldn't be getting a table that night.
Based on the rather large crowd of bohemian millennial types who frequently descend on Pioneertown, thanks to Pappy & Harriet's, you could be justified in wondering: Is it going to get too “cool” to be cool anymore? Will this quaint town of ranches and adobe casitas soon be overrun with hipsters who've glorified rural life? Celia doesn't think that's likely. “It's still the desert,” she says. “You have to handle your shit out here.”
Even on a clear spring night, when the sky looks like a black sheet blasted with buckshot, it gets very dark in Pioneertown. Yes, it's in the middle of the desert, so no shit. But it's a sort of darkness that you can't really reckon with until you're attempting to navigate haphazardly laid-out dirt roads back to your Airbnb after a show at Pappy & Harriet's. A cellphone will get you only so far in Pioneertown, but at least the flashlight feature will guide you to bed before the coyotes can drag you off into the hills. It's the desert, and you have to handle your shit.
Getting there: Head east on the 10 to CA-62, and then take that east.
What to do: Definitely stroll Pioneertown's Mane Street, pop into shops if they're open and, of course, see a show at Pappy & Harriet's. pappyandharriets.com.
Where to eat: Make sure to get to Pappy's early to get a table. Otherwise, you can try to belly up to the bar for some barbecue if there's a spot, but if not, be prepared to nurse a beer or three while you wait. Also, there's a cafe called Frontier in Yucca Valley that has breakfast sandwiches that are way better than they need to be.
Where to stay: Rooms at the Pioneertown Motel are about $150 a night, but there are also several Airbnb hosts in town.
Wild card: If you're looking for art adventure, follow the maps of High Desert Test Sites, a nonprofit currently helmed by founder/minimalist artist Andrea Zittel. Their maps will take you to various art installations and curiosities hidden throughout the desert, including Gamma Gulch, the Integratron and Shari Elf's World Famous Crochet Museum. highdeserttestsites.com.