If you miss the old, Charlie Fox-owned Bunkhouse Saloon, the good news is that you can visit there pretty much any time you like. When the Downtown Project purchased the bar from him, he took the proceeds and bought the Hard Hat, which has become the old Bunkhouse in miniature: The beers are cheap, the air is smoky and the music is good and loud.
I love the Hard Hat. It’s the very definition of an elegant dive. And I’m happy to say that I love the revamped Bunkhouse, too.
Following a year-long rehab, the new Bunkhouse Saloon has returned—looking, quite astonishingly, like itself. The exterior of the building looks largely the same. All the down-home fixings—including the cowboy photos and the taxidermy deer—have been returned to the walls, pretty much in the same places they were. Even the old stage is still in there, hanging in pieces over the bar. (The new stage is in the southeast corner of the building.) The entrance has been moved from the east side of the building to the north; you now enter through the door you used to take to duck out to the courtyard.
That covers what Downtown Project, and architects Bunnyfish Studio, chose to keep. The things they got rid of are what makes the new venue superior to the old. Gone are the beams that obstructed the stage. Gone is the cigarette smoke and the video poker. Gone is the side parking lot; in its place is a tree-lined gravel courtyard with lots of places to sit and relax, from picnic tables to the bed of an old pickup. Gone is the dodgy sound; the new Bunkhouse sounds like a dream inside, and there are plenty of speakers in the courtyard to make it sound great, too. Gone are the clumsy stairs off of 11th Street; you now approach the venue from a richly-landscaped alley that spills onto Fremont Street.
And the new touches are just plain outstanding. The new sound and lighting rigs are perfect; never has a band sounded or looked as good at the Bunkhouse as Built To Spill did on opening night. I love the Graceland-style iron gate, emblazoned with the Bunkhouse logo, located at the front of the alley. The new courtyard is damn near idyllic; my friends and I retreated there often to enjoy our beers, to listen to the headphones that were hanging from a tree (each one playing songs from a different iPod, because why not), and to chow down on deviled eggs, sloppy joes and mac ‘n’ cheese from the new kitchen menu. Hell, there was even table service outside, keeping us in booze, taking away our empties and wiping up spills. The new general manager of the venue, Michael Stratton, keeps this house in apple-pie order.
Nothing feels out of place, or hurts like putting on new shoes. Like Atomic Liquors one block away, this is what they call in the automobile world a “sympathetic restoration”—a remodel that preserves the charms of the original venue, while bringing out its full functionality. Another way of saying it would be this: The Downtown Project monkeyed with Fremont East’s favorite club venue, and transformed it into the district’s best. I can’t wait to see more shows there.