A favorite local watering hole, The Saloon has become more than a bar, creating a tight-knit community over four decades.
By Tanya A. Yacina
As the saying goes, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” If you’ve frequented or have even just stopped into Laguna Beach’s Saloon—nestled in Peppertree Lane—for a pre-dinner drink or nightcap, you know that this is one place in town where that will happen. Locals and visitors have enjoyed the cozy backdrop of the small, mostly standing-room bar for more than 40 years.
“We’ve made [the bar] available to locals and have become part of the community as much as we can so people feel comfortable in it as a local spot,” says The Saloon co-owner Michael Byrne. “Tourists can come in and talk to the local regulars, and the stand-up bar promotes conversations between patrons. People organically just start talking to each other.”
The bar originally opened in 1979, and Byrne is now in possession of the third liquor license for the space, which he acquired in 2004. Since then, only a handful of subtle changes have been made in the 49-person capacity space, including the addition of the mirrored back bar full of bottles, a chalkboard with the daily wine list and another chalkboard over the bar with a note at the bottom reminding patrons to “Be Nice or Go to Newport.”
“While it wasn’t by design, all of our bartenders happen to be local. Everyone in town knows the people behind the bar,” Byrne says. “For many years, I was a customer before I owned the bar, and it’s taken a long time for me to believe I own it.”
When he and co-owner Bobby Doerr took over running The Saloon, Byrne just wanted to make sure they preserved this beloved local watering hole and didn’t mess it up. “I’m hoping we’ve accomplished that,” Byrne says.
The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying shutdowns hit The Saloon hard—over a period of 16 months, the doors were open and the bar did business for just eight days. Now fully reopen, the bar received support from the city during the pandemic, and patrons were also eager to help in whatever way they could.
“Financially, the city was supportive during the pandemic. They really tried to help out the local businesses,” Byrne says. “I think they did a really good job trying to support us during such a difficult time.”
Former Saloon bartender Erin Miyawaki also established the temporary “Safe Bar” shortly after the COVID-19 lockdowns began to keep loyal Saloon patrons in touch with each other. The digital Zoom platform, which she maintained for several months, included music by local musicians, psychological chats with a local therapist and general conversation about Laguna life in a pandemic.
Another former bartender, Ruth Nolan, knows firsthand the strength of the bond between the employees and patrons. She even officiated the wedding of two customers, Nick and Ariel Tintle, on March 23, 2021, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“The Saloon is like an Irish pub; it has that draw and is such a friendly little come hither,” says Nolan, who is originally from Ireland. “The reception you get when you walk in the door is second to none; there’s nothing like it in Orange County. It’s the closest I get to home.”
Nick Tintle says The Saloon is a tight-knit community of people, and you don’t run into trouble there.
“I like how it’s stand-up bar and homey—it brings together a lot of locals and passersby,” he says. “Good people, good talks, good networking. It’s easy to strike up a conversation in there and everyone is on the same page for a couple of drinks without any trouble.”
Ariel Tintle explains that they chose Nolan to officiate their wedding because since they moved here five years ago, they’d spent their Sundays with her at The Saloon. They’d met her as a couple and became friends, so she was perfect for the job.
“The Saloon is a no [nonsense] kind of place—I love the simplicity of it and everyone who comes in is low maintenance,” she says. “We’ve been going to The Saloon since we took over [our] friends’ apartment in Laguna; they introduced us to it and we immediately became regulars.”
When you walk into The Saloon, you’re likely to notice the extra-large jar of pineapple slices marinating in vodka atop the bar. This display is an obvious showcase of one of the stand-up bar’s famous drinks: The Pino. The Pino was created by former Saloon bartender Dan Vincent and has since become a staple of the bar.
“Pineapple-infused vodka, a dash of triple sec and cranberry, shaken together,” Byrne explains. “Simple and easily one of our most popular drinks.”
The Popo is the bar’s other notorious offering, created by an original Saloon bartender, J. Popo Galsini, who was well-known in a small circle of elite U.S. bartenders and shared his skills up and down the California coast as well as throughout the country, finally landing at The Saloon where he is still fondly remembered. According to Byrne, Galsini ended his career and his life at The Saloon and in Laguna Beach—he was involved in a single-car accident in 1982 and died on the spot.
The Popo is a version of the drink that Galsini famously served at The Saloon nearly 40 years ago—a hush-hush blend of several liquors mixed with coffee that will definitely add a fresh perspective to any evening.
“If Laguna Beach had an official drink, it would be the Popo,” says longtime Saloon patron Dave Munday when asked his favorite of the two bar-specific drinks. He says he goes for the Popo for the unique taste and mysterious ingredients.
“The Popo is my go-to,” Nick Tintle agrees. “There’s novelty behind it, and it’s the perfect little pick-me-up if you’re tired. It gets you back in the game.”
Byrne says The Saloon, with its layout and comfortable, inviting atmosphere, is a community place that he is very proud of.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered how a guy that grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, ended up owning such a great place,” he says. “The people you meet and the memories you make in that kind of 100% social environment. … It’s a fun way to live your life.”
Munday notes that he loves the aesthetics of the bar and that it’s practically standing room only (except for two small tables and a cushioned window seat). “That’s a unique feature you don’t find at many bars,” Munday says. “The fact that I can walk in there any night and know most of the other bar patrons—it’s definitely a locals bar.”