Operations Manager Liz lets us in on Red Onion’s unique concept and its risque past
Red Onion Saloon
With its crew dressed in character, Red Onion is a brothel-themed restaurant in the tourism rich port city of Skagway, Alaska. Its building once housed a bordello in 1897. Today, Red Onion also houses the Brothel Museum.
Happily, given its history, the Red Onion sells itself. The Red Onion Saloon originally opened for business in 1898 at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, and was considered Skagway’s most exclusive bordello at the time. It was built by planks cut by Captain William Moore, the founder of Skagway, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. The town of Skagway served as the “Gateway to the Klondike” and plenty of randy miners passed through Skagway on their way North. The Red Onion served alcohol on the first floor, while the upper floor satisfied more than a prospector’s thirst. It was only a functioning brothel for two years before the Klondike gold rush waned and a new gold rush in Nome, Alaska, caused miners to seek their prospects elsewhere.
During World War II the building was used as barracks to board soldiers and in subsequent years housed a laundry, bakery, union hall, television station and gift shop. In 1980, the owner Jan Wrentmore purchased a liquor license and the building opened once more as a saloon and historic brothel museum, and it’s been rocking ever since!
We’ve named our pizzas after the well-known prostitutes of the Gold Rush, references of the trade, or women who have worked here… For example, I have a pizza named after me, ‘the Lady LaVoie’ it’s vegetarian with goat cheese, mushrooms and artichoke hearts, but you can make it a ‘Dirty LaVoie’ by adding sausage. Some others are the Plain Jane (cheese pizza), Shady Lady (BBQ chicken), the Chicken Ranch (ranch, bacon, red onion)…etc.
The Big Dessie and the The Classic are our best sellers. The Big Dessie (sausage, Canadian bacon and pepperoni) is all meat and The Classic (pepperoni). Meat serves us well here; we believe in meat.
The Red Onion Saloon has such a unique history and it’s hard not to feel it when you’re here. We have madams who give tours of the museum, sing and take photos with the guests. Our servers wear corsets so there is some bosom involved…We have musicians who come in and play –– the atmosphere is lively, sexy and teasing and there’s always someone up to something. We’re also very lucky to have a loyal and fun-loving crew. We have fun, we laugh, work hard and engage our customers in the process. We’re also a bit saucy.
(We operate from) April to October. The cruise ship season runs from May to September and it gets very very quiet on Skagway’s streets the other half of the year. The winter population shrinks dramatically and there is simply not enough business to sustain having more than one restaurant open in winter. Another issue we have, being a historic building, is a dramatic lack of insulation. We winterize the building in the offseason to protect pipes and such. There are parts of the walls you can see through, so add a 45 mph north wind and you really don’t want to be sipping your cocktail here mid-January.