Food & Drink | August 9, 2022 7:02 am

The Pozo Saloon, Opened in 1858 and Patronized by Billy the Kid, Just Reopened

The Santa Margarita institution, now owned by the Nomada Hotel Group, has big plans for the future

Pozo Saloon interior
If you've never been to the Pozo Saloon, now's the time to plan a trip.
Nomada Hotel Group

Perhaps a cliché, but nowhere does the old saying “If these walls could talk” feel more apropos than at Pozo Saloon. Located 17 miles southeast of Santa Margarita in San Luis Obispo County, the historic watering hole opened way back in 1858, and its colorful history has been ingrained in area lore ever since. After all, how many bars can count both Billy the Kid and Snoop Dogg as former patrons?

“You can go into any local business up here, and people have a story to share about Pozo,” says Kimberly Walker, founder and managing partner of the Nomada Hotel Group, which added the saloon to a roster of renovated vintage properties that includes Hotel Ynez and Skyview Los Alamos alongside its flagship Granada Hotel & Bistro in San Luis Obispo. “All of the Nomada partners are San Luis County locals and have strong memories of Pozo Saloon, so being part of its legacy is an honor. It’s the most challenging but rewarding project that we’ve taken on so far. I mean, how many turn-of-the-century saloons are still in existence and operating?” 

Pozo Saloon
Pozo Saloon
Santa Margarita Historical Society

Thanks to a mini gold rush, the town of Pozo thrived during the mid-1860s, with the saloon popular among travelers and workers, who, Walker says, would rent encampments or “enramadas” (fun fact: this is where Ramada Hotels got its name) — basically branches and bits of canvas they could attach to a tree and sleep under before the addition of a hotel in the early 1900s. After Prohibition, the saloon went through periods of closure and changed hands several times over the decades, but it wasn’t until Rhonda Beanway and her husband bought the place in 1984 that it became a famous concert destination. Crowds, sometimes in the thousands, would come from across state lines to see Willie Nelson and later bands like the Black Crowes and MGMT, plus rappers and reggae artists like Snoop Dogg and Ziggy Marley.

Walker says the vision is to bring back intimate shows and concerts, but for now, Pozo Saloon is dipping its toe back in with monthly music and dinner series Sunday Sessions. Held on the last Sunday of each month, it’s essentially an evening of live music and dancing with a five-course meal cooked outside and served family-style using produce from area farms. Tickets include a complimentary Pozo ‘Tini upon arrival, with local purveyors and winemakers also in attendance.

Despite plans to fully reopen with new campsites in place next summer, Walker says the saloon will stay true to its authentic 164-year-old self. “The money is still on the ceiling, the taxidermy and old photos are still up, and we’ll be serving the Pozo ‘Tini.” A long-running local favorite, the drink is a beer with olives (added to taste) served in a mason jar. The dollar bills and other assorted paper currencies have decorated Pozo’s ceiling since the mid-’80s.

Pozo Saloon's version of wallpaper
Pozo Saloon’s version of wallpaper
Nomada Hotel Group

The music and dinner series might wrap on October 30, but another hotly anticipated Nomada Hotel Group project is on track to open before the end of the year. Channeling a similar ’70s California country aesthetic as Hotel Ynez, “bed and breakfast style retreat” Farmhouse will feature 26 separate cottages within walking distance of downtown Paso Robles. 

Walker shares that taking time off over winter and spring will give Nomada a chance to fine-tune deferred maintenance and upgrade systems back at Pozo, where they’re adding 30 saloon-adjacent accommodations, including Airstreams, upscale tents and RV hookups. The plan is to reopen as a live music and historic “encampo” destination next summer — one with a nod to its olden day enramadas but in tasteful Nomada style that will also feature a distillery, swimming pool and outdoor soaking tubs. 

“Bringing back an overnight camping element means people can come in from Los Angeles and San Francisco for the weekend,” says Walker. “The area is really very special, and there’s so much to explore in Santa Margarita. It’s worth more than just a few hours of your time.”