The Owl Grill & Saloon: A Grass Valley tavern that never changed
July 17, 2014
As you walk into The Owl Grill & Saloon in Grass Valley's historic downtown district, you can smell the 1880 hand-carved Austrian cherry-wood back bar from the front door.
Banker lights from the 1900s hang from the ceiling down low and above each restaurant table and booth. An old, black smoker's vent sits on the bar ceiling, once used to push out the smoke from burning cigars used by card-playing customers.
At the center base of the bar shelf is an old-fashioned, gold-plated cash register. Below and under the bar are the same spittoons once used by miners who, in the 1850s, would frequent The Owl at all times of the day.
"This isn't a building that you change," The Owl's current owner, Steve Graham, told The Union. "I didn't buy it to make it look like an Applebee's. It's a beautiful and historic place, it would be foolish to change anything about it."
According to historical records, The Owl was built from brick in 1857, two years after the Great Grass Valley Fire burned down the city's entire business district.
The original building was used as "Montgomery's Bank," by banker George A. Montgomery and was sold in 1883 to the saloon's first owner, Patrick S. Murphy, who in turn renamed it "The Bank Exchange Saloon" in 1887.
The saloon was later renamed The Owl Tavern, because it was open 24 hours a day and became home to many of the local miners during the Gold Rush era, who would come into the bar day or night for a hot pasty and a cold one.
"This site here we're sitting on was actually … a Levi Strauss retail store, and they sold clothes to the miners who worked here," Graham said. "They started serving pasties because the miners would put them in their pockets and take them to work. But when they started shutting the mine shafts down, Levi Strauss sold this side of the building, which is now the restaurant."
Unlike your modern club setting, bars of the time were not made for people to sit at and were made higher up for men to stand and "saddle up" to the bar. Spittoons would be placed under the bar for men to spit into as they enjoyed The Owl's infamous whiskey,
When a miner had a little too much to drink and needed to go to the bathroom, they had something at the bar for that, as well.
"They had little buckets for guys to go to the bathroom in," Graham told The Union.
"So when gentlemen were bringing ladies into the restaurant to dine, the ladies, at that time, were not allowed to walk through the bar. They had to come through a side door and go straight into the dining room."
Historical documents show that sometime after 1907, brothers Joe and Tom Blight took over the bar, and it soon became well-known for its food, steamed beer (which was made in the basement in a copper vat), hot beef sandwiches and extensive liquor selection, which included household tavern names like their straight whiskey, Lash's kidney and liver bitters, Hill's Horehound, Irish Moss, Clark's Cordial, and the Plain Maywine.
Aside from its spirits' collection, Graham says the tavern was also allegedly known for an actual spirit, a ghost.
"People like to sit in the booth where our ghost, George, got shot cheating in a card game," Graham said. "There are people that have worked here in the past and tell stories that they would be in the other room and the dishwasher would turn on, or bottles would start moving on their own."
According to Graham, the wood used to build parts of the bar side of the tavern came from the old Empire Mine shafts. During prohibition in the 1920s, liquor was hidden and delivered to the saloon's side door and sent downstairs, operating like an old "speakeasy."
Customers would knock on the bar's side window, asking to be let in.
Lore has it that boxing champion Jack Dempsey operated the window while he was in the area for summer training.
Dempsey was a friend of Charles Oliver, a former boxer who bought The Owl from the Blights during prohibition.
Oliver, who would own the tavern for more than 30 years, would often get together with Dempsey at the bar and talk boxing.
Graham said an alcove was built over the original entrance to the bar in the 1950s and is still there to this day. As the years passed, owners would come and go, but in 1968, retired Air Force veteran Les Young bought the tavern, adding a barbecue pit to cook the London broiled steaks and prime rib for which The Owl has become known.
"We're known for having the best steaks in town," Graham said. "We've just got really high-quality food, and we've kept things on the menu that people have come here to eat for many years."
In February 2012, Graham purchased The Owl, moved his family up to Grass Valley from the Bay Area, and says he is staying for good.
"My wife and I decided we wanted a better quality of life, and didn't want to retire in the Bay Area. We wanted to be in a place where we could have some horses on the property, so here we are," Graham said.
Graham has had more than 20 years of experience running three different restaurants throughout the Bay Area and says he doesn't want to make many changes to the business.
While The Owl has become known more for its restaurant, they still get regulars at the bar who often watch sports events on their new high-definition television and sip on a cold beer, like the old days.
"It's one of those things that's classic and beautiful," Graham said. "The trick is to keep what has been here historically that people love, because the locals here like quality."
Graham told The Union that he was recently notified that The Owl will be receiving an award from the California Historical Society in June.
Graham's daughter, Melissa Graham, who manages The Owl, says that the history behind the tavern is what has made running the restaurant all the more special.
"It's an honor to be a part of something that's been here for so long," Melissa Graham said. "I truly feel like we have the ability to do right by it, to carry on that legacy and that history and make The Owl, and Grass Valley the best that it can be."
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.