We first came across the Sultana Bar in downtown Williams, Arizona whilst crossing the United States by train a few years ago. What first caught the eye was a worn looking neon sign in the shape of a martini glass advertising ‘cocktails’ and ‘package goods’. If you ever see the latter on a bar sign, it is well worth investigating, as the term dates from Prohibition, and was usually how illegal whiskey was surreptitiously delivered, wrapped in a paper package.
The inside of the World Famous Sultana didn’t disappoint: a rough hewn wooden bar that first opened in 1912 and doesn’t seem to have changed much since.
Williams, Arizona may have a population of just over 3,000, but it is crammed with visitors. The small town is the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railroad, a charming old time train that ferries thousands of passengers daily to the Canyon, complete with mock cowboy hold ups, and a singing train conductor.
Williams was also the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40, leaving the historic downtown district the longest intact stretch of the road. Walk down Route 66 today and you’ll come across gaudy 1950s styled kitsch designed to draw in tourists: classic diners made to look old, remodelled soda fountains, and garage parking lots filled with oversized Buicks and Chryslers shining with chrome and pastel hues.
But when the Sultana Bar opened in 1912, Williams had a far different flavour. Rough-and-tumble saloons, opium dens and bordellos lined the streets catering to the loggers and rustlers of the valley. As the Phoenix New Times puts it, “Like a true aristocrat in the midst of pretenders, the Sultana is a genuine find among all the faux-Route 66 junkola in Williams. It predates the highway economy and traces its roots to a time when ranching, logging, and the Santa Fe Railroad were the big games in town.”
We stopped by in the afternoon, and the spacious bar was filled with a handful of locals. One of whom we were just lucky enough to miss, as he had left moments before we arrived carrying his hunting rifle of choice, an authentic AK-47, which he leaves propped up against the bar with hardly a raised eyebrow from anyone.
The World Famous Sultana Bar – although its fair to say its fame might be limited to certain parts of Arizona – was named for an Indian ruby, and is filled with secrets. Tunnels stretch underneath the bar, used for the delivery of the ‘package goods’ of Prohibition, and led to a back alley, where the Police Chief of Williams was shot dead soon after the end of World War II. There’s also an abandoned, old silent movie theatre, rented out these days for local special occasions and parties.
There might be a slight edge to the Sultana Bar, but the overall feel is friendly and immediately welcoming. We fell into a game of pool with a local ranch owner, against our better judgment beating him, and then his son, but soon made friends.
On our first visit, we enjoyed the Coors banquet in the short stubby bottles. Decamping for the Grand Canyon for a few days, we returned, walking into the Sultana again in the afternoon. Without a word, the bar tender fetched a banquet from the fridge, opened it and slid it down the bar ten feet as we walked in, straight into our hand. Whilst other Williams saloons, such as the evocatively named Velvet Hammer, the Pueblo, Ivanhoe, the Phone Booth, Smuggler’s Inn, Mister Fat Fingers, Kemo Sabe, and the Garnet Lounge, all of which have fallen by the way side, but the World Famous Sultana Bar has outlived them all. Perhaps that sort of service is just one of the reasons why.
What You’re Having: Its hard to turn down the rare Coors Banquets when they’re available.
301, Historic Route 66, Williams, AZ, 928-635-2021.