While the Homer Café and Club might not be Homer’s oldest bar, for 63 years the establishment on Bunnell Avenue now known as AJ’s OldTown Steakhouse & Tavern has been operated as a restaurant or bar, making it one of Homer’s oldest businesses continuously run in the same place.
In 1941, Frank Beers built the small building just west of Berry’s, the store run by his sister, Maybelle Berry. Maybelle had asked her brother to help her finish building her place, and in return she gave him a lot and lumber to build a café. Wilma Williams, born in 1925, had recently returned to Alaska in 1941 after living Outside with her family, the Shelfords. She remembered when the café opened. A jukebox got dragged in and Ivory soap flakes sprinkled on the floor to make dancing easier.
“You wanted to be careful not to be jitterbugging too close to the door where they got water in,” Williams said. “You’d end up where you didn’t want to be.”
Williams worked as a waitress for Pete and Opal James, the first couple to run the Homer Café and Club, as it eventually would come to be known. One time the café ran out of hamburger patties, so Pete James ground up some moose meat. A Lake Iliamna trapper had a burger, and Williams said she figured he would know it was moose. She stood by him to see his reaction.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s good, isn’t it?’ and he said, ‘It is.’”
Adrienne Sweeney, who owns AJ’s with her husband, Alex, is a fourth-generation Homerite. Her father, Steve Walli, is the son of Bob Walli, son of Eero and “Ma” Walli, owners of the Homer Cash Store, now the Mercantile building next to NOMAR.
Walt and Laura Keller later bought the Homer Café and Club. Sweeney said her grandfather Bob Walli remembered that when he came home from World War II in 1946 the Kellers were splitting up and sold the café to Georgie and Al Shatterly. They eventually sold it to Harold “H.B.” and Electa Billups in 1956. Other people who either owned or operated the café between 1941 and 1956 include Jimmy Steel and Marianne Waddell.
When the Homer Café and Club started serving liquor gets a bit hazy. Sweeney said Bob Walli told her of an incarnation of the café her grandfather called “The Blind Pig,” where if you bought a sandwich, liquor came with it. Walli also remembered poker games there. Wiliams said the Jameses would have a poker game after hours, and she’d watch the men play.
“One guy like to play and he needed money. You don’t play well when you need money,” she said. “I always wanted to tell him, ‘Jimmy, go home. Save your money.’”
According to a history of the bar’s liquor licenses provided by Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Director Shirley Coté, records going back to 1956 show a liquor license issued to H.B. and Electra Billups for the Homer Club and Liquor Store. In 1962, they sold it to C.E. “Tex” and Marge Sharp, who renamed the bar The Waterfront Bar and Dining. A July 1964 Homer News ad has an illustration of the bar with a front porch and seahorse designs around the front door. “The finest in food, drink & fun,” the ad said, with live music on weekends. Its phone number then now belongs to the Homer Church of the Nazarene.
Other owners over the years include Herman and Geraldine Angel, Gerald and Ruby Braman and Jack Griffin. Many of the owners sold out within a year or two, and some license transfers shows the bar reverting back to the previous owner. Chip Duggan, who bought the Waterfront in November 1998, had one of the longest runs as an owner, selling to the Sweeneys in 2010.
Williams remembered the Bramans as being not very good at business, but Ruby Braman — her first husband’s sister — as being “a terrifically good waitress.”
“She was the only one I could remember who made $100 in tips,” Williams said.
Duggan said before he bought the Waterfront, it had a pretty rough reputation, something he tried to change when he took over. Locals called it “the Knife and Gun Club.” Steve Walli got a taste of that in the early 1970s when he went to the bar after crab fishing, Adrienne Sweeney recalled. A couple of guys said they would punch the next guys to walk into the bar, and that was Steve Walli and his friends. A fight ensued and everyone but Walli got arrested. Walli went bar to bar to raise bail money for his fellow crew members so they could go back to fishing the next day.
In one incident, Duggan got a new sliding window after a patron got a little rowdy. Duggan took the guy outside, but his bouncer let the guy back in.
“I ended throwing him out physically. I remember there was a Jeep with a grill in front. He hit that with his face,” Duggan said. The guy attacked Duggan from behind and grabbed two patrons to keep from being thrown out. “The next thing I know, that big window, a huge rock came through it. That’s why there’s a slider now.”
One time, Sweeney’s grandfather, Bob Walli, fell asleep on the stage and the bar closed up and locked him in. He was afraid to open the doors because he thought an alarm would go of, Sweeney said.
“I’m sure there are a lot of stories in those walls,” Sweeney said.
Duggan said when he bought the Waterfront, a title search showed a piece of property, a 10-foot-by-100-foot strip between the bar and the parking lot, with no apparent owner. No one at the city could figure out who owned it, so the city claimed it and sold it the Duggan for $2,700.
When the Sharps ran the Waterfront, it had a reputation as being the place to go on the lower Kenai Peninsula to get a steak, Sweeney said.
“That was part of my inspiration to bring it back to what Tex and Marge had it,” she said.
After Duggan turned the Waterfront Bar into an Irish pub, and with the Sweeney’s making AJ’s more of a family restaurant, the bar has lost its rowdy reputation. Part of the Old Town renaissance, AJ’s still has the front porch, shingle and lap siding, and false façade of the 1960s Waterfront. Just as in the 1960s, AJ’s also has live music — even piano music. And as it has since its roots, the little wooden building remains a place for weary fishermen to relax on a Saturday night and get a good steak and a cold drink.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homer Café and Club
Also known as Waterfront Bar, Jack’s, Duggan’s and now AJ’s OldTown Steakhouse & Tavern
120 W. Bunnell Ave.
1941: Built by Frank Beers
1941-1956: Owned or operated by Opal and Pete James, Walt and Laura Keller, Jimmy Steel, Marianne Waddell, and Georgie and Al Shatterly.
1956: Liquor license issued to Harold and Electa Billups for Homer Club and Liquor Store
1961: License transferred to Charles and Aurora Kunster; transferred back to Harold and Electa Billups
1962: Sold to C.E. “Tex” and Marge Sharp, name changed to The Waterfront Bar and Dining
1973: Sold to Roberta and Isabela Gamble
1974: Sold to Herman and Geraldine Angel
1975: Sold to Gerald and Ruby Braman
1976: Liquor license transferred back to the Angels
1976: Sold to Rita Levesque
1977: Sold to Walter Cheatwood
1979: Sold to Rita Lochner
1982: Sold to Winston and Adrienne Darkow and Wilburn Rutherford
1982: Darkows transfer interest to Wilburn Rutherford
1984: Transferred back to Rita Lochner
1985: Sold to Clara Jean Halter
1986: Sold to Jack Griffin
1988: Name changed to Jack’s Waterfront Dining Room and Lounge
1990: Name changed to the Waterfront Lounge
1998: Sold to Chip Duggan and renamed Duggan’s Waterfront Pub
2010: Sold to ATS Investments LLC (Adrienne and Alex Sweeney), renamed AJ’s OldTown Steakhouse & Tavern