For 20 years, Surly Wench's gothic aura has been a bright spot for Tucson's alternative culture

Back in the summer of 2004, the Surly Wench Pub opened on 4th Avenue, nestled in a building that’s more than 100 years old. To celebrate their 20th birthday, the Tucson nightspot will be hosting a burlesque show this Friday at 10 p.m.

Over the years, it’s become the place to be for those who sought something different from the other bars Downtown. At the helm are co-owners Steph Johnston and Jasmine Pierce and their dog, Fen.

“This place is home,” Pierce said. “Everyone’s welcome except assholes, that’s our motto.”

The gothic atmosphere of the Surly Wench Pub can be felt the moment one walks through the door. Taxidermy animal heads mounted on the walls, black leather booths, a leg lamp next to the Virgin Mary on a shelf, and local art welcome patrons to the intimate confines of the bar. 

Johnston said bars should be dark, which is why the Wench sports black walls and has dark furnishings. Many of the decorations came from Johnston’s home. The preserved animal heads were mostly found in yard sales or donated and the artwork on display at the bar all come from local artists. 

When a patron sits at the bar, the most eye-catching items are the two large American flags, which were hand-sewn by a burlesque performer. The chandeliers came from the old Fineline nightclub while the signature black booths came from Plush, formerly across the street. Both bars once upon a time were among the hubs of Tucson’s alternative scene.

“I wanted the place to have that Americana kind of vibe,” Johnston said.

In the middle of the bar is Peter — pronounced “Pee-tah” — a mounted goat’s head who often wears an eye patch and a tiara.

“It’s a place where people can let their freak flags fly,” Pierce said.

Johnston said she couldn’t imagine herself doing anything other than owning the Surly Wench. From a young age, she knew she wanted to have a space where she could facilitate a fun, safe environment for people to be able to have a sense of community and togetherness.

“Whenever we’d have family get together, I didn’t care about playing with the other kids,” Johnston said. “I wanted to make the drinks for the grownups and well, in my family, we were always workhorses.”

The ethos of the Surly Wench Pub, 424 N. 4th Ave., is welcoming and accepting — a place where mistreatment is not allowed or tolerated. It soon became an “anti-bully place.”

“We really believe in treating others how you want to be treated,” Johnston said.

The Wench has been witness to many stories ranging from love to supernatural hauntings to heartbreak and self-expression.

“So many people have gotten married here,” Pierce said. “Steph is an ordained minister and one of our DJs actually got married here.”

Johnston said they hear of many regulars who have met their paramours in the Surly Wench.

“We get so many people who have met their partners here or who get married and then have their receptions here,” Johnston said.

“I love seeing those,” Pierce added. “Every Valentine’s Day, we post on our Facebook for people to share their Surly Wench love stories.”

Although the Wench is unapologetically centered on subculture, people from all walks of life visit the bar to dance, have some good food or enjoy an original staff-crafted cocktail.

“When I see young people dancing with older people, I know I’ve done my job,” Johnston said. “Nobody’s judging you here. There’s this couple that comes here in their cowboy hats and they do square dancing to goth music. They dance for a bit and then they leave; that’s their date night.”

Johnston said the Wench didn’t originate as a gay bar. Rather, the philosophy of the place has made it a comfortable, safe place for LGBTQ+ people to frequent.

“I’ve had people call me a faggot,” Johnston said. “Someone broke a bottle on my face once. But the city has changed, it’s become more accepting — but it wasn’t always like that.”

Pierce and Johnston met and fell in love at the Surly Wench. Pierce had joined the crew as a bartender in 2006.

“I told her, ‘You should hire me because you named the place after me’,” Pierce said.

Love and acceptance reigned in the Surly until the pandemic hit and threw a wrench in the works. 

While Johnston and Pierce had managed to get through the long period of streetcar construction on 4th Avenue, which affected their business as there was no parking and limited accessibility for patrons, COVID-19 was scary for the bar’s co-owners.

“We shut down on St. Patrick’s Day of 2020. And this is making me emotional,” Pierce said. “We had ordered all this Guinness and we just started pouring people car-bombs and telling them ‘We don’t know when we’ll see you next but we’ll open as soon as possible.'”

During lockdown, Johnston and Pierce busied themselves with making the Surly Wench look as good as possible with paint touch-ups and deep cleanings and electric fix-ups.

“We didn’t have the money to spend so we taught ourselves how to do everything,” Johnston said. “DJ Noir also decided to do streams online and really pushed ‘When we’re back at the Surly Wench’… it was a group effort to get the spirits up.”

Pierce said the pair noticed a particular haunted phenomenon during their COVID shutdown.

“We would get here, it would be just the two of us, and the stage lights would be on,” Pierce said. “We had to tell the ghosts, ‘We’ll have people here as soon as we can.'”

During the pandemic, the co-owners’ concerns didn’t only rest on re-opening but also on the well-being of their staff.

“We really are like family,” bartender Kaleigh Mendocha said.

Mendocha has been a bartender at the Wench for five years. Her fondest memories have taken place at the bar.

“Every legal birthday I’ve celebrated here,” Mendocha said.

She said what makes the Surly Wench special is that the bar offers something different.

“Our cocktails are all original drinks. I could go down the menu and tell you who created which drink,” Mendocha said. “And this place brings a mix. All sorts of people come here. It’s a safe place. I mean, all are welcome except assholes.”

Chelsea Irvin has been a bartender there for a month but she had been frequenting the Wench before she was an employee.

“I just felt very connected here. It felt homey, laidback. Not over-pretentious,” Irvin said. “I found this place because I moved here from Ohio, and I was looking for places with burlesque like the place I liked in Ohio. And I just loved the burlesque and the manlesuqe too. It’s alternative. All kinds of people come in and it’s a good place to come get your punk or goth fix.”

Jason Wallace can be found at the front door. He is usually checking IDs and welcoming people into the establishment. He had been part of the staff for three years but he had also been a fan of the place for years beforehand.

“It reminded me of a bar in Miami called the Kitchen Club except that this place actually has a kitchen,” Wallace said.

The kitchen at the Surly Wench Pub is open until 1 a.m., making it one of the few late-night eateries around Downtown Tucson. Chef Tori Haynes’s menu includes pub food made with heart featuring hand-breaded pickles and burgers inspired by Johnston’s Polish heritage. Pierce said the house-made poblano sauce and the deep-fried Oreos are also a hit.

Wallace’s favorite memory involves him recovering from a neck injury.

“I broke my neck and when I finally came back, they had a sign that said ‘Jason, we missed you,'” Wallace said. “The Surly just brings something different.”

Regular visitors Nikole Rose and Maggie Thrice have witnessed the evolution of the Surly Wench before the pandemic and after the lockdown.

“This place is like a refuge,” Thrice said. “It’s a good place to help you with breakups. It’s a safe place and they don’t have bars like this. There is a sense of community. Some people go to church or casinos but this place has a sense of rebellion.”

“It can get quite raw,” Rose added. “But people don’t judge you here.”