Call them saloons, taverns, taprooms, pubs, or just plan bars – whatever term you use, they’ve been an essential element of Eau Claire’s culture since the city was little more than a hardscrabble lumbering village. Likewise, the Amber Inn Bar & Grill in Eau Claire has gone by a numerous names, but it’s been one of the city’s most beloved watering holes for 135 years. This tavern first opened its doors to thirsty Eau Clairians in 1881, just nine years after the city was incorporated. Outside, the simple two-story building has changed remarkably little since then. Inside, not much has changed, either – and that’s a very good thing: The Amber Inn still exudes homey, wood-paneled warmth that hearkens back to the 19th century (even if the flat-screen TVs on the walls don’t).
The Amber Inn was established in the height of the lumbering era by Eau Claire’s own Walter Brewing Co. as a way of selling the firm’s fermented beverages directly to the city’s booming populace. Such brewery-owned bars were common back then, and they mainly catered to working-class folks. After the lumber era faded and Eau Claire became an industrial town, the tavern continued in that role, standing as it does just a few blocks from what was the city’s biggest employer for much of the 20th century, the Uniroyal tire plant.
The Walter Brewing Co. sold the tavern around 1910, and within a decade came the biggest buzzkill in American history: Prohibition. In 1920, the establishment became George Berg Soft Drinks, and – legally speaking – alcohol was off the table. Of course, this being the Upper Midwest, it was consumed anyway.
Orville Johnson, the Amber Inn’s current owner, described that era this way in an interview a couple of years ago: “During Prohibition the bar commercially sold root beer, but they would spike the root beer with either 3.2 beer or ‘near beer’ as well as with a bottle of corn whisky which was kept under the bar. The basement of the Amber Inn saw the majority of the alcohol-fueled activities, as the upstairs quarters housed guests, as well as ‘social business’ during Prohibition.”
Today, you don’t have to worry about skirting the law when you get something cold to drink at the Amber Inn (although they’ve still got root beer on tap). While you’re slaking your thirst at the bar or in one of the cozy booths, don’t forget to order up something from the grill. The Amber Inn serves some of the best burgers you’ll find in the Chippewa Valley: Old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness half-pound burgers cooked up on a grill tucked right behind the bar. The sizzle and smell are enough to make a vegetarian’s mouth water. (The olive burger comes with my personal recommendation.)
Beyond the excellent food and drink, the Amber Inn stands out for its great service and its genuine historic charm. It may look plain on the outside, but there’s nothing dull about the authentic Eau Claire experience you’ll have here.
Note: Special thanks to Volume One contributor Blake Fischer for conducting much of the research upon which this article is based.