By Jennifer C. Olson ∙ Photos by Douglas Merriam

Front entrance of Whiskey Creek Zócalo.

What will you find at Whiskey Creek Zócalo? According to the hand-lettered sign out front, the answer appears to be “cold beer, good wine, live music, woodfired pizza.” But there’s more to discover at the site that the former Hurley schoolhouse has occupied since the 1940s or so.

On seven acres in the Arenas Valley, a community bisected by US Highway 180 as it runs between the town of Silver City and the historic mining village of Hurley, the restored stucco building is flanked today by a wall of shipping containers painted with desert-toned geometric murals by Nichole Graf. You can step into Whiskey Creek Zócalo through the building’s main entrance or slip between a pair of turquoise doors—a break in the murals—to find yourself in a plant nursery. Doing a double take, you might glance back toward the parking lot and notice the antique orange Ford carrying another sign with bubbly letters spelling out the word “nursery.”

Left: Melanie Zipin, Rafael Zipin, and Jeff LeBlanc. Right: Jeff retrieving pizza from wood-fired oven.

Yes, at Whiskey Creek Zócalo, you’ll find food, drink, entertainment, and plants. Soon you’ll also be able to glamp and enjoy multi-day festivals at the sprawling bar/restaurant/venue/farm/nursery. The owners, Melanie Zipin plus her husband, Jeff LeBlanc, and her son, Rafael Zipin, shrug and say, “We wanted to create a space that reflected all our passions, which is why we’re kind of all over the place.” Each has experience in the service industry but is foremost an artist and musician with an inclination toward building community. “It felt more like a passion project than a business to me,” Melanie says. With no specific intentions, Melanie and Jeff purchased the four-thousand-square-foot building on its creek-side acreage in 2015. During the pandemic, Rafael brought home the experience he’d amassed during a decade of opening and operating bars in Los Angeles and Portland. In the three years they spent remodeling the building and grounds, they expanded their vision. And over their first year of being in business, they’ve allowed even more ideas to sprout rather than pruning back their dreams.

Being “all over the place” is part of what makes Whiskey Creek Zócalo such a gem. But what makes it really special is the way the family makes everyone feel invited. “Our community has felt separated for a while,” says Melanie, acknowledging that most locals live beyond the Silver City town limits and want a gathering place outside of downtown. “You can tell when you talk to people from the rural areas. They hopefully have a place that feels comfortable now.”

The family has devoted their energy and resources to creating a destination for people near—and far. That has come to include an impressive catalog of touring musicians who might otherwise have passed through without performing. “The Southwest is so hard because everywhere is so spread out. Somebody might have a gig in Austin and not have another until Phoenix,” says Rafael, the wizard behind the bookings. He strives to present music as a focus rather than as background noise, hosting about four touring acts each month and sprinkling in low-key events like the regular songwriters’ showcase. “We like to have a combination of giving people what they want to see and showing people what they haven’t seen yet,” Rafael says.

While Whiskey Creek Zócalo imports some of its entertainment, its restaurant sources whatever possible locally. The pizza, which is excellent, is baked in the horno Jeff built of clay. “My first wood-fired oven was probably twenty years ago. We started doing parties at our house, always cooking with fire,” he says, noting that piñon and oak flavor the pies, stuffed mushrooms, and roasted vegetables differently than a conventional oven could.

Radishes, turnips, beets, and squash from Frisco Farm the next county over get chopped into salads. Drinks sometimes include muddled juniper berries or strawberries plucked from containers out back, while salads may be garnished with foraged yucca flowers or sprinkled with the elm seeds that abound each spring. “They’re super delicious,” Jeff says.

Signage invites guests to Whiskey Creek Zócalo’s plant nursery.

The bar offers New Mexico wines along with beer from Silver City’s Little Toad Creek and other regional breweries. The wine- and beer-based cocktails, like sangrias, are mixed with house-made simple syrups. Rafael already plans on serving mesquite flour–rimmed cocktails when the venue receives its craft spirits license this spring. “We did make some of our own tepache too,” Melanie says.

In alignment with their homegrown ideals, the family started farming. With help from a Healthy Soils Grant from the National Resources Conservation Service, they grew the garlic used on their pizzas. This season, they’ll cultivate tomatoes and basil in their quarter-acre garden. “We’ve started planting agave with the International Bat Conservation group,” says Jeff, who also rooted over a dozen fruit trees on site. “We love plants and growing,” Melanie says. The first component of the business to open its doors, the nursery sells pollinator-attracting perennials, cacti and desert shrubs, and heirloom fruit trees from a grower in the Mimbres River Valley.

As a restaurant and bar that spills into the sandy countryside via its nursery, garden, and orchard, Whiskey Creek Zócalo turns out to be a family-friendly meeting spot where adults can mingle while children run wild, exploring the arroyo, climbing tree stumps, roasting marshmallows around the firepit, and playing yard games. “When the weather is nice, to have people come and walk around the nursery and get something to eat feels like a nice merger of things that makes it feel more welcoming to people,” Melanie says.

Beet salad, hard kombucha, and pepperoni pizza with green chile.

Outdoors and in, diverse spaces create varied compartments for people to assemble, making Whiskey Creek Zócalo whatever the community needs it to be that day. In the airy main room, a birdcage strung with faux succulents passes for a chandelier, and reclaimed lumber shelves hold decanters and retro posters. A highway sign with peeling yellow paint reading “Welcome to New Mexico: Land of Enchantment” brightens the burgundy wall behind the curved bar. Outside, stuccoed-over mine truck tires become planters, while a cattle trough nurtures goldfish and lily pads. “There are places to see the music or get away from the music. I’ve heard from people they can come be social if they want to, but they don’t have to,” Rafael says.

Visually, the speakeasy—or, as Rafael refers to the space, The Lodge—stands out. It’s a room “with its own mythos” that promotes ritual, conversation, intimate congregations, film screenings, or brazen performances for micro audiences. Rows of chairs and benches face a small stage. Another bench—as long as a pew but made from a vintage toboggan—runs along the wall between the bar and a brick hearth styled like an altar. Murals depict a ladder with swords as rungs, the silhouettes of snakes tangled up among thorny desert shrubbery, and a portal to who knows where. A phone booth on stage left is relabeled “Confessional,” while stained-glass artwork imbues reverence. The dark wood window aprons could have been reclaimed from either a Gothic church or pagan altar.

A rosy-walled chamber kitty-corner from the entrance is part greenroom, part flex space for artist demonstrations or workshops. It may prove especially essential when Whiskey Creek Zócalo holds a music festival, perhaps as soon as this summer. To accommodate musicians and artists coming for residencies, they’re adding a vintage RV campground. “We have four trailers we’re fixing up,” Jeff says, including a VW pop-up.

“There are a lot of irons in the fire,” says Melanie, who hopes that the guys will make time to build a bay out by the nursery where she can create a vintage shop. Rafael affirms, “It feels like if there’s something for everyone, it’s better.”

11786 Hwy 180 E, Arenas Valley, 575-388-1266,

Jennifer C. Olson
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Having grown up working and playing in her family’s orchard in the Mimbres River Valley, Jennifer C. Olson made a childhood vow to never eat store-bought apples. What she meant was “Eat local whenever possible.” When the family moved on from the year-round responsibility of tending 950 trees, she began relying on other means of acquiring produce grown close to home. The Frontier Food Hub is one of those avenues.