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Bars are back.
One of the many conveniences that dried up during the pandemic was the chance to lean against a bar, sit on a stool, and soak up the atmosphere (and have a few drinks) while hanging out with friends – or making new ones.
When all Colorado restaurants and bars closed for on-site dining in March 2020, the only ones left in business at all were those offering take-away food and liquor. That immediately ruled out most dive bars, which often limit their snack options to old bags of chips and perhaps a tombstone pizza. On May 27 of last year, when restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms to 25 percent capacity, bars were allowed to follow suit – but only if they actually had food available (a food truck in front of the door or a deal with a sandwich shop next door counted, but bags of french fries didn’t … although many spots quickly filled up with frozen pizzas). And they had to follow social distancing rules – which basically excluded most bar seating.
In other words: real pubs have been sunk.
But even most of these places were able to reappear and somehow tread water until the bars reopened with no food last month and were at full capacity in mid-May. So now is an ideal time to toast many old favorites on Metro Denver – real dives that are off the radar and not part of local chains, no matter how respectful of the bar’s origins (think Don’s Club Tavern) or classics that rise above the diving name (My Brother’s Bar).
These are the ten best dives in Denver:
12 volt tavern
7514 Grandview Avenue, Arvada
Arvada took early action during the pandemic and closed streets for people to stroll from shop to shop and restaurant to bar, including the dark and gritty 12-volt tavern, an old dive in the heart of the new and improved old town. While many of these bars already had food service, the 12-volt tavern didn’t, but there was a dollar sandwich that was just right for you – and a deal with the sandwich shop next door if you can wanted something fancier. Now the 12 volt has left those gourmet days behind and has become a reliable eatery again with a good jukebox, cold beer, specialty drinks, friendly pool games, live music, themed evenings … and better bathrooms than you may remember .
1216 Washington Avenue, Golden
With alcohol put Golden on the map, it’s no surprise that this town is home to one of the best dive bars in the area. Bar fans have been living at Ace-Hi since Leo Stillman bought the old Opera House restaurant on historic Washington Avenue and opened the bar in 1961. Now run by Leo’s grandson Sid Stillman, it’s still a place where workers drop off after their shift at Coors Brewing alongside students at the Colorado School of Mines as they prepare for a tough day of class. The place is western and Colorado-proud, with maps of the state and “Native” signs on the walls and old-fashioned control horns adorned with Mardi Gras beads above the cash register.
Carioca Cafe / Bar Bar
2060 Champa Street
As downtown continues to develop, the Carioca Cafe – better known as the Bar Bar – is something to celebrate. Maybe with a drink or ten. It’s fascinating to see how the clientele at this place changes over the course of a day … when it is open all day (opening times have become more sporadic during the pandemic.) You used to get there before noon and have a cup of coffee and some eclectic reading material – or just study some of Denver’s best barflies, some of which may have been here since the doors opened at 7 a.m. As the hour gets later, a selection of hipsters, punks and rockers join in. With these barflies the conversation flows, and next it’s the last call. (No phone, by the way.)
15630 South Golden Road, Golden
Columbine Cafe opened the year that Prohibition ended in a former barber shop on a horse pasture. The next landmark was the Coors Brewery, and the workers at that factory kept the place in business for many years. Golden is about to spread down the street today, but the Columbine still feels like an out-of-the-way find. In the back there is a beer garden, where summer barbecues, horseshoe tournaments and music performances take place. Sometimes there is also live music in the tiny bar, though the only reference to the “cafe” in the name is the breakfast burritos that are served on Sundays. But who needs food when the ambience is so satisfying? This is the kind of place everyone knows your name … long after you’ve forgotten it.
Dr. Proctor’s Lounge
4201 East Mississippi Avenue
The Glendale Mall, which is home to family-friendly stores like the Bookies, is also home to a real dive: the Dr. Proctor’s Lounge (also known as Bar and Grill). Behind its inconspicuous facade, home-style food – burgers and burritos for lunch and dinner – as well as good, stiff drinks have been poured for almost forty years. Happy hour runs from noon to early evening on weekdays, and karaoke is available later in the week. Most of the time, however, you can find locals kicking back brew and poking around pool balls to keep the good doctor in business.
Lounge with a view of the lake
2375 Sheridan Boulevard, Edgewater
At dawn on the last day of summer time, regulars gather in the Lakeview Lounge, which opens at 7 a.m., to toast the new day as the sun rises over the Denver skyline, Sloan’s Lake and Sheridan Boulevard. The sunrise service is a time-honored tradition on this weathered dive that time otherwise forgot – although the bar got new owners, Eugene “Geno” and Jill Martinez, shortly before the pandemic broke out. The couple have managed to keep the place going, however, and it remains an ideal spot to catch stiff Bloody Marys in the morning and mysterious shots in brown paper bags late into the night. They are best enjoyed from a bar stool that has its own hole carved deep into the linoleum, or perhaps from one of the picnic tables outside.
Nob Hill Inn
420 East Colfax Avenue
If there was a love song to Nob Hill Inn, it would be played on a steel guitar. The song would have a bit of twang and it would be sad and satisfying and honest. But last year it was almost silenced. Nob Hill Inn has been a drinker’s haven for seventy years – from Bob Dylan to politicians doing business over the phone in corner cabins – but this rundown watering hole on Colfax nearly dried up during the pandemic. With no kitchen or a decent alternative, the shop was closed for months while take-away pizzas and drinks were sold out the back door and regulars held fundraising campaigns. “We had tough times before,” said John Plessinger, whose father bought the Nob in 1969 and called it in his name. “But nothing like that.” Still, Denver’s best dive bar survived, and today Nob Hill Inn is again serving drinks at its horseshoe-shaped bar.
3416 East Colfax Avenue
Like most of the great pubs in this city, the PS Lounge is a place we never want to see in daylight – but at night the lounge holds a special place in our bar-loving hearts. The place has its quirks: For example, you cannot keep track of the facility that only offers cash. But where else would the owner of the bar – in this case Pete Siahamis – send you a round (or two) of Alabama Slammers, a sweet Day Glo orange mix of sloe gin, SoCo and orange juice that tastes more like tang? to show appreciation for your patronage?
Sam’s Bar & Lounge
6801 Leetsdale Drive
While hipsters have spotted many of Denver’s iconic bars, we’ll bet you won’t find a single hipster at Sam’s Bar & Lounge, a watering hole that opened on Leetsdale Drive in 1954. The place has weathered some rough times lately, but you can still take a seat at the large four-sided bar – there are a couple of comfy booths too – and chat to the bartender who pours stiff, inexpensive drinks. With so much of old Denver disappearing, Sam’s neon sign glows like a beacon.
5201 Ralston Road, Arvada
Double the trouble! The Twins Inn is as simple as it gets – with a Facebook page that hasn’t been updated in years and no website – but the space is clean, the jukebox is good, the beer is cold, and the patrons are very, very friendly. The Twins Inn has been serving beer in this corner since 1961, and although the pet bird that used to visit the place flew the stall, things are back to normal. Except, as one bartender points out: “It’s never normal here.”
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