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There's a handwritten notice taped to the window of the Squire Lounge, a not-necessarily clean, well-lighted (with fluorescent bulbs) place on Colfax at Williams, just across the street from one of the city's few 24-hour Taco Bells. In a Magic Marker scrawl, the sign advises patrons that, owing to a change in dress-code policy, sleeveless muscle shirts are among the fashions no longer welcome inside this spartan space.
Four months ago, four enterprising young chaps bought the Squire and decided to spruce it up as best they could in hopes of luring a new demographic -- i.e., the kind of young Capitol Hill-living urbanite who would probably enjoy a nice, cheap pitcher of beer (which the Squire offers for an agreeable $5) but who might not want to have to smell the armpits of other bar-goers in order to get it. They put in new floors, fancied up the interior signage, added an "Internet jukebox" and launched a marketing campaign that promises the Squire is now "not as dicey as it used to be."
But judging by the crowd gathered around the Squire's bar, pool tables and booths during a recent Thursday happy hour -- around that time of day when the sun's descent over the mountains casts weird and mirage-like reflections off the Capitol dome -- some regulars didn't stop to read the notice on their way in. Muscle shirts were in full effect, as were spandex shorts, regrettable perms and missing teeth. Despite recent appeals for new blood, the customers were about as regular as they come, friendly but funky, and dropping their ashes all over the fixed-up floors.
The Squire has always been the kind of place where little homemade signs taped up all over give instructions for almost everything: how to work the toilet, how to properly shut off the faucet, how to use the phone, how to call a cab. Nothing in the place functions exactly as it should: More often than not, you can expect the ATM to be down or a tap to be out. And since the crowd is sometimes surly, you might not want to register that moment of hesitation you feel upon opening the door and taking your first step inside. (A friend of Backwash's learned this a few months ago: Confused by whether he was to meet friends at the Satire or the Squire, he walked inside the latter, looked around, realized he was in the wrong place and turned to leave. A man at the bar, presumably feeling he'd been dissed, voiced his disapproval by calling him a "pig-fucker." )
Even with its cosmetic rehab, the Squire stands as proof that sometimes there's no point in trying to take the Colfax out of a Colfax bar -- and that, perhaps, is the natural and correct order of things.
Yet the Squire's owners aren't the only ones trying to clean up Colfax. Several new or refurbished watering holes have sprung up on the longest contiguous street in America, a stretch so famously seedy that prostitutes who frequent its eastern fringe sometimes refer to their streetwalking work as "Colfaxing." In the past year, the neon-lit strip has seen the opening of the Red Room -- a multi-level chichi space that spills over with suits during peak hours -- as well as Dulcinea's 100th Monkey. This small, jazzy den (in what was formerly the Music Box) boasts an ambitiously upscale decor rather than the wall-to-wall music paraphernalia usually favored by its new owners, the Bianchi family, who also operate Sancho's Broken Arrow (once the Gold Nugget Country Disco) just two doors down on Colfax at Clarkson. Even newer is the Lounge, at the corner of Colfax and Marion, a swank joint in the former home of janleone where even the pool table is washed in mood lighting.
All of these places are very nice, pseudo-sophisticated haunts for the social climber who's tired of doing Jell-O shots in sports bars and now wants to get tanked in a grown-up setting, drinking sidecars instead of Fuzzy Navels, eating health-conscious appetizers instead of buffalo wings. (Still, there's something slightly, I dunno, moldy about many of them -- the lingering consequence of trying to slap a modern facade on structures that have withstood decades of filterless cigarettes chain-smoked by smelly street types who once knew them as home.) But while many people regard the attempted renovation of Colfax -- the bar world equivalent of gentrification -- as a positive thing, there are those who lament the pending encroachment on all things dicey in Denver. Some people just don't want sashimi rolls with their pilsner, thank you very much. That's why they come to Colfax.
Commercial stretches like the 16th Street Mall may help Denver achieve the "world-class" status it so tirelessly pines for, and South Broadway may give it some soul -- but Colfax gives it its sense of disorder, of borderline danger, of cultural chaos beyond the reach of civic micromanagement. Like it or not, those things are part of a vibrant city, as well. LoDo's array of plastic-fantastic wine bars and martini lounges offers plenty of respite from the rigors of the pressed-color world for those who belong to it. But down-and-out career alcoholics, day laborers and proud muscle-shirt wearers -- as well as broke artists and musicians who prefer a neighborhood joint to a "total nightlife environment" -- need places to go, too. To paraphrase Paul Newman, let's save the last great spaces.