By Joel Warner
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By 8 a.m., the Zephyr Lounge has already been serving for an hour. The bar is dim, and the previous night's smoke has yet to settle in the air. But the jukebox is kickin' out Patsy Cline, and Barb Pooler (she goes by Barbie here), decked out in rhinestones and an exquisite pair of '50s-style horn-rim glasses, is tending to her two customers.
"This is the only place I'd wear rhinestones this early," she says. "Unless, of course, it's a Breakfast at Tiffany's morning."
The Zephyr doesn't look like much sitting here on this stretch of East Colfax Avenue, just west of Peoria Street, in a neighborhood inhabited mainly by nail salons, pawnshops and every variety of "Mart." The bar has none of the soaring-roofline moderne architecture seen in the no-tell motels and diners that dot the strip, even though it dates from the same era. In fact, the squat structure is easy to miss, because there's only a small Zephyr Lounge sign in the parking lot -- with a bright yellow "Welcome Fitzsimons" banner attached -- and large block letters on the facade spelling out "BAR" and "LOUNGE." Most people characterize it as a dive bar; it is. But it's also a workingman's bar. And Barry Melnick has been opening it for them with a 7 a.m. happy hour since 1947.
Unfortunately, he isn't in the bar today to ask what I'm drinking. At 86, he's finally been sidelined by a car accident and then a heart attack. Other than vacations, this is the first time he's been away since the Zephyr opened. Barbie's blond 'do is no replacement for his full head of white hair, but she's got skills. I eye her other customers' mugs and decide this isn't the type of place for a Bloody Mary. Their cups steam with coffee that Myron Melnick, Barry's son, warns me is made like "rocket fuel." He suggests a cup with a shot of Kahlúa. I accept, with a vague feeling that this might be a sacrilege Barry wouldn't have allowed between his walls.
Barry Melnick has been in the bar business his entire life, although he has never been a drinker or smoker. He grew up in Poland, watching his mother ply the trade in her small beer garden. His father, an expediter for the railroads, died when Barry was twelve, leaving his mother to feed three children.
While she worked, Barry played in a back yard shared by several families. It was the kind of childhood where all the neighborhood kids share one bike and think they're lucky. But in 1938, just a year before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Barry's mother convinced his uncles, who had already immigrated to Denver and founded Melnick Bros. Fresh Meats, to bring over her two boys. They never saw their mother and sister again.
Barry was twenty when he arrived in Denver, and he spoke no English. But two days after he arrived at Union Station, his uncles "put a white cap on me and put me behind the meat counter," he remembers in a documentary of his life that Myron produced for his 85th birthday.
For three years, Barry made $5 a week working at the meat market during the day; he went to Emily Griffith Opportunity School at night to learn English. In 1941, he enlisted in the Army -- pre-Pearl Harbor, he notes emphatically -- and became a dental-lab man. His brother fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but Barry was never stationed overseas. He made sergeant, and when his tour was over, he came back to Denver, back to the meat market and back to his classes.
Until he ran into Nate Feld. An old buddy, Nate owned a bar downtown and recommended that Barry buy one of his own. So when he found the Zephyr, a stunning Art Deco lounge complete with tufted bar near Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, Barry and a partner bought it. "My dad thought being near a military base was the way to go, because he was retired military and could relate to those people and talk to them," Myron explains.
And for 56 years, that's exactly what Barry has done. The Zephyr was the neighborhood bar for Samsonite workers getting off the night shift, military guys who needed a break, and anyone else wandering in off the street seeking solace in a beer and a place pouring it that never changed even when everything around it did. Barry's cook was with him for thirty years, and when he died, Barry quit serving food rather than suffer through new personalities; two bartenders have worked for him since the '60s. "My father definitely has a lot of loyalty," Myron says. "He never liked change. He keeps things the same."
These morning happy hours are usually a little more interesting, Barbie swears. Most places couldn't justify opening so early for just two people, but that's the way Barry's always done it, and that's the way it will always be done. So Barbie has learned her regulars and their schedules and is always ready to serve "a nice, stiff bourbon and Coke at 7 a.m." to one, and two or three Coors to another. "It's mainly the elderly and night workers," she says.