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People always ask me: "What's your neighborhood bar? Where do they know your name and pour your first drink before you even sit down?"
Nowhere, I answer with a sigh. Ever since I left my Capitol Hill apartment in early 2007, I haven't had a solid joint to walk to — even if I wanted to kick my own liver on a nightly basis. A goddamn shame, really.
But not anymore.
3463 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80205
Region: Downtown Denver
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I just bought a house in the Cole neighborhood, my third move since 2005. Though I made the initial offer, suffered through the contractual process and eventually closed (with my teeth gritted, barely able to refrain from jumping the table to punch the seller and his realtor in their smug mouths) for all the right reasons, I have to admit that the entire time I was thinking about one very specific reason: Phil's Place, a classic dive that's just a short walk from my new home. Back in 2002, Phil Garcia and his folks — most notably his mother, Junie, who ran the kitchen at the Bamboo Hut for more than twenty years — took over what had been Our Place and started serving up cold beers as well as hot Mexican fare (offered in takeout containers even if you're eating in) to a solid group of regulars that resembles a family more than a ragtag gang of random barflies. I wanted in on that family action. Immediately.
So I walk, out my front door facing Franklin Street — alongside the chain-link-surrounded basketball courts at Cole Arts & Science Academy, past the Bruce Randolph Community Garden, the Eastside Auto Repair shop, the Top Cuts barbershop ("Cortes para toda la familia"), the Econo Mart Liquor store and the now-abandoned Inner City Health Center – and into the warm embrace of Phil's Place. The trip there takes 8:25 (I time it on my phone); the trip home takes considerably longer because I can't manage much of a straight line. Regardless, I'm pleased to finally have a neighborhood bar close to home.
And surprised to see that the bar recently made some changes beyond anything the neighborhood might require. Phil's now boasts a wooden bar with cream tile inlays and a gorgeous back bar, all of it less than a month old. Three flat-screen TVs (for a total of four) are also new, as are a new kegerator system and cabinet that save bartendress Ana from having to trek downstairs for line changes and back stock. The highly skilled carpenter responsible for the transformation is drinking (hopefully free) Bud bottles down the bar from me, and Phil himself is washing dishes in the kitchen (which is open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday).
Otherwise, not much has changed. Handwritten signs are still scattered about the green-carpeted room, silently enforcing the house rules: "No tabs — only when Phil's here"; "NO kids on Pool Table"; "Any pool ball knocked off the table!!! $1 in the JukeBox." Broncos logos and loyalty still appear everywhere — on hand-painted mirrors (not to mention a giant mural on the northeastern-facing outer wall), banners, pennants, bobbleheads and pompoms – though many of the little plastic helmets and jersey cozies that used to cover the beer bottles on the selection shelf behind the bar are gone. And the regulars, la familia — who on previous visits have entertained to no end while talking and shrieking shit at clueless game-show contestants making asses of themselves on the TVs — are all here. One is selling $1 raffle tickets for a holiday party to benefit neighborhood kids. Another refers to herself and her husband as Marie and Donny Osmond. "I left my black wig at home, though," she quips.
Though Phil is still closing up as early as 6 or 7 p.m. on weeknights if business is slow, the changes are encouraging. For the Garcia family and the future of their business; for Ana and her twelve-hour bartending shifts; for the loyal regulars and their family dinners, their card games, their charity raffles.
But especially for me and my quest to have my first drink poured before I even sit down.