Oh, Brother! Denver's oldest bar has a bad case of sibling rivalry
What's in a name?
For Jim Karagas, absolutely everything. For four decades, he's been the man behind My Brother's Bar, the watering hole at 2376 15th Street that's such a Denver landmark it has no sign above the door and has never really needed one — until now.
The history of this building stretches much further back than 1970, the year that Jim and Angelo Karagas, brothers two years out of Detroit, bought the oldest continually operating bar in Denver and renamed it My Brother's. The saloon had gotten its start in 1873 as the Highland House, was purchased by the Schlitz Brewing Company some forty years later, became known for a while as Whitie's Restaurant and then the Platte Bar, then turned into Paul's Place — where Neal Cassady, the inspiration for On the Road, might still have an outstanding tab, judging from the letter posted on the bar's wall that he sent a pal while sequestered in the Colorado State Reformatory: "I frequented the place occasionally & consequently have a small bill run up, I believe I owe them about 3 or 4 dollars. If you happen to be in that vicinity please drop in & pay it, will you?"
It was still Paul's when the Karagas brothers bought the place, "an old dump that was cheap," Jim explains. They went for a couple of years without any name and without much money, and when a tradesman came in with a bill, one brother would tell him to "give it to my brother, it's his bar," he remembers. "It just dawned on us one day that we should call it My Brother's Bar."
And that's what the bar's been known as ever since — when it isn't simply referred to as Brother's.
For many years, My Brother's Bar had an actual sibling. In 1974, the Karagas brothers bought an old plumbing-supply building nine blocks away, at 1600 15th Street, which they turned into the Wazee Supper Club. While Jim continued to watch over My Brother's, Angelo had responsibility for the Wazee, as well as the series of tenants who occupied the office space upstairs, including an upstart newspaper named Westword. Although the brothers would trade off weekend duty and occasionally considered other ventures, they were ultimately content to concentrate on their pair of bars. "We tried a suburban operation down south," Angelo told us back in 1984. "We learned something about ourselves: We're not that hardworking. Two bars are enough."
Particularly since Jim and Angelo worked plenty hard as hands-on operators: seating customers, occasionally serving customers, overseeing every aspect of their bars. After Angelo died in 1994, his widow ran the Wazee for three years — but they wound up selling it to the company that owned the Wynkoop Brewing Company, then run by future mayor John Hickenlooper.
One bar was enough for Jim Karagas, so long as that one bar was Brother's.
He's still there just about every day (not Sunday, though: My Brother's has never been open on Sunday), overseeing the business and, increasingly, thinking about that upstart, Brothers Bar & Grill, that will soon be opening at 1920 Market Street, in the building that had housed The Real World: Denver. He wasn't bothered when two British brothers, Chris and Nick O'Sullivan, started their homegrown chain back in 1998; Brothers BBQ just didn't seem to come that close to Brother's Bar. For starters, the concept was all about barbecue, not about a bar. "It's a totally different name," Jim says.
But Brothers Bar & Grill? That's coming uncomfortably close to the Colorado trademark the Karagas brothers registered forty years ago. Brothers Bar & Grill was founded in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1990 by brothers Mark and Eric Fortney. (The logo's "est. 1967" claim actually refers to when the first of the brothers was born.) Although that company has a national trademark and establishments scattered across several states, My Brother's has a good chance of winning a court battle over the name, Jim says: "Our lawyer is confident if we want to fight it — but it will take a long time and be expensive."
And after four decades in the business, with his younger brother gone, Jim isn't sure he wants to get into a long, drawn-out fight. He had hopes that he could maybe sit down with the Fortneys and come to some kind of compromise, and "one of them came in and wanted to be a good neighbor," Jim recalls. But not so good that they were willing to give up the word "Brothers" — and while Jim's willing to accept "Bros.," he says, "I personally don't want Brothers to be in it at all.... Maybe if it were on the other side of town, but not half a mile away."
My Brother's Bar is such an institution in this town that it's hard to imagine someone could walk into a Brothers Bar & Grill and confuse the two. After all, My Brother's is known for playing classical music, selling Girl Scout cookies and serving its burgers with a minimum of ceremony, while Brothers Bar & Grill locations, according to the company's website (my calls to the Fortneys were not returned), "cater to the 21-35 year old demographic" with "competitive drink specials" and "over-the-top events." But it's already happened. Last week My Brother's got a delivery intended for Brothers, and Jim Karagas took a call from a woman applying for a job at the new bar — which she thought My Brother's was opening.
"It's just so upsetting," Jim Karagas says. "What can I do?" While he may not be ready for a big court battle, neither is he about to surrender and put up a big sign outside reminding customers that they're about to walk into the forty-year-old, one-and-only My Brother's Bar. This is one tough case of sibling rivalry, and nothing is relative.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.