In 1873, a group of Germans built a tavern in the heart of Golden's "Goosetown" community, a neighborhood thick with immigrants who worked at what was then the Golden Brewery--later to become Coors Brewing Company--and spent their wages each night throwing back cold ones. The Goosetown Tavern, as it was known until 1989, is thought to have been the oldest continuously operating bar in the Denver area, and maybe the state. Even after it was sold and renamed Sam's Land, it remained a popular local hangout until the last owner, Sam Whelan, died in 1997 and his son was forced by debts and lack of business to sell the place to Coors.
Which promptly turned it into a parking lot.
Fast-forward to 1998, when the most visible of the founders of the Wynkoop Brewing Company, John Hickenlooper, was looking to open a tavern-type spot on East Colfax. He bought the innards of the old Goosetown Tavern from Coors before the wrecking ball dropped and then used the worn wooden bar, oversized wooden booths and various bits of memorabilia to line the interior of his new space (the former home of the Across the Street Cafe), across from the Bluebird Theater. Hickenlooper's intention was to evoke the ambience of an old neighborhood joint, at the same time giving the thriving area another option for a brewski--many of which are from the Wynkoop, of course--and a bite.
But the only thing this Goosetown Tavern evoked for me was a headache.
The service was poor, even by today's standards. In the ladies' room, the seat for the toilet--kind of a crucial component of the beer-focused tavern experience--was lying on the floor next to it. The deafening volume of the incessantly throbbing music forced customers to speak exceedingly loud. At one point a leather-clad babe came through the front door clutching a cell phone to her head. "Whoa, it's too fucking loud in here!" she roared into some poor person's ear. Amen, sister.
But the worst thing about the Goosetown was its food, a mix of yuppified pub grub and bad Italian that took too long to arrive and gave the impression that no one in the kitchen really cared. The only keeper encountered over two visits: a trio of spreads ($6.50) that included a snappy roasted-red-pepper pesto, a velvety textured and tahini-packed hummus and an olive-dense olivada (an Italian version of tapenade). The spreads came with wedges of the tavern's fresh, spongy focaccia, which was much better than what the menu had promised would be "seasonal veggies" but turned out to be a few wrinkled carrot sticks and some withered broccoli.
If only we'd stopped there. But, no, we had to order a Caesar salad ($4.95), which came with more focaccia and featured a nice-sized pile of brown-edged romaine with enough salty dressing to decoupage one of those wooden booths. We followed that up with a traditional pizza ($5), the base of which tasted suspiciously like focaccia, except that it wasn't dotted with herbs. Instead, it was thickly quilted with cheese and a nebulous red sauce. Even more nebulous was the pizza's size, listed on the menu as ten inches in circumference, but not even close to my hand-span of eight.
Stingier still, the Sicilian Poorboy ($6.95) took more of that focaccia--it seems to come with every Goosetown dish in some form or another--and augmented it with as little cappicola, provolone, mozzarella and the usual trimmings as possible. Something's poor here, all right, but it's not this eatery's food costs. One listed ingredient, the prosciutto, was missing entirely. When we asked our server about its absence, she told us we were mistaken: "Oh, no, the Sicilian doesn't come with prosciutto." We were going to ask her to bring the menu back so that we could prove prosciutto was in fact listed as the poorboy's first ingredient, but since she was the only person working the place, we were afraid there might be repercussions if she left in a huff.
On our second stop, the service was still poor, the toilet seat continued to gaze up at me in defiance from the floor, Pearl Jam jammed so loud I had a concert flashback, and the food was even worse. The Greek salad ($5.25) was another pile of past-their-prime greens wet down with dressing, this time a wonderfully tart, balsamic-laced tomato vinaigrette that would have been better in a much smaller dose. The pomodoro salad ($5.50) came with not-fresh mozzarella of indeterminate origin--the menu said buffalo, but as a cheesehead, I doubt it--that had been layered with crunchy, pinkish, unripe romas, too-thick red onion slices and basil with the blackened edges of age, all of which had been drenched in another vinaigrette, this one mouth-puckeringly balsamic-heavy. But at least both salads came with that fresh focaccia.
We got the bread again in a sandwich, this time the roast beef ($6.50): dry, chewy meat completely outweighed by slices of Jack and cheddar cheeses. The baked manicotti ($7.50) might have been edible if someone hadn't baked it into oblivion, but the marinara had cooked down until it looked like red icing, and the meatball was so dry it was like eating a huge wad of cotton. Fortunately, the manicotti also came with focaccia.
At this point, we would have liked dessert but saw none listed. After we'd had our lame entrees slung at us, getting the bartender--who's also your server, a setup that's supposed to be just like that in British pubs, although I don't remember running into it very often there--to return to our table was like trying to get the band's attention at a Pearl Jam concert. And so we gave up. Man can live on bread--focaccia, at least--alone, but it's not much fun.
So we ate dessert first at Goodfriends, which sits a mere block and a half away from Goosetown on Colfax. This is a real neighborhood bar, one that's been quietly pulling in customers for twenty years. It may not have turn-of-the-century booths or be connected with a high-yield microbrewery, but the fern-bar throwback has a nice vibe and fine food for a fair price. And the toilet seats are firmly attached.
Credit the goodwill of good friends Lee Goodfriend, David Racine and Dixon Staples with making this, and their two other eateries, work so well for so long. "We've had our best year in a decade at Goodfriends this past year," Goodfriend says. "Color us surprised. And happy. Who'd have thought we'd make it this long and that we'd outlast so many others?" Like Zach's, for example, Denver's original fern bar, at 1480 Humboldt, where Goodfriend and Racine met while they were working there as a waitress and bartender, respectively.
"We were sort of control freaks, and also leftover vestiges of hippies, I guess, and we couldn't stand the way the place was run," Goodfriend explains. "So we decided to try our own place, with Dixon, about a mile down the road, in what was a barbecue joint at one time and then a bunch of strip joints."
Goodfriends opened in 1979. Four years later the trio expanded to Racines on Bannock, and two years ago last month they opened Dixons Downtown Grill in LoDo. The three restaurants share pastry duties, which explains why they all have some of the best densely flavored brownies ($2) and fruit-packed pies ($2.50 a slice) in town.
If you want to skip the sweet stuff, Goodfriends also offers a worthy weekend brunch, with such specialties as eggs Benedict ($5.50) made from scratch and served with crisp-edged, soft-centered potatoes, and huevos rancheros ($4.95), a cheese-gooey version covered with a punchy, pork-loin-based green chile and topped with two eggs perfectly cooked your way. There's something about sitting with a hangover in Good-friends, where the fern leaves droop sympathetically and the booths are just right for slumping, that's very soothing.
But Goodfriends is also a good place to get a start on a hangover. The bar is usually hopping, and although the crowd is constant in the dining room, languishing there over a beer after getting a few munchies is not only tolerated but encouraged. The deep-fried potato skins ($4.95) filled with bacon and cheese weren't a bad choice for noshing; neither were the beer-battered onion rings ($3.25), which were greasy but not overly so. An even better choice was the hot wings ($4.95), crisp-skinned and juicy appendages kicked into high gear by a sharp sauce.
The well-priced chiles rellenos platter ($6.80) brought three chiles wrapped in egg roll skins and stuffed with a total of about a half-pound of Jack cheese, which spilled out in one big avalanche as soon as the logs were split. During one visit, they were so greasy that the combination of cheese and grease made me a little woozy, but another time they were just right. And the sides more than held up their end of the bargain, particularly the guacamole (see Mouthing Off for the recipe), which had a great jalapeno bite and a nice slap of lemon. The abundance of cheese-covered refried beans was a bit redundant after the chiles, but you could never get enough of that good green chile rich with pork flavor. Compared to the platter, the blackened salmon Caesar salad ($9.50) was a veritable spa meal. The filet was coated with decadently salty spices, tasted very fresh and hadn't been overcooked, but the dressing could have used a little oomph. That quibble, however, was quickly buried by a bite of brownie.
The true test of Goodfriends came on Easter Sunday, when I popped in at dinner time, after everyone had been hammed and lambed to death earlier in the day. Clearly I wasn't the only one ready to relax and down a few beers: The place was packed. Which just goes to show that true neighborhood joints can't be manufactured or re-created; they have to grow into--and then up with--the area.
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As I headed home, I passed the Goosetown, which proves that tradition cannot be transplanted. It also reminded me that, like Golden, this area could use some more parking.
Goosetown Tavern, 3242 East Colfax Avenue, 303-399-9703. Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight, Monday-Wednesday, Sunday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Thursday-Saturday.
Goodfriends, 3100 East Colfax Avenue, 303-399-1751. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday; 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday.