The Zephyr Lounge, the legendary bar at 11940 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora, turns seventy years old this year. If you haven't made it to this unique neighborhood spot — which provides just the right ambience with its mix of wood paneling, random art, three daily happy hours, karaoke, live music, neon lights and stuffed animals — this might be the year to do it.
The bar has been in the Melnick family for seventy years, as well, starting when the late Barry Melnick bought it from the Potter brothers in 1947. Melnick's family had been in the industry even before that; his mother ran beer gardens in the family's native Poland. Now a younger Melnick, Myron, runs the place after taking over from his father thirteen years ago. Myron Melnick is a sculptor and art collector, and the eclectic art decorating the bar is just a fraction of his personal collection. He explains his collecting tendencies by comparing himself to the people on the TV show American Pickers, who have multiple storage units full of stuff and don't want to part with any of it.
You get the same sense about the Zephyr Lounge — that no one wants to part with any of the history of the place. The interior is a throwback to the last major renovation in the 1970s, and the staff still uses a cash register made in 1944. The exterior of the building looks like a steel-clad Zephyr train from the 1930s, but with the slightly newer additions of a neon sign and a smoking patio added in 2004 that was modeled after a beachfront veranda Melnick once visited in Mexico. The train theme led to the bar's slogan — "The train that never leaves Aurora" — which seems apt for the reliable nature of the watering hole that has been serving the neighborhood known as "Original Aurora" for so long. Melnick isn't one for following trends, which is refreshing, and the Zephyr is definitely the sort of place that doesn't need fixing (because it ain't broke).
I went to the Zephyr Lounge several times the first year I moved to Denver; at the time, I worked with an organization that provided free medical care for folks living in East Colfax motels. My co-workers and I used to stop into the Zephyr to inquire about any medical-care needs, because the bar was, and still is, the office for the Zephyr Motel next door. Sometimes we helped people set up medical appointments; sometimes we just chatted with the residents of the hotels and other various old-timers hanging out in the bar during the day. My co-worker and I once had a Vietnam veteran tell us he got his medical care at the V.A., then proceed to regale us with a tale of the time he "cut off a man's ear with a machete." There was always somebody taking advantage of the daytime happy hours at the Zephyr — two of them, to be exact, one from 9 to 11 a.m. and another from 2 to 7 p.m. (A third happy hour happens at night, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.) During those windows, you can get anything behind the bar at a price of "two for $1 more," which could also be described as "buy one, get one for $1."
On a recent post-gym outing to the Zephyr with a friend who also used to work at a homeless outreach organization that supported clients in the motels on East Colfax, we just missed happy hour. But there were still plenty of people hanging out, with a few middle-aged couples eating dinner in the booths, several scruffily dressed guys at varying levels of drunkenness sitting beside us at the bar, and a guy decked out in Broncos gear texting on his phone on our other side.
The crowd reflected the racial diversity of the neighborhood and a broad range of ages as the night wore on. We watched a man use the land-line bar phone to call a cab — not an Uber or Lyft, but an actual taxi. Later, some hipster kids came in to chat with the bartender, Rhea. Several people were smoking out on the patio, and Rhea checked the situation out there periodically on the video surveillance monitors. We talked with Rhea and the patrons about Halloween decorations, the changing neighborhood and the best nights to come to the Zephyr these days. The jukebox swung wildly between classic-rock anthems and ’90s hip-hop jams, depending on who was selecting the music to accompany our conversation.
The consensus seemed to be that the best nights to come to the bar are Friday and Saturday to see live music, which tends to be a mixture of funk, blues, soul and rock. There were also a few votes for karaoke night on Thursdays and for Broncos Sundays, when the touchdown shots and free food draw a crowd. Other events include Wednesday night Bingo and comedy shows on the third Saturday of every month. But whether there's an event happening or not, you can find a varied crew: neighbors who live in the adjacent weekly motels, medical students and doctors from the Anschutz Medical Campus, multiple generations of families who have been coming to the Zephyr since the early years of the bar's existence, and marijuana tourists who have recently started to rent Melnick's refurbished, 420-friendly Airbnb motel units.
The neighborhood has changed over the years, from when the Zephyr was one of the few restaurants on Colfax during the Route 40 tourist days in the middle of the twentieth century to more recent times, when the new hospital complex brought sparkling medical buildings and apartment complexes to the area and displaced residents of motels and trailer parks that were bulldozed for new development. Melnick welcomes hospital personnel by offering one happy-hour-priced drink to customers wearing scrubs, regardless of the time of day.
In 2012, there was a bit of a brouhaha at the Zephyr following the Aurora theater shootings, when the 24-hour news media camped out at the bar investigating rumors that James Holmes had been drinking there just prior to his deadly rampage. Those rumors were untrue, though Melnick recalls seeing Holmes a time or two in the bar with other medical students before then. But he points out that assigning any particular significance or connection between the Zephyr and Holmes is the same as assigning significance to where Holmes got his groceries or put gas in his car. At the time of the shooting, that was pretty much what was going on. Melnick remembers all the CBS reporters in identical suits, and one journalist from the New York Times who researched every business where Holmes had been a customer in the weeks prior to the shooting to find a new scoop or angle on the story.
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Most of the time, the Zephyr isn't full of reporters looking for stories; instead, it's usually full of regular people looking to unwind. Bar-goers have plenty of chances for that, since the bar and kitchen stay open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, including all major holidays. With drinks that run the gamut from Franzia boxed wine to Breckenridge Brewery Mango Mosaic pale ale, and a menu that lists the option of "anything on the menu smothered with green chili" for a few bucks extra, there's something for everyone here.
And Melnick aims to keep it that way. He never really planned to take over the bar, but has grown to love it. His favorite thing about the Zephyr is the people he gets to meet. Friends tell him he should travel the world to meet new people, but he doesn't need to, because people from all over the world come into his bar. Heeding his father's advice to achieve success "like a turtle, not a rabbit," Myron Melnick plans to carry on his father's legacy of slow and steady. After all, things at the Zephyr have to move slowly to make sure the train never leaves Aurora.