The last time I was at Badger's Pub, it was snowing outside and I was wearing a Snuggie. A friend had invited me to a Seven Deadly Sins-themed bar crawl, and instead of dressing like Lust or something skimpy that would prove inadequate for the weather, I went with the pragmatic choice of dressing as Sloth — hence the Snuggie. It probably didn't help my game with the gentlemen of Baker, but I will stand by my decision to drink in public in a Betty Boop Snuggie I bought on a whim at Kmart any day.
I was long overdue for a visit to the half dive sports bar/half Baker hipster hangout at 76 South Broadway, so a friend and I headed over for some drinks on a Saturday night before things got too crazy in the neighborhood. Our night was off to an auspicious start when I actually found a metered spot on the same block as the bar, a rarity these days in that area. As the sunlight faded, we sat at a table by the door because it was a bit warm in the non-air-conditioned space. We ordered up some drinks and noticed the subtle changes since our last excursion to Badger's. For my friend, it had been years since her last visit. There was new lighting above the bar, giving the place a slightly more welcoming look, and some of the walls had been newly painted. The floors, which used to be carpeted, were now covered in fake-wood laminate. But the rest of the bar remained the same. The vending machine, Broncos-branded Bonus Hole quarter game and pool tables looked familiar. I think the Golden Tee setup might have been new, but I'm pretty sure the Big Buck Hunter game had been there for a while.
The crowd at Badger's that night was varied, for sure; a table of couples behind us sported intense studded leather outfits almost too punk-rock to be true. Two older male regulars in baseball caps sat at their designated spots at the end of the bar, which are literally reserved with name plates of the patrons who get eternal bar-stool dibs. My friend and I scoped out the pool area before snagging seats at the bar that were designated for two female regulars named Jenny S. and Denyse T., who had apparently left their seats temporarily unattended.
Sorry Jenny S., I stole your seat. I'm really just keeping it warm for you.
A few assorted couples with no particular look also sat at the bar, along with a solo guy messing with his phone, who we soon found out was general manager Adam Landmark. He told us a bit about the bar, where he was a regular for quite some time before landing the manager job about a year ago. The bar has been Badger's for six years or so; prior to that it was the Brown Barrel Tavern for almost thirty years. Over a round of Green Tea Shots, which did somehow taste a lot like green tea despite being made of sour mix, Jameson and peach Schnapps, Landmark told us the real deal about the plaques on the bar. Apparently it's becoming an issue, because now all the regulars want plaques to go alongside the original five. How do you choose who gets a plaque, after all?
Landmark, who lives in the neighborhood, prides himself on the fact that Badger's has managed to keep a steady core of regulars despite the constant influx of moneyed newcomers. "I miss Big Lots," he says wistfully when I ask him about the changes he's noticed living in Baker over the past few years. This is a reference to the belief shared by many that the beginning of the end of Baker in terms of gentrification and over-popularity was the demise of the discount retail store.
Landmark says that the secret to the success of Badger's is that the bar is there for anyone and any occasion. Sure, University of Wisconsin sports are a big deal — the mascot is the namesake of the bar, after all. During games, the place is packed with Midwesterners of the Wisconsin variety, probably all being extra nice and wishing they had some fresh cheese curds to eat. But Wisconsin stereotypes aside, Badger's could likely stop being a Wisconsin bar and still survive on the weekend crowd of hipsters, punk rockers from 3 Kings Tavern next door, day drinkers with nowhere else to go, and assorted preppy young bros and gals that can still afford to live nearby. And because the customer base is so wide, Badger's doesn't really need to cater to a particular niche, like many businesses in the area. Avoiding complication by sticking to cheap drinks, a few specials and a distinct lack of pretentious decor looks good on the place. About those specials: Happy hour runs from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays and all day Sunday, with $2 Bud, Bud Light, Coors, PBR and Miller Lite, and $3 wells. There is also 25-cent pool Monday through Thursday. Other than that, comedy nights are the only major themed events; Badger's hosts comics for the High Plains Comedy Festival and the Underground Music Showcase's comedy offerings.
As we continued to chat with Landmark, he introduced us to the bartenders, one of whom, like my drinking companion, was a piercing aficionado. They discussed the pros and cons of different types of facial piercings that I had never heard of before — like the ones where you pierce the area above or below your lips. Clearly, I still didn't catch the correct names or learn anything from the conversation; it was a little over my head.
At some point, a group of people in cat ears came in, inquiring about drink specials for the third stop on their "Cat Crawl," which we learned is a bar crawl where everyone dresses like cats and the fee for joining the tour benefits the Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue. Although I'm not really a cat person, I appreciated the concept.
In case you get hungry while playing Big Buck Hunter at Badger's, you can always get some Skittles.
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After a couple of rounds of drinks and those shots, my friend and I figured it would be best to eat some food before drinking any more — and Badger's does not serve food, other than what comes out of the Skittles dispenser and a vending machine filled primarily with chips. So we bid adieu to the crew at the bar and headed down the block to eat at Cho77, which is possibly the exact opposite of Badger's. If you don't know what I mean, this is the restaurant's tagline: "As a true homage to Southeast Asia, Cho77 illuminates Denver's Baker neighborhood with modern interpretations of the area's most prominent street cuisine."
As we left the comfortable, mismatched interior of Badger's and hit the sidewalk on Broadway, darkness had fallen and Saturday night in Baker had officially begun. After dinner, as we walked back to my car, I could see Adam Landmark at the door of Badger's, trying to tame the gathering mob outside the bar as the door guy checked IDs. He gave me a knowing smile, and I could see that at Badger's, keeping to the basics is enough to draw a crowd.