For Dave Bryan and his West Washington Park neighbors, nothing sucks like success. Four years ago, Dave achieved his lifelong dream of buying a neighborhood bar, the 43-year-old Candle Light Tavern, just south of Alameda Avenue on Pearl Street. Since then, Dave and his wife, Lisa, have cleaned up the two-room bar -- and its clientele -- turning this once-murky watering hole into a bustling hangout.
But while many neighbors are happy with the upgrade, other locals are vocal in their displeasure. "The noise is pretty constant," says Jay Newberg, who lives close enough to see the neon glow of the Candle Light's vintage sign. "Litter has been a problem, there's been property damage, public urination, vandalism, threats, violence, arguments."
Newberg and a number of his neighbors have complained to the city about the Candle Light, and in early December they met with the Bryans, a few of their customers and Denver officials to discuss the situation. It's not a simple one. The Candle Light controversy illuminates a variation on the standard NIMBY setup: Longtime Not in My Back Yard locals are squaring off against not just bar patrons, but neighborhood newcomers who consider the tavern one of the area's selling points.
Not about a Restaurant
"I love neighborhood bars -- they're one of the reasons I moved to Wash Park," says Jason Tietjen, a Candle Light regular who moved within a few doors of the bar this past summer. "Dave and Lisa have turned the place around, and its success has made people angry. Some of the neighbors are not accustomed to it."
The bar's popularity is one of the problems. The Candle Light has received "best dive bar" nods from a few Web city guides (even though the bar's well-scrubbed ambience is anything but divey), accolades that lure outsiders seeking danger along with their drafts. "What used to be people from the neighborhood, sort of down-and-outers hanging out there, is now a lot of suburban kids who drive in here to behave like down-and-outers," Newberg observes.
Paul Ryan, head of the Washington Park neighborhood group grappling with the Candle Light conundrum, agrees with Newberg's assessment of the Candle Light. "Its popularity has blossomed beyond the neighborhood," he says. "It's now a destination bar."
"People love this place because they love a neighborhood bar," Dave Bryan says. "They don't want to go to LoDo, where it's $3.75 a beer and ten bucks to park. They don't want to go to Cherry Creek, where you can't park anywhere."
Much of the current confusion, he adds, stems from the Candle Light's past. "A lot less people used to come in here," he says, settling into a booth at his clean, now well-lighted place. "But the people that did were doing drugs, fighting. It wasn't a good place to go. The crowd was scary; no one had any teeth."
Previous owners allowed patrons to park their motorcycles in the bar, even ride them through on occasion. Since he's been the owner, Dave's turned down all requests for in-house bike tours. But this fall, while Bryan was on vacation, a Candle Lighter took an unscheduled spin around the bar, angering residents. "That won't happen again," Dave says. "This is not a biker bar."
Adding fuel to the neighbors' ire was a December hit-and-run accident in which a driver crashed into the veterinarian's office next door to the Candle Light. The driver left his car, slipped into the bar to make a quick call, then fled the scene. District 4 police are now investigating the incident, which some neighbors speculate involved a driver who'd gotten lit at the Candle Light. But Dave Bryan insists the driver was not a patron, and the police agree. "The guy was driving a Lexus," Dave says. "That rules out any of my clientele."
"This is not a hot spot of police activity," Denver police officer Nick Grove says of the Candle Light. But the neighborhood is definitely hot, thanks in part to a trio of restaurants (Central One, Sweet Basil and Fontana Sushi) just a half-block north on Alameda. Patrons of these eateries take up the on-street parking that Candle Light regulars once used, Dave says, and as a result, his customers are parking deeper into the surrounding neighborhood, bothering residents.
Particularly residents who are fussy about the color of their collars. "The bar has changed and the neighborhood has changed," Dave points out. "Blue-collar people can't live in the neighborhood anymore. I think you have to know where you're living and what you're up against. Look around your neighborhood before you buy your house. You've gotta know your environment. The people that were at the meeting are not the kind of people that come to a place like this."
If neighbors like Newberg spent a little more time in the Candle Light, Jason Tietjen suggests, their views on the place might be less scorching. "They make one of the best hamburgers in the state of Colorado, and it's a clean place," he says. "It's all your neighbors and friends and family all around you. The Candle Light embodies Washington Park."
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Which means that Dave Bryan, just like every other owner in the neighborhood, is dealing with the growing pains of rising property values and changing demographics, as well as last-call annoyances. To handle the latter, there's a doorman on duty five nights a week and an off-duty Denver cop working the bar on rotating nights. Dave says he's met with city enforcement officers to make sure he's in compliance with all liquor codes, and his veteran barkeeps are careful not to over-serve patrons. And every night, Dave walks the block, sometimes several times, to keep an eye out for potential aggravation.
"Recently there's been a renewed spirit of cooperation," Newberg says. "The jury's out. I wouldn't say things are going to be perfect, but I hope there will be some improvements."
If there aren't, Dave Bryan knows that he's the one who'll get burned. "We could get closed down," he says. "But that'd only happen if I ignored the problems, and I'm not. I'm walking around the neighborhood picking up bottles, whether they're from here or not. If I've got to get a mop and clean up vomit, that's what I'll do. I want to get along with everybody. I want to work with everybody."