Sample one of Denver's best dive bars at 8 p.m. Thursday, November 5, when Club 404, 404 Broadway, hosts a launch party for Westword Drunk of the Week columnist Drew Bixby's Denver's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Mile High City.
A true dive can't be manufactured. It can't show up one day on Colfax or Broadway and expect to possess the ethos of a joint that's served drinks through multiple wars and to multiple generations. It has to open early so that shift workers and retirees don't have to drink alone, and it needs to keep overhead low so that draws of draft beer and well drinks are only a couple of bucks.
A true dive doesn't have to be rundown, unsanitary or a hole in the wall, though it could be. It doesn't need carpet or wood paneling or televisions so old they couldn't make the transition to digital. Though it might. Mostly, it just needs to leave well enough alone -- to replace the turn-page, compact-disc jukebox only when it breaks; to repair the toilets or the tile in the bathrooms only if they flood; to serve more than just frozen pizzas or Crock-Pot burritos only if there's a demand and a kitchen that can pass code.
I visited more than a hundred such taverns, saloons, lounges, inns and honky-tonks while researching and writing Denver's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Mile High City, and they all have the credibility to pass the piss test of authenticity, were there one. My selections for the ten best dives in town will strike dedicated Denver barflies as both predictable (Bar Bar, 404) and questionable (Squeeze Inn, Thunderbird Lounge).
Collectively, however, these spots not only span the geographic spectrum, but they also provide a representative snapshot of Denver's dive-bar scene. Some open at 7 a.m. and still only take cash; others offer the city's best cheap eats and live entertainment; a couple attract hard-luck crowds by day and young, hip crowds by night. All boast decades upon decades of history. In alphabetical order (with photos from Marc Hughes), here are Denver's ten (okay, technically eleven) best dive bars:
Ace-Hi Tavern (1216 Washington Avenue, Golden)
For more than sixty years, the Ace has been by far the best reason to get wrecked -- and subsequently stranded -- in Golden. Carioca Cafe (Bar Bar) (2060 Champa Street)
Just because you don't want to touch any of its surfaces doesn't mean you shouldn't puke or pass out all over 'em. At dawn. For next to nothing. Club 404, (404 Broadway)
From the prime rib to the price of a PBR, you can trust everything about Jerry Feld's 404, which since 1951 has been welcoming Denver denizens from all walks of life to come in for a drink or ten. Candlelight Tavern/Kentucky Inn (383 South Pearl Street/890 South Pearl Street)
Separated by a safe stumble along Pearl Street, the Candlelight and Kentucky are down-home dives that offer greasy grub, the full gamut of bar games and open-arms attitudes from staff and regulars alike.
El Chapultepec (1962 Market Street)
With nightly jazz (never a cover), tasty Mexican food and the cheapest drinks in LoDo, the 'Pec is a one-of-a-kind experience, morning, noon and night. Hill-Top Tavern (4907 Lowell Boulevard)
A favorite hangout of comedian Bill Murray, the Hill-Top's got Busch on tap, Bowie on the jukebox and a bar that stretches from wall to wall. Be sure to bring cash, and if the phone rings, don't answer it. Rustic Tavern (5126 West 29th Avenue)
Owned and operated by 82-year-old JoAnn Turner -- who, in 52 years of owning the place, has never had a sip of booze or a drag from a cigarette -- the Rustic is tried and true, through and through.
Squeeze Inn (5395 West 48th Avenue)
At only 400 square feet, the Squeeze is easily the teeny-tiniest joint in town. And though the camaraderie is always cramped, the annual car show -- supported in part by a beer tap on the exterior of the building -- is not to be missed. Squire Lounge (1800 East Colfax Avenue)
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A whole-body condom couldn't protect even the hardiest of barflies from this cross-section of Colfax characters, but cut-rate cocktails and bargain-basement beer prices will surely help with the pain.
Thunderbird Lounge (721 Quebec Street) The 'Bird is a family-friendly hangout and blue-collar bar room with an impressive menu, a competitive pool table and all the comforts of home.