The doors of the Nob Hill Inn open at 8 a.m., "so you start off fresh," says John Plessinger, whose father bought the bar at 420 East Colfax Avenue in 1969 and put it in his then-21-year-old son's name. Forty years later, by 8 a.m. the owner's already been at the Nob for four hours, fixing anything that might have gotten broken before last call just a few hours earlier, looking over the stock, ordering supplies, letting in Marie, who used to live on the streets just outside and now cleans the place. Seven days a week, year after year, Plessinger comes in at 4 a.m., "but by 7:30 or 8, I'm done," he points out. "The bar's given me the freedom to paint all day."
Those are his paintings of Capitol Hill on the walls of the bar. He did them back in 1983, when he got his bachelor of fine arts at the University of Colorado at Denver and may have been the only student to own a saloon on Colfax. Although he'd grown up in bars — his father also owned John W's Taproom in Englewood, as well as the Fox on the Hill and Mr. Von's Alamo — and even worked as a bartender at the Taproom, after he got a degree in advertising from the University of Oklahoma, he sold real estate for ten years. (He got that job from a Nob Hill regular.) He didn't take over the bar until after his father passed away, in 1977.
By then, this spot on Colfax had been in business for over forty years, although it wasn't known as the Nob Hill until '54. Before that, it was a restaurant of some renown, with a bartender who was working his way through law school and later become governor. Those booths in the corner? At one point there was a phone there, so that legislators who were drinking in the bar knew to hightail it down the hill to the Capitol for a vote. And the Nob continued to attract lawmakers and lobbyists for years. "When Father first bought the bar," Plessinger remembers, "people would come here in coats and ties."
The crowd outside the bar went downhill a lot faster than the crowd inside. The neighborhood hit bottom in 1991, "when drug dealers and prostitutes came in from California," Plessinger recalls. "Ever since, I've been combating them. Every day, they take the bus in from Aurora, and spend all day, all night here, then go home. It's a vicious cycle."
He's seen it all. He's painted some of it. "This is the most Democratic bar there is," he says. The ne'er-do-well son of one prominent family (his father's name is on a local theater) would sit at the bar every day from 8 to 5, like it was his job, and cash a hundred-dollar check. Bob Dylan has partied here. But mostly, the Nob attracts a loyal crew of regulars, regulars who come here not for the food — which today consists of only Tombstone pizzas — but the camaraderie. The staff and the customers are family.
Still, there are limits to family love. Dora, who's been a Nob Hill bartender for sixteen years and "grew up in Five Points and has seen everything," finally got fed up with the dealer repeatedly walking through the bar. "If I lose my good help, I lose my business," Plessinger says. "Being a bartender is the hardest job on earth. You have to deal with the public, and then you have to deal with the public that's been drinking – and it doesn't get harder than that."
Except, of course, when you have to deal with the dope dealers and crackheads outside after handling the drunks inside.
But for the first time in a long time, things are looking up. The building that houses the Nob — which at one point in the early '70s was owned by the State of Colorado, which considered putting the new judicial center here, then went through a series of slumlords — finally is in the hands of Ringsby Realty, a longtime Denver business that has fixed up the second floor (no tenants yet), put on a new roof, added solar and landscaping. And for the past month, the stretch of Colfax outside the bar has looked better than Plessinger remembers it looking in years. He credits this to a September 30 meeting organized by Deb Palmieri, who runs the Russian Consulate around the corner on Pennsylvania, a meeting attended by activist neighbors and cops and even a few members of Denver City Council. Plessinger talked to the group, sharing four decades of history and his hopes that, one day, the vicious circle might finally be broken.
"It will be a miracle, but it's possible," Plessinger says. "This is as clean as I've seen it."