No matter where you live, Dougherty's could be your neighborhood Irish joint
I'd walked past twice before figuring out that this unmarked door on Broadway was, in fact, the place where I was going. By the host stand inside that door stood a dapper young gentleman dressed to the nines. Me? Dressed to the fours, at best. "Hour wait," he told me. "Maybe more."
"That's okay," I said, pointing to the bar crowded with beautiful people. "I'll just take a seat at the bar."
"That is for the bar, sir. An hour. Maybe two."
Fuck it. I didn't really want a bowl of turtle soup that badly anyhow. So I said no thanks and headed down the street, where a quick turn sent me straight into Dougherty's. The bar here was full, too, but no one made me wait two hours for a pint of Harp and a shot of Jameson Irish. Also, by this new crowd's standards, I was dressed to the twelves. At least I was wearing pants.
A few months later, I needed a quiet place for a meeting with someone who liked patios, cigarettes and Guinness, and liked them more when he could have them all together. We hit Dougherty's early in the afternoon and parked ourselves at a table under the awning, where we lifted pints and talked and, when we got hungry, ate burgers and hand-cut fries. When the meeting ran long, we moved inside to the bar, where the bottles stood racked to the ceiling and the neighborhood rummies sat hunched over their daily servings. The sun was down before we knew it. We'd killed the better part of a day and had barely felt it pass.
A week after that, my phone rang while I was bouncing between restaurants.
"Where are you?" a friend asked.
"Working," I said. "Where are you?"
"Dougherty's. Come down and have a drink."
I was there in twenty minutes, but this time, I had much more than a drink. I sat at the far end of the bar and put away a plate of grilled, marinated lamb chops. What surprised me wasn't that a place like Dougherty's — a neighborhood joint, tucked just a half-block off the Broadway drag — had a menu, but that it had a real menu. A good menu. I ate with my elbows up on the bar, wedged in among the first shift of evening drinkers.
Wes Ingram, who owns the place with his girlfriend, Tina Ulibarri, came by, working the room, shaking hands — a big, overgrown Irish-American kid with a ready smile and the gait of a bar-room professional, accustomed to navigating tricky landscapes. "You want to move into the dining room, man? You look a bit crowded."
I looked up at him from my bar stool. "You have a dining room?"
Yeah, Dougherty's has a dining room, complete with tablecloths laid with squares of brown butcher's paper and tiny glasses of fresh flowers. It also has a sound system that cycles between the greatest hits of Southern-fried rock, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and the Grateful Dead doing "Ripple." As well as three antique highchairs and a surprising number of babies.
Yeah, babies. Since opening in October 2007, Dougherty's has hosted two weddings, five baby showers, more birthdays than Ingram can count and some serious parties — for firefighters, for fans of The Big Lebowski. But it truly shows its stripes Tuesday afternoons and Friday nights, at the nothing-special times when the mix of crowds is like a demographer's nightmare: two SoBo crews facing off in the pool room, arguing over what superpower would be the best to have (flying or invisibility, the classic argument); a dining room full of couples and fours and eight-tops running the waitresses ragged; a patio full of dogs; regulars at the bar rolling deep well whiskies between their palms and mentally calculating their tabs hung on the rail above the register; an eighty-year-old couple at the service end drinking pints and sipping soup; and a young woman with her daughter, hoisting the kid up onto the rail so that she can talk with the bartender about getting a tattoo just like Mommy's bright half-sleeve when she's old enough.
"It's a neighborhood pub," Ingram once told me. "We're here for the whole neighborhood." The young and the old, the hip and the square, the firemen and the drunks and industry people (it's surrounded by other bars, other restaurants, all within walking distance — staggering distance post-service on a Saturday night), the families and their dogs. Kid-friendly, pet-friendly, family-friendly, drunk-friendly, with cheap lunches all day and happy-hour specials at the bar. And a real menu.
I was at Dougherty's the night that chef R.J. Van Stockum was adding Irish Leprechaun Lollipops to that menu. Lucky Leprechaun Lollipops. Irish Lollipops. The name had not yet been decided, but the prep had: a wad of Irish cheddar wrapped in prosciutto, cooked and stuck on the end of a breadstick. We demolished two plates of the perfect, pure guilty pleasure of melty cheese wrapped in ham. Nothing good for you about them, but definitely nothing bad, either. I waddled over to Van Stockum on the patio to talk about the lollipops and soon heard about the pea soup he'd been working on all day, laboring over, building up from the basic blocks.
"How many of you are there?" he asked. "Let me send you over some."
He did, and it was amazing — deeply flavored, warm and smooth and as comforting as an extra blanket on a cold night.
Another night, I asked Ingram where he'd gotten Van Stockum from — meaning from what restaurant, what line.
"Straight from heaven," was all he said.
In truth, Van Stockum came from Arizona. A trained sushi chef and a refugee from square-state four-stars, he'd shown up in Denver just when Ingram and Ulibarri were looking for a guy to take over the kitchen. Their first chef had a catering background and couldn't handle the line work. Van Stockum signed on at about the two-month mark and has been at Dougherty's ever since — a big guy who walks the floor in a buttoned chef's jacket, shorts and black desert boots. Everything that can be made from scratch, he makes from scratch. Everything that can be made by hand, he makes by hand. He serves burgers stuffed with corned beef and cabbage, with real, powerful blue cheese and chopped bacon that oozes out while you eat. The cabbage rolls are made with the same mirepoix in which he preps his corned beef, and the corned beef is braised off in the same ovens in which he bakes and finishes his beef-and-lamb shepherd's pie. There's more corned beef and cabbage in the Irish egg rolls served with spicy mustard, which shares space on the apps board with a four-cheese torte in filo, chicken wings, shrimp cocktail, crab cakes and pappadum. And somehow, Van Stockum even gets away with putting a cheese plate on a pub menu, a cheese plate with smoked Alaskan salmon. It's weird, but it all works. And you definitely never get bored eating there.
I've been to Dougherty's a half-dozen times, maybe ten. I've watched the menu develop, the floor become accustomed to the sometimes unusual rhythms (empty one minute and then, for no obvious reason, a sudden flood of customers), the list of regulars grow. I've come for the potato soup (a rich, thick cream base studded with bits of bacon and decorated with a swirl of sour cream — because, when in doubt about what any dish might need to make it better, the answer is cream, butter, more cream and then bacon). I've come just for potatoes, big bowls of champ, fluffy and white and set with a drooling knob of butter (if you ask nicely, the waitress will bring you more melted butter on the side to pour over the potatoes until you're really eating a bowl of butter soup with some potatoes in the middle). I've come for the fish and chips (which I get with champ rather than chips, butter rather than ketchup) made with planks of cod jacketed in a beautifully crisp, lacy batter and served with something orange that I think is supposed to be coleslaw but tastes like celery dressed in ranch and adobo and is one of the few things here I do not like. But mostly I've come for the drinks, because Dougherty's pours heavier than any bar I've ever seen. A Jamo on the rocks is pretty much a small bucket of whiskey with a couple of ice cubes floating in it.
"Mother's milk," Ingram told me when I asked about those pours. "I learned that if you're going to be a neighborhood bar, your bartenders had better take care of the neighbors."
So he pours doubles and then some. Ingram knows his business, having done bar time (and some kitchen time) at several well-known Colorado joints — Mel's, Brix, Solera, Jackson's when baseball first came to LoDo: "I got my combat-bartending Ph.D. there, I'll tell ya."
Still, the biggest draw is that Dougherty's is real. There's no artifice here, no sense of the maniacal Groupthink rigidity that sometimes infects even the smallest places after a year or two in business. Dougherty's still feels rattletrap and rough-around-the-edges, a little bit wild, a little bit unfinished. Good food and long pours and great booze and lots of laughter — that's what sells it. Seeing the same regulars at the bar or on the patio week after week. Watching the kids eat fish and chips, the pretty girls, the locals lifting pints and waiting for the next party to break out. It's all fun.
Even for Ingram. When I caught him between services last Tuesday afternoon, I asked how much time he spends here — working the floor, spreading the love. "Eighteen hours a day," he says. "Why would I be doing it if it wasn't fun?"
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