Last week I stopped by My Brother's Bar to honor the anniversary of the original release of On the Road -- Jack Kerouac's most popular novel about the beat generation and his travels across America, including time in Denver, the home of his buddy and fellow beat writer Neal Cassady.
When I first picked up On The Road, I was living in California but moved to Denver soon after. I honestly did not expect to see Kerouac's Denver in 2010, but pieces of it are still there: the alleyways that served as home to the drunks, homeless and vagrants (including Cassady's father); the pool halls and bars; the downtown railroad tracks. They are still there, only now glossed over with a gentrified glow.
Another of those places is My Brother's Bar -- one of Cassady's more well-known haunts. But where other parts of Cassady's Denver have been cleaned up, it's easy to imagine My Brother's Bar as Paul's Place, the bar's name when Cassady visited regularly.
My Brother's Bar doesn't wear its history or Beat connection on its sleeve. There are no shrines, no framed versions of On The Road -- only a few photos and a single letter in the restroom hall, in which Cassady asks a friend to pay his Paul's Place bill when he's in Denver.
The place is run now as it was then: without modern restaurant technology. Until recently there was no wifi, and there are still no computers in the restaurant, bartenders and servers take orders, write them down and hand-tally bills. Nor is there a single TV. "People really like that because they talk. They are not distracted by a box," says general manager Charlie Burkhalter. The food is as no-frills as the atmosphere -- burgers, fries, BLTs, grilled cheese and the like, all served in baskets and wax paper.
The bar's patio is a quiet haven, a Denver treasure blocked from a busy street by a brick wall, with a shady canopy of trees and vines. And while it's everything I ever look for in a patio, my most recent visit was the only time I've sat outside at My Brother's Bar. Because honestly, the charm of the place dissipates on the patio. Gone is the dark, pocked wood of the bar and tables, replaced instead by park-bench booths and red and green spindle tables and plastic chairs.
Quiet and shady as it is, the bar's patio is like any other in Denver in that sense it fails to reflect the bar's history as the longest ongoing drinking establishment in Denver (although it doesn't lay claim to the first liquor license -- that much-debated designation is claimed by the Buckhorn Exchange). The corner of 15th and Platte has housed a local watering hole since 1876, according to Burkhalter. The bar's name has changed over the years; it became My Brother's Bar in the 1970s when Jim Karagas and his late brother, Angelo, took over ownership. At 85, Jim still owns the bar and often greets guests at the door.
When Cassady and Kerouac roamed the barroom, patrons were mainly neighborhood residents and local artists, says Burkhalter. That has changed, along with the neighborhood. But on evenings during the week, the long-time regulars come in. Many of them have lived in the neighborhood long enough to remember it before was "the Highlands," describes Burkhalter, back when no one came downtown and the bar sat at "the end of skid row." Sitting at the bar, you can likely fish stories of an old Denver from the patrons or bartenders. "That's part of the fun of it, telling those stories," he concludes.
Where the inside is rich with understated history, the idyllic patio lacks the charm that makes the rest of the place a must-see in the city.
Best Feature: A gimmick-less historic experience.
Best Deal: Burger, fries and a beer for $11.25.
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