I was running short on Denver neighborhood bars to visit, so it was time for another trip to Lakewood with a friend of mine who lives out that way. West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood is full of amazing-looking dive bars, so we decided to shoot for that general vicinity. Our initial goal was to visit a bar called Shananigans, which seemed endearing because the name must be either a misspelling of the word "shenanigans" or a nod to a person with the last name "Shananigans" or something equally odd. I also thought it would give us a chance to incorporate worn-out jokes related to the movie Super Troopers. But despite a lit-up marquee sign and no indication anywhere on the Internet, when I pulled up I discovered that the bar was closed for good.
Not to worry: Less than two minutes down the road, half a block off Colfax itself at 1515 Garland Street, lies an unassuming dive-bar gem known as Riley's Inn that has stood the test of time. Despite the "Inn" part in the name, Riley's is not a hotel, but just a little bar inside what looks like a brick house. According to co-owner Shirley Sena, who was sitting next to us at the bar counting money, it was originally a chicken coop that was transformed into a bar in the 1940s. Sena and business partner Laurie Sandoval-Shanowski have owned the place since 2008.
We were in on a Monday night, so the place was pretty quiet. It was also shift change: An ornately tattooed female bartender was out the door, and in to get us some happy-hour mixed drinks was Andreas, a friendly younger guy who told us he actually used to work at Shananigans until it closed. Andreas lives in the area and is a music enthusiast who thought about becoming a music teacher but currently can be found singing karaoke and playing a very eclectic and high-quality selection of songs on the jukebox at Riley's. That night, the song selections ranged from old jazz numbers to Fiona Apple. Unfortunately, it was not karaoke night; that happens on Fridays. The late-night crowd from the neighborhood, the karaoke crowd, the pool aficionados and the early-morning customers can all be found at Riley's on any given week, and may or may not be some of the same people. The bar opens daily at 7 a.m. and closes at 2 a.m., like many other excellent bars of the dive variety.
Monday night is free pool night, and sometimes there are pool tournaments going on, but on this particular night, no one was playing billiards — or darts, or shuffleboard, or the pinball machine branded from the movie Twister. There were just several gray-haired gentlemen wearing flannel shirts and camouflage baseball hats sitting along the bar next to us, drinking and talking. We chatted a bit more with Andreas and Shirley and the regulars at the bar, who told us that NASCAR races and Broncos games are popular events at Riley's, and showed us a tire displayed on a table that was autographed by a NASCAR driver (no one could remember which one).
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Everyone said that the best thing about Riley's Inn any day of the week is the welcoming crowd and sense of camaraderie among the regulars and staff. One of the guys also told us that his first wife used to work at the bar back in 1978 — a tidbit that, based on his delivery, didn't seem to be judged as particularly bad or good, just a comment on the fact that he had been coming here since then. We deciphered the color-coded dots on the different liquor bottles displayed behind the bar. Sena is proud to offer everything from top-shelf items, with blue dots on the bottles, to very inexpensive options, marked with pink dots — and $1.75 PBR, she pointed out. (That is indeed a pretty good deal, for all you PBR enthusiasts out there.)
Sena also pointed out the patio on the side, which serves as both a smoking patio and a horseshoe-playing patio, sometimes at the same time. It wasn't quite patio weather, so we stuck with indoor pursuits; that shuffleboard table looked too good to pass up, and it's always free at Riley's, so my friend and I ordered another drink and started a game. This time, we went with Sena's recommendation of pear vodka and soda, her favorite. I'm terrible at pool, aggressively hit-or-miss with darts and mediocre at foosball, so shuffleboard is definitely my best bar game. But my friend and I played basketball together in high school, and she was always more of a finesse shooting guard while my specialty was post moves, so it was not entirely surprising to me that she beat me at a game that requires a fair amount of fine motor skills.
After the game, we resumed our conversation with Sena, who told us she had been working in the bar industry
since she was seventeen or eighteen years old, because back then you could serve 3.2 beer even if you were underage. She lives nearby and loves the community of friendly regulars who come in, even on holidays like Thanksgiving, to share stories and leftovers. Riley's Inn doesn't have a kitchen, so sometimes folks bring in something to share, or they have an occasional chili cookoff or something similar. There's also a feature that I have yet to see at another bar: a "Buy a Friend a Drink" list, posted on a light-up erasable Bud Light board. Patrons can offer a kindly gesture by buying a fellow regular a drink for future enjoyment, and the running tally is there for their friend to discover the next time they come in. On the evening of our visit, the list of lucky drink recipients included folks named Roy, Elmer and Angelina — some of whom had possibly bought themselves future drinks, if I read the sign correctly.
Which makes me think I might just have to plan to come in and buy my future self a drink sometime sooner rather than later at Riley's Inn.