The time is long past when John Wayne would swagger into the Ship Tavern and promptly tuck into a double scotch and a slab of prime rib as big as Kiowa County. Another old regular, Bob Hope, doesn't get out much any more, and most of the flinty wildcatters who used to spend lengthy lunch hours in the place drinking gin and telling oil-field lies are all dead now. Hunter S. Thompson hasn't dropped by recently to terrorize the bartenders, and it's been decades since the last Stock Show cowboy, whooping with life, busted through the swinging doors on horseback.
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Still stately but looking a bit solemn these days, the Ship Tavern has taken on museum tones. The plate of glistening, iced oysters set so carefully before you on the blue-and-white-checked cloth remains impeccable; it is, after all, essentially the same plate of oysters that President Eisenhower ate in 1954. The fish chowder, creamy and rich, arrives with the same endearing little cruet of dry sherry that the management provided in Mayor Stapleton's day. The prime rib that you order rare (a bargain at $17.50) comes out Colorado-proud, lopped over the side of the platter with hot juices seething. The Monday lunch special is still chicken pot pie; if it's Thursday, count on meat loaf with mashed potatoes.
In here, nothing changes. Like a day at the ballpark or a night at the opera, a meal at the Ship Tavern, in a first-floor corner of the 108-year-old Brown Palace Hotel, is an experience that's pleasing, nostalgic and a touch unsettling -- a constant in a sea of change. The occasional go-getter will presume to gab on his cell phone in these confines, but the startlingly nautical (for landlocked Colorado), stubbornly nineteenth-century manner of the place -- hand-carved sailing ships tucked into every corner, hand-painted rum jars behind the dark wood bar -- dictates against it. The occasional fussbudget will request something vegan (or otherwise otherworldly) from the kitchen, but given their surroundings, most feel moved to order that prime rib or broiled Rocky Mountain trout or Shrimp Louis (when's the last time you saw that on the menu? Any menu?).
Ship Tavern at the Brown Palace Hotel
321 17th Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Everything that happens in this classical nook suggests life under the dome of some water-filled paperweight, where the miniature village never changes, and the same snow has been falling on the townsfolk for a century. That spell is certainly not disturbed by the Ship Tavern's notion of entertainment. For now (and probably forever), Tuesdays through Saturdays belong to house pianist John Kite, an encyclopedic trouper whose resolutely antique style will put you in mind of sunsplashed town bandshells and Tin Pan Alley dreams. The real treat, though, comes on Friday and Saturday nights, when an extraordinary parade of volunteer singers -- some amateur, some semiprofessional, all spirited -- suddenly materializes to give Kite a hand. Crushed around his modest blond upright, these brave keepers of the musical flame let fly with torrents of "A Lotta Livin' to Do," "Mack the Knife," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "I've Got the World on a String."
If there's a twentieth-century Broadway chestnut unknown to these worthies, go ahead and name it. Otherwise, you'd do well to order another brandy Alexander and keep still until somebody gets around to inventing the electric guitar.Denver is full of great joints -- neighborhood spots that will never rate a Zagat mention but always add flavor to a city. We'll be serving up looks at some of the town's true joints on a semiregular basis; if you have suggestions for places we should visit, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.