My computer's dictionary defines a "tavern" as a place that sells beer and other drinks and sometimes serves food. I would agree with this for a start, but a real tavern is so much more. A real tavern is in the upper Midwest. A real tavern serves Tombstone pizza cooked in a little oven, with popcorn, pork rinds and/or Cheetos as the featured appetizers. In a real tavern, you can hardly see through the smoke as you try to navigate your way to the bathroom, where you can do your duty and also get a supply of Tylenol or aspirin for the inevitable hangover. Above all, a real tavern is made by the people who frequent it. In a real tavern, you find hunters still wearing their orange, workers who just got off their shifts and want nothing more than a PBR, or the entire local retiree population that stops by mid-morning to catch The Price Is Right.
Although some people might claim that a tavern can be more refined than the sort of establishment I describe, they'd be wrong. After all, these people are also the ones you see sipping appletinis at happy hour. Or having a Cosmo at the Ship Tavern (321 17th Street, in the Brown Palace Hotel). Despite its name, I don't consider the Ship Tavern a real tavern. It's too full of travelers and business types to have that earthy feel. A romance between two business-trippers who turned off their phones so that their wives, husbands, lovers and/or secretaries couldn't reach them is more likely to develop than a random game of Euchre. You'll never see fluorescent orange here, though you might be lucky enough to catch a guy in a shooting jacket and hose from the Harrods catalogue.
Not that the Ship isn't a worthy place to drink. The beer selection is good for a pubbish place, and I really enjoyed the Ship Tavern Ale, compliments of our friends at Great Divide Brewery. The dark wood paneling and booths almost made me feel like I belonged at the Brown Palace, and I liked the mellow buzz the atmosphere fostered. Even the older, more distinguished clientele seemed to accept us, and didn't once give us the feeling that as people who buy socks in bulk, we didn't measure up to their standards.
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Still, despite the lavish surroundings and obvious business acumen of the other patrons, overpricing and substandard service threaten to swamp the Ship. I waited way too long for my first beer, and the service didn't ever get better; our waitress probably assumed that I didn't have enough cash to cover the tab. And when I have to put down a down payment to get an order of crabcakes, I expect more than two.
The Ship Tavern could be a great hangout when you want to pretend you're better than you are. But if you just want to be yourself, you're better off at a true tavern.