I'm not sure how I’ve never been to the Highland Tavern before. It's at the corner of West 34th Avenue and Navajo Street, right down the block from the Bug Theatre, one of the places I used to frequent back when the local comedy show the Grawlix was still around. Before or after the monthly comedy showcase, I always seemed to end up at Patsy's (now closed, sadly) for old-school pasta or cheap drinks, so I never managed to take a look a couple of blocks down to see what was happening. But luckily for me, a friend who lives nearby was willing to show me the sights at this neighborhood standby.
We came in for a drink on a Monday night, so things were pretty low-key in the bar. The upstairs area was reserved for a variety of nerdy-looking gentlemen who seemed to be studying their fantasy-football draft with a high level of intensity. So we joined a few neighborhood folks at the bar and chatted with Leslie Sorum, the warm and lovely longtime bartender. Sorum had several fun facts for us about the bar; for example, the building that the tavern calls home has been operated as a bar under various owners since 1901. The place was actually the first bar opened by the Coors family to serve beer outside of its brewing and bottling facility. Above the Highland Tavern sign, you can still see the brickwork pattern from those days that reads "COORS."
As the latest bar in the space, the Highland Tavern came into existence in 2006, when partners Brian Sommatino, Andy Stutz and Kris Baehre took over and gradually transformed it into the neighborhood bar it is today. At the time, the neighborhood was still considered sort of sketchy, most people still called it the Northside, and the neighboring blocks were only composed of modest single-family homes. The area still retains some small homes owned by multi-generational families, but like everywhere else in Highland, a patchwork of boxy modern homes and apartment buildings can be seen sticking out above the trees on each block.
But the Highland Tavern brings in the Highland mommies, the service-industry crowd from the many nearby restaurants, the cycling hipsters of the Highlands Cruiser Club, the old-timers who live nearby, the Broncos fans who flock to the bar for pre-game drinks and snacks before heading over to the stadium, and everyone in between. On this particular evening, a couple of young gentlemen who worked in the kitchen at a nearby upscale restaurant were hanging out, having some after-work drinks. One of the guys was a Denver native and gave my friend a high-five for being from Thornton — the first and last time that has happened. After some further discussion about Denver native things, like high schools, housing projects and grandmothers, the two guys departed, leaving us with a final piece of advice: "The Dr Pepper wings here are delicious, fall-off-the-bone good."
Unfortunately, because it was about 10 p.m. and we had already had dinner, we couldn't quite justify getting the wings on this particular evening, but that's a strong endorsement from a chef, and we felt inclined to take his word for it. We settled for a round of drinks and some tater tots. The tater tots did not disappoint; they were much larger than your average tots, nice and crispy, and came with ranch dressing instead of just ketchup.
My friend and I were led by these tots to discuss whether or not the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" is nostalgic yet, or if we have to wait until fifteen years after its release to get excited again and go around saying, "Give me some of your tots." I am of the belief that it's never too early to bring old things back, which is probably why I like going to neighborhood bars where most of the patrons are over forty and talking to people who wear things like wolf T-shirts and mullets without irony.
There were no awesome fashion statements like that in the bar, but my friend told me about her most memorable time there, which was actually more about the bar that used to be across the street, the Arabian. Years back, when she and a friend of hers were at the Highland Tavern, the kitchen was apparently not open until 11 p.m. like it is now — and they wanted food. They went over to the Arabian to scout late-night options, which turned out to be just bags of chips. Meanwhile, her companion, a somewhat awkward, ginger-haired white dude, was becoming fast friends with a patron of the Arabian who she surmised was a Vatos Locos gang member, wearing colors and sunglasses inside, at night. As they departed to search elsewhere for food, her friend did not manage to play it cool, but instead excitedly talked about it for the rest of the night to anyone within earshot.
But that was then and this is now. The bar was still relaxed and quiet, and we continued to talk Northside locations with Sorum, who has lived near the bar in various spots over the years. She also told us that she has definitely experienced weird energy in the bar and seen lights turn on and off when they shouldn't. As ghost-story lovers, my friend and I were excited to hear about these possibly paranormal incidents. Sorum also told us there was possibly some foul play in the bar back in the old days related to an escaped prisoner, and the investigation was the subject of an episode on the short-lived 1963-1964 TV series Lee Marvin Presents: Lawbreaker. Unfortunately, it seems that this show, which was essentially an early version of "Unsolved Mysteries" that featured actual police officers reenacting true-crime stories, is pretty hard to track down on the Internet in its entirety, so I was unable to find the Denver episode. (But that doesn't mean I didn't buy the DVD set so I can watch it later.)
Ghosts or no ghosts, we had a good night at the Highland Tavern. Eventually, when the private party cleared out, we checked out the upstairs room, which held pool tables and Big Buck Hunter and Golden Tee video games. We surveyed the various art pieces for sale displayed around the bar, but were most impressed by a collection of velvet paintings above the bar that were clearly not for sale. The velvet Elvises, Aztec warriors, bullfighters and even a velvet Cookie Monster were all gifts to the owner, according to Sorum. Another impressive work of art was a mixed-media glittery painting of Jack Nicholson in The Shining above the bar. My photos can't do either of these things full justice, so you will just have to go check it out in person. After another round of drinks and the last few oversized tots, my friend and I decided it was getting late for a weeknight and started to exit the bar.
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As we hit the sidewalk, a friendly cat crossed the street, walked toward us with confidence, and then proceeded to slip into the bar through the patio fence. We had to follow the cat back in to see what hijinks might ensue. The staff at the bar quickly realized that this cat matched the description and photo of one named "Bugs" that was the subject of a "Lost Cat" poster on the telephone pole on the corner. Unfortunately, Bugs's owner did not immediately answer the phone after multiple calls and texts, and Bugs continued to stroll around the bar, causing a bit of a stir. My friend and I tried to help lure him away from the kitchen door by offering him a tater tot that had fallen on the floor. He was not as impressed as we were by the tater tots, or perhaps cats just don't really eat fried potatoes. Neither of us have ever owned a cat, so we were just guessing at this point. A plan was quickly hatched by the bar staff to move Bugs to the office, where he could wait for his owner to call back, and if all else failed, one of the guys said he would take him home for the night. With knowledge of this resolution, my friend and I felt like we could call it a night, and headed out once again.
I haven't been back in to the Highland Tavern since that night, but I feel confident that the staff and patrons at the bar made sure Bugs got to where he needed to go, or got a new home — just like all the neighborhood bar-goers that find the Highland Tavern to be their home away from home.
The Highland Tavern, 3400 Navajo Street, is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. For more information, call 303-433-1990 or go to the bar's website.