The more things change, the more they stay the same at Don's
A great big glass garage door, open for warm weather, facing Sixth Avenue; more booths and tables with stools; a back-patio-length green paint job, aluminum roof and industrial heater; high-def flat-screen televisions and Golden Tee and Silver Strike video games; touch-screen point-of-sale registers; clean bathrooms with space to stretch out, advertising above the urinals and automatically dispensing doodads for sanitation: These aspects of Don's Club Tavern (aka Don's Mixed Drinks) are new and improved as of last summer, when the Little Pub Company — which purchased the legendary dive in 2005, after Don Aymami died and his family wanted to let go of the place he'd bought back in 1947, when it was Flanagan's Club Tavern — turned the dry cleaner next door into more Mixed Drinks for everyone.
Most of the decor — including plaques of Tracy's Bud Light pool leagues dating back decades, faded photos of Don himself acting "feisty" in the '70s, and a host of Irish regalia — is unchanged. So are the actual bar, the duct-taped bumper shuffleboard table and "Don's Club Kitchen" (a vending machine with candy and chips). And the daytime-into-dusk regulars, including two aging Italians (featured in some of the faded photos) with zippered sweat suits and oxygen tanks, bullshitting about whatever's on the televisions and lamenting that whatsherface won't come in anymore since the buyout — they're still here.
Where the fuck are you?
Dodging Don's because it's now owned by a local conglomerate? Because it expanded and remodeled and put microbrews on tap? Because it fills up with hot, hormonal popped collars and miniskirts on the weekends? Fair enough. I stayed away for the same reasons. But I'm back. And while the sun's still out, at least, Don's has never felt better.
My first visit in months was last weekend, while on a five-hour, ten-bar, daytime dive-bar crawl put together by some folks in Boulder who'd read my Denver's Best Dive Bars book and couldn't resist the urge to rent a limo-bus and taste this city's history for themselves. Sometime around 3:30 p.m., by then four bars deep, we fell through the same angled front door that's always led to liquid relief and found the joint quiet. Carpeted. Wood-paneled, even if some of the wood paneling is clearly cleaner than the rest. One friend, who's held a grudge against the late-night shit show for years and steered clear as a result, couldn't help but admit how great the new digs looked; how solid the $2 PBR bottles and $3 well drinks (all the time) were; how wrong he'd been. I agreed completely.
Now, at a quarter to six on a Tuesday, with a mixed bag of ten or so faces both fresh and folded over spending itty-bitty fractions of their paychecks on cold drinks all around me, I wouldn't have any idea of all the fuss over what's become of Don's were I not one of its late-night victims. I've waded through the 1 a.m. sea of college seniors and so-close-to-college-age-they-still-party-like-it-ers in order to carve out a spare square of space on the back patio, only to wade back through ten minutes later to wait ten minutes more for another drink. I get it. Crowded bars — when the crowd's not yours, when the goal isn't to get laid — are obnoxious. As fuck.
My bartender this afternoon tells me that the expanded space has been good for business but has already taken a beating. "Needs to get good and scuffed up," he says, which makes me smile. Makes me believe in the new Don's.
While the sun's still out, at least, Don's has never felt better.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.