Retrograde shouldn't work, but it does. First, you'll have to find Frozen Matter and stride through the ice cream shop confidently toward the walk-in cooler without being distracted by the desserts or deterred by the fact that you're walking into a refrigerator. You'll find yourself in a dim, chilly room lit by purple lights and chock-full of mid-mod accents like doughnut-shaped lamps, horsehair barstools and a barback straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The menu is equally weird: When was the last time you had a drink made with whiskey, herbal liqueur and chocolate bitters? But it all comes together: Retrograde is equal parts fun, glam, off-the-rails crazy and welcoming.
Avanti Food & Beverage was Denver’s first newfangled food hall, bringing together an ever-rotating cast of gastro-upstarts under one roof. Avanti quickly became a weekend-night and day-drinking mainstay of young professionals who are big fans of its anchor bar, which doles out a healthy mix of geeky beer and easy-drinking cocktails, plus a concise and accessible wine list. While that’s enough to sustain a considerable crowd year-round, Avanti is especially popular in warm months, when most drinkers float out onto the upstairs patio for the panoramic view of the skyline.
Bar Fausto doesn’t just reside on Larimer Street — it helps define the stretch of road that runs through one of Denver’s hippest, most dynamic neighborhoods. That’s thanks to founders and RiNo denizens Koen Goedman (of Huckleberry Roasters) and Jonathan Power (of the Populist). Named for legendary Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi, the bar captures the same nonchalant grace of European bicycle racers in its numbered (not named) house cocktails and warehouse-chic ambience, which balances painted cinderblock on one side with an elegant bar on the other. Bar Fausto is proof that high style needn’t be stuffy or exclusive.
“I’m creating the bar I want to go to and that my friends want to go to,” Bar Helix proprietor Kendra Anderson said when she was plotting her RiNo lair. She eventually unveiled a sultry spot that combines a high-echelon wine list with a top-notch cocktail program and drinking munchies that whimsically match highbrow to lowbrow flourishes — Pop Tarts with foie gras, for instance, and Pringles with caviar. Through her menu, Anderson touts a few pet causes: “soulmate” pairings of food and drink, Negronis, Champagne and wines from unusual regions. The quirky mix makes Bar Helix an easy stop for any drinker, and an exhilarating one for those looking to expand their palates and horizons.
Cocktail culture has thoroughly inundated America, but eight years ago, when Boulder’s Bitter Bar opened as the late-night speakeasy alter-ego of the now-defunct Happy Noodle House, there was no other game like it in metro Denver. Bartender James Lee built a quick following for his precise drinks — be they long-forgotten classics or inventive creations — and bought the place outright in 2014. He continues to hone his craft today, working obsessively toward elusive perfection. (Don’t miss the Manhattan.) The Bitter Bar is still one of the best venues in the state for a cocktail; the never-wavering crowd is testament to that.
Standing out is tough in a city where beer drinkers can simply walk a few blocks from their front doors to find quality suds in a multitude of new breweries. Since opening in 2012, Black Shirt has drawn crowds by aiming for continuous improvement in its beer lineup and offering value-adds like a killer back patio complete with a stage for live bands and a pizza kitchen with food that’s far more than an afterthought. While owners Branden, Chad and Carissa Miller started with a red-ale theme, they’ve managed to use their self-imposed restrictions to turn out some of the most creative and consistently excellent brews in town.
Long before there were craft breweries on every corner, the original Brewery Bar was a beer-soaked neighborhood watering hole that took up residence in the old Tivoli brewery during the Eisenhower administration and moved to Kalamath while Nixon was still in office. Today, if you’ve got a hankering for honest Colorado Mexican cuisine, you’ll be right at home among the road crews, maudlin-drunk insurance salesmen and local armchair quarterbacks who frequent Brew II, drinking Tinys and ordering the some of the finest crispy chile rellenos in town.
The Candlelight Tavern is one of Denver’s friendliest dive bars, beloved by neighbors of all stripes in the Wash Park area and owned since 1997 by industry veterans Dave Bryan and Lisa Bryan. Consistency and simplicity are key here: The no-frills tasty pub grub can be counted on every day of the week, as can the solid service. Grab a beer and plan to make a night of it; you can keep yourself amused with shuffleboard, pool, darts and giant Jenga, or just by talking with the person on the stool next to you. You might even meet your future spouse here; Dave says that’s happened often at this welcoming and lively spot.
Dive bars are drying up in Denver, swept away by tides of development. We’ve lost many of this city’s celebrated saloons over the past few years, which makes the survival of Carioca Cafe — better known as Bar Bar, thanks to the neon sign outside — something to celebrate. Perhaps with a drink or ten. For more than a century, this spot has held down the corner of Champa and 20th streets, serving drinks nineteen hours a day to an assortment of regulars, including would-be Great American Novelists, hipsters, transients and rockers.The drinks are stiff, the bathrooms awful, and the atmosphere beyond compare. Leave your credit cards at home; this place is strictly cash and carry on.
Even without the great burgers, the Castle Bar & Grill would be a classic watering hole...and a real oasis in the suburbs. Yes, the building looks like a mini-castle on the outside, but the theme doesn’t carry over inside. Instead, the square, sunken bar dominates, and regulars grab the captain’s chairs that put them at eye level with the bartenders and order beer poured into their personal mugs, which line one wall. For good times and good company in the ’burbs, the Castle rules.
Colorful characters from Denver’s past are rumored to have bellied up to the bar at Charlie Brown’s, which has been open since Prohibition ended. A sprawling bar filled with a variety of Capitol Hill characters and the music of nightly piano sing-alongs, it lives up to its slogan: “Something for everyone.” Couples, friends, tourists, young professionals, senior citizens, college kids and even celebrities enjoy the stiff drinks, huge food menu, smoking patio, free happy-hour wings on Fridays, and free drinks for revelers celebrating their birthdays. Here’s hoping the drinks will flow long into the future at this Denver landmark.
The Cooper Lounge debuted in 2014, shortly after the unveiling of Union Station’s extensive overhaul. The mezzanine-level bar captures the spirit of the golden age of transcontinental travel by rail, with cocktails served on silver platters to guests lounging in sumptuous surroundings above the hubbub of the grand hall below. Imagine a furtive tryst over martinis or a boisterous celebration with flowing bottles of bubbly, and you have an inkling of what to expect when you ascend the stairway to one of the city’s most elegant drinking destinations.
The Cruise Room could be Denver’s most iconic spot. It’s located in the Oxford Hotel, so its marble floors echo with Denver history, stretching back to the late nineteenth century, when Bat Masterson relieved himself in the giant urinals in the basement bathrooms. But the Cruise Room has more recent history, too: It was renovated in the ‘30s to look like the lounge on the Queen Mary (hence the name), then got a quick remodel a decade later when the frieze with Hitler’s face — one of a dozen international toasts circling the walls of the bar — was deemed politically incorrect; in the ’60s, it was the headquarters for a group of carousers known as the Evil Companions. Today you’ll find all kinds of passengers hopping aboard a stool in the Cruise Room and ordering a classic martini. Ahoy!
The Dive Inn has definitely made its mark on Platt Park over the past five years. Owner Jason Tietjen’s decor — which includes an actual motorboat as seating — adds to the upbeat spirit of this neighborhood joint. Dogs love the patio, the bar stocks 99 types of tequila, and drink specials are all-day affairs. With activities ranging from ping-pong, pool and cornhole leagues to garage sales, crawfish boils and charity events, there’s never a dull moment at the casual spot. And 2017's introduction of Rachael Tremaine’s Cluck Chicken, a tasty food game, has given Dive Inn fans even more to love.
Don’s Club Tavern, also known as Don’s Mixed Drinks (because of the wording on the old-school neon sign outside), is a Denver dive with staying power. Purchased by local bar conglomerate Little Pub Company in 2006, Don’s has retained a certain welcoming “old man’s basement” atmosphere. The secluded smoking patio and Skee-Ball machine are highlights, as is the vending machine dispensing fun packs of such goodies as condoms, burritos, cigarettes, candy and who knows what else. The bar caters to old-timers during the day and is a packed hangout for the younger set at night.
Jazz and drinks are a natural combination, as El Chapultepec has proven in its 85 years of showcasing live music in a little-changed barroom where piano, trumpet and saxophone mingle with the clinking of glasses and the cacophony of the crowd. LoDo tourists and new Denver residents alike fill the booths and barstools, but longtime locals also call the place home, especially on weeknights when bands aren’t playing. That’s when you can stop in for a quiet drink and soak up the history without jostling for a spot near the stage.
Phil and Erika Zierke just opened their downtown Englewood watering hole in 2016, and already it’s a fixture for neighbors, employees of the nearby Swedish Medical Center and anyone else who appreciates an unpretentious bar with great drinks and a lived-in vibe. Take a moment to appreciate the wood-block floors (each piece cut and sanded by the Zierkes and their friends) before settling into a private booth or a stool across the bar from Phil and his crew, who are all happy to mix up just what you need.
Falling Rock is the granddaddy of Denver beer bars; since 1997, co-owner Chris Black and his crew have led the beery way with more than seventy tap handles and a treasure trove of rare and vintage bottles. Falling Rock has stood tall through waves of craft-beer surges and was touting Colorado products alongside international selections to eager beer hunters before Denverites knew the difference between a barleywine and a bock. As the motto states, there’s “no crap on tap” at this fiercely independent draft house.
Micky Manor was a north Denver staple for decades before the dive bar succumbed to the ravages of time in 2011. But the Federal Bar & Grill breathed new life into the space in 2013, giving the neighborhood a casual, inviting saloon with a nod to history. The art-deco bar stretches toward a back room cluttered with ping-pong and shuffleboard tables, while up front a few comfortable booths provide the perfect place to enjoy beer and burgers. A surprisingly thoughtful draft list is the main draw, but mixed drinks and the occasional round of shots are hardly frowned upon. A seat near the front window is great for watching the fire trucks come and go on Federal Boulevard, where nothing is ever quiet.
A food-truck corral with an indoor/outdoor craft-cocktail bar built on the grounds of an old salvage yard sounds like the makings of something tragically hip, but a dedication to quality without the accompanying attitude has made Finn’s Manor one of Denver’s top temples of mixology. While summer nights are prime time for hanging out and grabbing grub under the stars, winter months give guests a chance to belly up to the bar to explore beverage director Robert Sickler’s deep list of rum, whiskey and other rare spirits. There’s almost always a bowl of punch on the bar top, and the tap list is a continuing exploration of rare beer styles. If it all sounds a little overblown, know that it’s all done with the gruff charm of a neighborhood dive bar.
Goed Zuur is either a life-altering experience of new flavors and beer styles or a tortuous dunking into an acidic bath, depending on your preferences. The name of this Five Points beer bar is Flemish for “good acid,” and everything sold on tap and in bottles comes in flavors tart and funky, sour and wild. Ten years ago, lambic, oud bruin, Berlinerweisse and saison were the esoteric territory of bearded beer hunters, but these days drinkers know their Brettanomyces from their lactobacillus. It’s sour times at Goed Zuur, and Denver is so much the better for it.
After cocktails re-emerged in the mid-2000s, a number of Denver restaurants began upping their game with spirits — but Green Russell had the honorable distinction of being the very first in the new wave of dedicated cocktail bars in the city. Built by Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno in a Larimer Square basement, Green Russell stoked — rather than slaked — Denver’s thirst for the form. Its secretive and seductively appointed digs were novel at the outset, and they remain inviting to LoDo patrons, who still flock to Green Russell’s extensive back bar for camaraderie and creative drinks.
For fifteen years, the hi-dive has been a refuge from crass commercialism and bland bars catering to the masses. Cheap, stiff drinks and a revolving door of creative talent have kept the music venue ahead of the game. While Broadway and the Baker neighborhood have changed into a respectable entertainment zone, the hi-dive marches to the beat of its own drum, bringing in the best local bands and national acts on the cusp of hitting it big.
The Horseshoe Lounge is a powerhouse bar in the Uptown neighborhood run by powerhouse ladies Leigh Jones, Melanie Unruh and Margaret Moore. The bar showcases quirky yet tasteful decor, such as vintage furniture and a bar top made of thousands of dice. Motown dance parties and trivia mix things up. The friendly, motley crew of regulars love the “’Shoe,” as they call it, and the joint gets jumping with all sorts of folks venturing in and out of downtown on the weekend. Hit the ’Shoe for a brew from the “Shit Beer” list, or dare to try a mystery shot.
Capitol Hill didn’t seem to be crying out for another bar when Jake Soffes opened Hudson Hill in 2016, but it turns out that the neighborhood welcomed a new kind of cool. Hudson Hill breaks the mold of dark and divey with blond woods, warm lighting and gleaming tile. The soft crackle of a record needle on vinyl adds to the atmosphere, and the drinks are beyond reproach, proving that PBRs and Fernet shots aren’t the only way to draw a Cap Hill crowd.
Ben Parsons has long been a wine-industry renegade, perhaps most notably for his canned wine, which drove Infinite Monkey Theorem to a new level of success and launched something of a packaging sea change among young makers. Just as brazen was planting his winery in the urban core of Denver and tapping into city culture — rather than relying on traditional tasting-room niceties to inform the vibe. In 2012, IMT moved from its original Santa Fe warehouse to its RiNo flagship, which draws from industrial surroundings and continues to sustain a raucous party sensibility. It has since spawned an Aurora location in the Stanley Marketplace and an offshoot in Austin, but it’s hard to beat the patio in RiNo, where fire pits let crowds linger even after summer ends.
The best Irish pubs give customers exactly what they want without straying too far from familiar territory: Guinness beer (or some other inky stout) on tap, bottles of Irish whiskey lining the shelves, and an intimate interior filled with dark woods and mirrored booze advertisements. But the Irish Snug manages to have its own personality, with private booths for clandestine meetings, a cavernous basement for group outings, and a welcoming charm that feels like a second home just beyond the grit of Colfax Avenue.
While the patio outside Edgewater’s Lakeview Lounge has prime views of Sloan’s Lake, Sheridan Boulevard and the Denver skyline, those who love authentic dives will be more captivated by the view inside. The Lakeview is a weathered, classic saloon that time forgot. Clearly a drinker’s haven in an increasingly upscale area, the dimly lit lounge serves mystery shots in brown paper bags and very stiff, cheap drinks. Regulars throw quips, dice and dollar bills at each other. For those who want beer for breakfast, the bar opens at 7 a.m.
The low ceilings and even lower bar top at the Lion’s Lair make you feel like you’re knocking back beers in someone’s basement. And when music fires up, you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled into band practice in that basement, with a guitar neck or mic stand only inches from your head. While Denver’s dive bars continue to disappear, the Lion’s Lair just keeps getting grungier; it’s a living piece of Colfax history that we hope never changes.
Even parents with toddlers in tow need a place to kick back with cold beers. The Lowry Beer Garden is the hangout of choice for young families in east Denver — and with good reason. The phrase “beer garden” is often misapplied to simple patios and decks, but here almost every seat is outdoors, and even the indoor seating is covered by only a vaulted roof with roll-up siding for walls. Stay late after all the kids go home, and you’ll have a prime spot for enjoying Colorado’s clear and crisp nights.
Yes, My Brother’s Bar has a fascinating history: The building has held a bar since the 1870s, Neal Cassady hung out here when it was Paul’s Place, and as My Brother’s Bar, it’s survived with no TVs while playing classical music and serving burgers in wax paper until 1 a.m. Across the decades, the place has evolved from dusty cowtown cantina to Beat Generation hangout to neighborhood bar for the entire city. But the most interesting chapter is the current one: After four decades, the Karagas family sold the spot to a longtime employee and her family, who’ve vowed to keep My Brother’s Bar going in its current incarnation, even as developers knock on the door. We’ll drink to that.
The Nob Hill Inn has been a drinker’s paradise for more than fifty years; it’s daunting to think of all the people who have spent hours on the stools here. But it’s the kind of joint where it’s easy to lose track of time. The square-shaped bar makes for easy people-watching, and with some of Colfax’s finest camping out here, it’s usually entertaining as hell. If Bukowski were still alive, this might be his idea of nirvana.
In 2015, Nicole and Scott Mattson brought jazz back to the RiNo neighborhood with the opening of Nocturne. While there's plenty of action at the art deco-style bar, where classic cocktails are served with old-school flair, dinner in front of the stage is a memorable experience. Away from the stage and dining room, cocktail shakers flash in the dim light, and buckets of ice keep sparkling wine chilled at the end of the bar. But if you’re feeling sophisticated, you'll book a night to indulge in a "Renditions" tasting menu, which gives the kitchen a chance to show off by pairing thoughtfully prepared small plates with songs from classic jazz albums chosen every two months to bring together music and food.
When owner Sean Kenyon grabbed the address next to Williams & Graham and prepared to install a more casual neighborhood bar, he wondered if Occidental would mostly function as a waiting room for its sibling, which sometimes sees waits of three hours. Two years later, he has his answer: This bar has an identity and a following all its own. Occidental’s punk-rock vibe and open seating have made it a neighborhood mainstay, a casual place to get an excellent cocktail or a beer without pretense.
Palenque is the quiet younger sibling of the raucous Adelitas; rather than throwing back margaritas or indulging in Taco Tuesday, here you’ll want to slowly sip rare mezcals complemented by such Oaxacan bar bites as tlayudas and bowls of spiced chapulines. The smoky, herbal notes of the Mexican spirit add to the feeling that you’re in a distillery tasting room deep in the Sierra Madres.
For many Denver residents, no list of essential Mile High haunts would be complete without a location owned by Greek restaurant magnate Pete Contos. The Satire Lounge is old Denver through and through. Since the ’60s, the classic neon sign of this Colfax spot has beckoned to thirsty passersby. The bar draws a diverse crowd from all walks of life, serving them cheap drinks and hearty, Colorado-style Mexican food. The Satire is a straight-ahead saloon that doesn’t put on airs or follow trends, and the off-kilter assortment of characters who work and drink there wouldn’t have it any other way.
The PS Lounge is a throwback like no other. The cash-only bar still looks and feels straight out of the ’80s, which is when it opened. Owner Pete Siahamis calls it a “girls’ bar,” and makes sure every woman who crosses the threshold gets a single rose and a syrupy-sweet Alabama Slammer shot. It’s a go-to pre-game location for people getting ready to hit the Colfax bars hard or heading to the Bluebird for a show. But the PS Lounge is also a perfect spot for a long chat with an old friend, and a great place to make new ones.
The original Punch Bowl Social opened on Broadway in 2012 as a premier fun zone for adults. The new Stapleton location continues the tradition in a breathtaking space built into the former airport’s control tower. Bowling, karaoke, vintage video games and shuffleboard are just a few of the diversions, but both locations boast multiple bars for those just there for the drinks. Founder Robert Thompson has built a nationwide Punch Bowl empire over the past six years, spreading the Denver brand far beyond Colorado borders.
The Rackhouse started its life attached to the Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey distillery, and the whiskey flowed freely at that location. But in 2015, owner Chris Rippe relocated to RiNo, opening as the taproom for C Squared Ciders and Bierstadt Lagerhaus, both of which operate inside the same sprawling building that was once a bookbinding factory. The bar and restaurant float above the factory floor on a mezzanine level surrounded by copper brewing vessels and the aroma of fermenting cider and beer.
The RiNo Yacht club sits in the middle of the common area at the Source, as inconspicuous as a shopping mall sunglass stand, with only a few lounge-style seats to define its boundaries. But owners Mary Wright and McLain Hedges know their booze, whether exotic spirits to give a cocktail an indefinable edge or boutique wines that set the bar’s roster apart from the competition. With no other distractions (other than occasional fried chicken or Hedges’s homemade pie), this is a true cocktail lover’s lair.
Saint Ellie’s older sibling, Colt & Gray, built a bar business so strong, owner Nelson Perkins picked up the lease for the basement beneath the restaurant and dedicated it to drinks. The dim, cozy Ellie has a more casual atmosphere than its upstairs counterpart, but its drinks are just as serious (if whimsically labeled). Deftly executed cocktails are the name of the game here — as they are at Colt & Gray — but if you’re a beer or wine drinker, you’ll also find plenty to love in the well-edited list. Pair drinks with indulgent gastropub-y bar snacks, like Gruyère-stuffed gougères and one hell of a dry-aged burger.
Shelby’s is one of the last freestanding bars in the downtown business district, having weathered multiple construction booms over the decades since it was first constructed as a funeral home in 1906. Under the same ownership since 1991, the bar offers a no-nonsense retreat from modern city life. The building and surrounding parking lots were put on the market last fall, so whether Shelby’s will make it through 2018 remains to be seen. But in the meantime, it’s still a great place to hang out with the regulars and forget about the modern city outside.
Once a gentleman’s lounge, this space in the venerable Brown Palace was remodeled into a seafaring bar that opened eight months after Prohibition ended. The fish-out-of-water nautical theme was inspired by a collection of model clipper ships that the hotel’s then-owner brought home from a trip and his wife suggested should shove off. Although a remodel brought in some Denny’s-like tables, the ships are still here, as is the crow’s nest, and a seat at the bar is a swell spot to let history wash over you. Save some dough for a nightcap and cigar in the nearby Churchill.
After 95 years and multiple changes, the Sink remains one of Boulder’s most quirky and popular taverns, as much for the good deals on booze as for the famous Sink Burger (which first appeared on the menu in the 1950s) and the art and history scrawled across the ceiling and walls in form of customer autographs and Beat-era paintings. Barack Obama stopped in during his presidency, and Robert Redford was a janitor here for a year before he ever hit the silver screen. Over the decades, the Sink has helped shaped Boulder’s image into what it is today.
Love it or hate it, the “new” Squire doesn’t care what you think. Once one of the grubbiest Denver dive bars, it was cleaned up extensively in 2013, but still welcomes any and all Capitol Hill neighbors, from hipsters to street folks. Drinks are cheap; sometimes there’s comedy or live music. Enjoy a beverage — from well liquor to craft beer — play shuffleboard, or hop in the photo booth to document your adventures. Regardless of whether you think the Squire was robbed of its soul when the bathrooms stopped presenting a public-health risk, it’s still here for you.
Some distillers claim to solicit bartender feedback when tweaking their spirits, but none are quite so entwined as the team at the Family Jones, where a copper still whirs on the mezzanine as drinkers gather for sips and snacks in the lounge below. Master distiller Rob Masters lets the bar team drive his creations as he builds out the basis of a cocktail program that uses only spirits made in-house. This in turn begs creativity from the bartenders, who serve classics and house specials built without relying on, say, vermouth. The best part? You don’t have to appreciate the geekery to enjoy the drinks — or the food, which you definitely should not skip.
Tracks continues to be the premier nightclub for Denver’s gay community — and for those who just like a night of dancing and drinking under the swirling lights. The bar was once an isolated island of nightlife in an industrial sea of warehouses, but Denver’s growth has made this former frontier a central point for the young and hip.
Lenka Juchelkova and her husband, Mike Huggins, have a knack for planting excellent bars in neighborhoods in desperate need of good watering holes. After they gave Olde Town Arvada the Arvada Tavern, they went to an underserved block off of the 16th Street Mall, nestling the Americana-appointed Union Lodge No. 1 among outposts of fast-casual chains. Deftly executed American classics — the bar’s list pays homage to pre-Prohibition mainstays like the Martinez and the Brandy Crusta — draw in a mix of in-the-know drinkers, first dates and visiting business types. Like its suburban sibling, the Lodge is more than just a bar you’ll be glad to know about when you’re in the neighborhood. Rather, it’s a destination in its own right.
It’s hard to overstate Williams & Graham’s impact in putting Denver’s bar scene on the national radar. Owner Sean Kenyon had already achieved national star-tender status before he unveiled his dark haunt, accessed through a bookshelf in a storefront on a LoHi corner. But his first bar — with its reverence for classics, extensive library of spirits, nuanced creations and warm service — propelled him into the stratosphere and put Williams & Graham among the top echelon of cocktail bars in this country. The only drawback? Because this is a must-visit for tourists and locals alike, waits for a seat — there’s no standing at the bar — have never abated.