In the end, the Welcome Inn just wore out its welcome. Although the joint had always enjoyed a rowdy reputation, development was fast approaching — the Welcome Inn rated a nod as Best Endangered Neighborhood Bar in the Best of Denver 2017. And then in early January 2018, a still-unsolved double murder in the parking lot of 3759 Chestnut Street pushed the bar further down its long, slow slide.
The neighborhood was changing, with pricey apartment complexes marching up Brighton Boulevard and the shiny Blue Moon Brewing Company built right across the street, a symbol of the area's new life as RiNo and a stark contrast to the Pepsi bottling plant across 38th Avenue, which represents the days when this was known as the Eastside and people would pile into the Welcome Inn after their shifts.
People still came, especially when they wanted to remember someone who'd passed from the Eastside (as this area was once known, the companion to the Northside in what's officially called Highland). But the bar had definitely seen better days. Drinkers who ventured over from Blue Moon usually hurried out again. Finally, a few weeks ago, the landlord ousted the proprietors, and the Welcome Inn was no more.
Now, get ready to welcome River.
Karl CdeBaca, a longtime resident of the area who's owned the property for a decade, had put the prime corner on the market a few years ago; the graffiti-strewn "available" sign still stands in front. But now he's put any plans to sell on hold: CdeBaca is leasing the place for five years, with an option to buy, to relatives Kourisa and Gil CdeBaca, and helping them transfer the liquor license. "He honestly just wants to keep it in the family," says Kourisa. "It's an amazing opportunity, and I'm ready to turn this place around."
On a sunny Sunday, she and Gil are working on the place, talking about their plans for River, which they hope to open in early April, maybe even by Opening Day for the Colorado Rockies. To take advantage of all the action that now stretches out along the South Platte River — which inspired the bar's new name — they want to add garage doors off the back room, where the pool tables used to be, that will open onto a spacious patio.
Kourisa, who's tended bar for the past eighteen years, most recently at Lily's Cocina y Cantina in the former MGM on Morrison Road, plans to stock a full bar with an emphasis on Colorado beers on tap; she's going to keep things green, skipping bottles and cans and taking advantage of the cooler down the rickety stairs in the basement below the bar.
"Who knows what happened down there?" she says of the newly cleared-out space. "Uncle Karl got all of his crew in there to clean it out. He's excited to make it fresh."
Karl CdeBaca is actually Gil's uncle, though saloons run in both sides of the family. In 1965, Gil's parents moved to Denver from Taos, where they'd had a bar; they soon had two more near where they lived at 25th and Tremont streets. Gil tells a story about how his mother would walk home from the bar holding his sister with one hand, the other hand holding a bag containing cash from the bar and a gun. No one messed with her.
Gil remembers many of the other mom-and-pop bars that used to dot these blocks north of downtown, from the Bamboo Hut to Phil's Place (today the Embassy) and over to Five Points. He remembers the families who owned the Mexican restaurants, from Mexico City Lounge to El Toro. He remembers when there were empty lots and warehouses along Brighton Boulevard, when Welton Street was lined with storefront shops.
Gil and Kourisa now live in Fort Lupton, where they're raising two boys and a girl. A pipefitter, Gil often works out of state, but COVID-19 put a stop to that. So he and Kourisa are working on River together, excited to bring back a bar they'd visited over the years. "For us, personally, we always had fun there," Kourisa recalls, "but the bartenders were horrible. Being part of the family, they did not like us. The owner knew that Gil and I were trying to get it."
Now they have it, and while the neighborhood has changed, the need for a neighborhood bar has not. This area doesn't need another glitzy concept. It needs...
"Something funky," says Tracy Weil, the executive director of the RiNo Art District, who's stopped in to welcome the new neighbors. He lives a block away, and shares the tale of how, after the city released its River North Plan for the area in 2003, he and fellow artist Jill Hadley-Hooper came up with the idea of creating an art district and dubbing it RiNo.
Kourisa definitely wants River to celebrate art. She's hoping to turn that side room into a gallery, with murals on the floor and art on the walls that local artists can sell. (She's looking for suggestions.) She's planning on creating a ’70s-style lounge in another room that held a kitchen decades ago; for now, trucks will supply the food that allows bars in Denver to reopen during the pandemic. (She's looking for suggestions for that, too.) At some point, they might add a kitchen, perhaps contracting out with a chef who sees the kind of opportunity that they do in this building, this neighborhood. (And yes, she'll take suggestions if anyone wants to cook something up.)
And the couple has a bus that they plan to paint — perhaps as a rhino? — to use for excursions.
But for now, they just want to get River open so that they can welcome people back to the neighborhood. That neighborhood may be changing, but that's no reason not to be neighborly. After all, Kourisa notes, she'll be the one "greeting them from behind the bar."
Promises Gil: "Everyone will feel welcome all the time."
Since River doesn't yet have a phone, website or Facebook page, you can contact Kourisa CdeBaca at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have suggestions for art or food at the new bar.