In a city searching for authenticity and identity amid the constant barrage of shiny condo buildings springing up out of the skeletons of old hospitals and storefronts, new breweries opening on a seemingly daily basis, and a plethora of hipster restaurants opening in old warehouses, neighborhood bars are comforting reminders of what Denver used to be.
This series is all about them, the Denver classics, old faithful neighborhood bars that have withstood the test of time and the booms and busts and shock waves of gentrification that have electrified the Queen City over the years. Whether you're new in town, moving to Denver in search of legal marijuana and economic prosperity, a native wishing all the newbies would go back to California and Texas, or an old-school transplant like me who's lived in Denver for more than a decade, this search for Denver's neighborhood bars is for you.
If you want to meet your neighbors and take your chances on the fact that many of these establishments may not have any craft beer or farm-to-table chicken available, then this is your guide.
To kick things off, it seems worth celebrating a Denver watering hole that was recently lauded by Esquire as one of the eighteen best bars in the entire country. Shelby's Bar and Grill, a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood, located at the edge of downtown on 18th Street among office buildings and hotels, is definitely a Denver original.
I had only been to Shelby's once before — about five years ago, when a friend was in town on business and staying in one of the nearby hotels — so I was really seeing the place with fresh eyes when some friends and I stopped in around happy hour on a recent Saturday. The place was pretty quiet; the main patrons were an older gentleman and the daytime bartender, who had just gotten off her shift. They were seated in the back corner, intently watching what we later determined to be a Lifetime movie on the big-screen TV with the closed-captioning on. A little later, a trio of twenty-something tourists came in from the 16th Street Mall for a drink.
Our server was quiet but friendly, and he told me that the usual Shelby's crowd is mostly regulars, with a smattering of tourists and business travelers, especially when conventions are in town. We sat at a ’70s-era leather booth underneath a Miller Lite Broncos Superbowl XXXIII Champions mirrored plaque. That's pretty much how the rest of the bar is decorated as well: older furniture and a classic wooden bar with a mixture of old and new Denver sports paraphernalia.
The drinks were cheap, the potato-wedge fries were tasty, and nobody bothered us. That's one of the highlights of Shelby's, according to owner Nanette Nelson, who strives to make Shelby's a place where a single woman can go and no one will bother her. I appreciate that sentiment, and I get the feeling that it's true. Especially when there's a Lifetime movie on.
Customers describe the place as having a family vibe, and some of the staff are actually blood relatives. The Facebook page for the bar reads like a family album, with birth announcements and pictures of regulars mixed in with the usual notes about drink specials and football games.
The bar has been in the family for nearly 25 years; owner Nanette and her husband actually bought it after attending a seminar on how to sell a bar — where Shelby's was the bar for sale. The building was built as a restaurant in the 1930s on the site of a former funeral parlor; the location hosted wild parties during Prohibition. Some speculate that this history might explain the strange things that happen at Shelby's every so often. Once, when the place was empty, a bartender is said to have watched mustard bottles roll off at least half the tables in the place, one by one. Objects are easily misplaced and seem to move on their own in the bar, and Nelson says that her two family dogs refuse to go into the basement storage room. They even had a psychic in once to find out more about their ghostly patron. According to the psychic, the ghost is a man named John Paul Potter, who was unjustly shot in the back in a duel.
Aside from real or imagined ghost history, Shelby's has seen Denver's history unfold. In 1979, when the place first became Shelby's, there were very few other establishments nearby — really, very little of anything. As the warehouses of old downtown gave way to hotels and office buildings, Shelby's gained more patrons, including the recent wave of hipsters who like it because they consider it a true dive bar. As downtown has arisen around this little, unassuming place "where the locals gather," Shelby's remains true to its roots as a part of old Denver that's survived into the present.