I am really into karaoke, which means I am really into Armida's Restaurant. I honestly don't know why it's taken me this long to make my love of the place more publically known. There's nowhere else in town that has public, crowd-pleasing karaoke every night of the week on this level. Because Korean-style private-room karaoke is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to hear the cheers of your adoring fans and pretend you are a rock star. Or at least I need that sometimes.
Even if you aren't a karaoke star, there's a lot to love about Armida's. First and foremost are the people themselves. If you get there at 4 p.m. when the the place opens, you'll see other early arrivals, often with kids in tow, so you can often witness teens singing their hearts out — or you'll notice couples with babies. I once witnessed a young couple calmly eating dinner while their toddler kept escaping to crawl up on the stage and grab the mic stand, dance on wobbly baby legs next to the stage, and generally do whatever else he could do to steal the spotlight from singers. It was the sort of thing I couldn't imagine going down anywhere but the lovably divey Armida's. In my early Armida's days, a singer we called "the Leatherman" — because he dressed head to toe in leather — sang Johnny Cash songs all night (back when the Man in Black was still alive and his songs had yet to become karaoke tribute pieces). Our favorite leather-clad crooner was pretty old even ten years ago, and I haven't seen him on stage in years — so congratulations on your retirement, Leatherman (or rest in peace, if that's the case).
Armida's is also where one of my good friends met her husband. They shared their first kiss by the glow of the ATM machine, which is still there, clogging up the hallway on the way to the bathroom. Theirs is a true Denver story, because they also went to Casa Bonita for their first date. They either have excellent or terrible taste, depending on whom you ask. And after their wedding, we hit Armida's as part of the after-party, although bachelorette parties are far more common here than actual wedding groups.
I hadn't been to Armida's in quite some time, so I stopped by recently to see what's new — which actually turned out to be quite a lot. When Mark Kinsey of Bottom Line Restaurant Consulting took over operations in July, he made a few upgrades, but without changing the character of the beloved bar. New signage, upgraded sound equipment, a new food-and-drink menu, and weekly specials and events are keeping things fresh. Mondays are now service-industry nights, and another welcome addition is Latin Night on Thursdays. Kinsey also tells me he's starting a new concept called "Char-eoke," where he will put on special karaoke-night events to give back to area charities. The Corral family, who opened the bar in 1994, are still the owners, but they've taken a step back from running things day to day.
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Also within the last year, Kegan Remmey (a wacky friend of mine) has started working at Armida's as a karaoke DJ, or KJ, as they call them in the biz. Remmey tells me that he has gotten plenty of love from the crowd and is currently the KJ with the longest tenure at the bar. His Friday and Sunday night work on the main stage is more than just queuing up songs; he wears crazy costumes, plays games with the crowds, and otherwise hypes the place up.
Not that Armida's needs much hyping up. Remmey notes that almost everyone rolls up to Armida's with a posse. The crowd can go from five to thirty people deep in minutes. Although it's a neighborhood bar in some ways, Armida's is a karaoke attraction for people from all over the metro area. On my last visit, the place was pretty packed at the main stage. A friend and I watched a couple of performances, including one by a guy stage-named "Sexual Chocolate" doing an excellent rendition of Digital Underground's "Humpty Dance," a karaoke classic. In addition, a man bearing a remarkable resemblance to Morgan Freeman rocking a cowboy hat did a little Johnny Cash.
On Saturdays and Sundays, Armida's opens the upstairs bar, with a stage setup that is almost identical to the downstairs main stage. We decided to try our luck there — an excellent choice. A friendly birthday party whose guests seemed to be primarily in their thirties and forties and another birthday crowd of young Latinas and their boyfriends with beards and flannel shirts filled the upstairs section. A few couples hid out near the back, but we could tell there was plenty of room for more singers. My roommate and I found a table right up front and turned in our song slips immediately. I went with "If I Could Turn Back Time," because it has all the elements of a good karaoke song (according to me) — namely, lyrics that you can act out or use as interpretive dance moves, parts where you can belt the words out really loudly and dramatically (or rap — that's also a good bet), and a message either about lost love or partying. Give me a song that has those three components, and I will give you a karaoke anthem.
Not long after our first performances, a small crowd of friends who seemed very happy and drunk asked if they could share our table. Of course they were welcome, and shortly after they joined us, one of the girls in our new table crew competed in, and won, a fierce air-guitar competition.
The Latina birthday crowd did a group rendition of Selena's "Bidi Bidi Bom," which was awesome, and I sang along heartily with all the Spanish-speakers in the bar. You have to have a certain critical mass of people who can speak Spanish to pull off a Spanish song without losing the crowd, and this room was just about in the sweet spot. I made a mental note to come back for Latin night and sing some Selena myself.
Our table-mates kept the drinks and the jokes flowing while my roommate hit the stage with a comedy song selection of "*$&# Her Gently," by Tenacious D; I finished out the night with En Vogue's "Free Your Mind." By that time, it was getting close to last call, and instead of sticking around to sing the last song, which I have done before, we called it a night. As I walked out of Armida's with my ears ringing and my throat sore, I knew that I'd done something right. When I first moved to Denver, I had a strong feeling that Armida's was a little slice of the city, and I think that's still true. Bring me your weird, your old, your new, your drunk, your bros, your babies — and they will all find their place in this town at Armida's.