Development has wiped some of Denver's classic bars right off the map. But last month, the city celebrated two saves: The Cruise Room got a new lease on life, and My Brother's Bar is staying in the family — or close enough. Still, it's high time we celebrate Denver's most iconic bars, before another one issues a surprise last call. The iconic spots on our list are not necessarily dives (we have a separate list of Denver's best dive bars), and we're staying within Denver city limits for this round (watch for another list of iconic bars outside of Denver): They're watering holes with such great bones, history and atmosphere that we hope they never dry up. Here are Denver's ten most iconic bars, in chronological order:
3503 East Colfax Avenue
Family-run Bastien's isn't retro; the rest of the world is. Looking for the cocktail culture of the ’50s? Bastien's has it. Early-’70s swinger swank? It has that, too. Bastien's doesn't change with the times; the times change around it. Like they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and while the batteries on Bastien's Timex ran down a long time ago, this is still a great place to go for good steaks, strong drinks and a taste of Denver's culinary past. Bonus: The Googie-style building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
2. Buckhorn Exchange
1000 Osage Street
Let's get this out of the way right now: Although the Buckhorn is the proud possessor of Liquor License #1, it is not the oldest bar in Denver. Liquor licenses weren't issued until after Prohibition, and the Buckhorn's then-owner was first in line. But the building that houses the Buckhorn Exchange has definitely been serving since the late 1800s, and while the downstairs dining rooms are devoted to taxidermied trophies and big plates of cooked critters whose ancestors could be hanging on the walls, the upstairs bar remains a veritable museum of beer steins and shotguns, with occasional old-timey music acts serenading the mild-West types standing at the Victorian-era bar.
3. Charlie Brown's Bar & Grill
980 Grant Street
There are many reasons to go to Charlie Brown's. The place has a lot of history — seventy-odd years of it. The inside bar feels like an archetypal neighborhood joint, and the patio — big, heated in winter — is one of the very few places left in this city where you can have a cigarette with your beers and still feel like you're actually inside. And then there's the kitchen, which does a decent job on a huge menu offering everything from breakfast burritos to a lobster dinner. A corner piano bar is where locals drop by to offer sauced renditions of Tin Pan Alley songs or just consume strong cocktails. Once favored by Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Charlie's now draws one of Denver's most diverse crowds, including art students, career drinkers and singers who turn up for karaoke and pig roasts.
4. The Cruise Room
1600 17th Street
The Cruise Room got a new lease on life on January 1, when Sage Restaurant Group, whose sibling owns the Oxford Hotel, took over the incredibly cool, classy space in the Victorian-era hotel. The interior was designed by Gilbert Charles Jaka, who also created the observation lounge on the Queen Mary (hence the name); artist Alley Henson made the bas-relief depictions of international drinking toasts on the wall (the ones dedicated to Hitler and Mussolini disappeared during World War II). The bar opened on December 6, 1933, the day after Prohibition ended, and it's been pouring every day since, through numerous owners and as the neighborhood around it slid from a major traveling hub to a down-and-out area and back again to a major traveling hub. Tourists and residents alike appreciate the charms of the Cruise Room: great decor, stiff drinks and a welcoming crew that knows the iconic bar has found a safe harbor.
5. Don's Club Tavern
723 East Sixth Avenue
Don's Club Tavern isn't a dive bar anymore. After owner Don Aymami passed away, his family wanted to let go of the place he'd bought back in 1947, when it was Flanagan's Club Tavern. So Little Pub took it over in 2005, gave the place enough of a renovation to move it out of the dive category (just look at the improved bathrooms) and turned the dry cleaner next door into more Mixed Drinks for everyone. But much of the original decor and a lot of the old charm remain intact; the place attracts still-serious-about-their-drinking regulars as well as appreciative hipsters. And thanks to that big garage door facing Sixth Avenue that opens wide in the summer and on otherwise balmy nights, everyone passing by gets to enjoy the atmosphere of a spot that's been known to generations as Don's Mixed Drinks.
6. El Chapultepec
1962 Market Street
A down-and-dirty downtown landmark since 1933, El Chapultepec got its start as a beer and shot joint that occasionally offered live country and mariachi music. That changed when Jerry Krantz took it over in 1958; he started booking jazz acts, and the Pec soon earned an international reputation as one of the country's best jazz clubs. The music didn't die when Krantz passed away in 2012; a benevolent developer stepped in and bought the place, which today is run by Krantz's daughter, Angela. There's still entertainment every night of the week (the lineup has expanded beyond just jazz), but this bar is worth a visit just for the chance to sit on one of the worn barstools or in one of the old booths, grab a beer or a shot, and toast the iconic spot.
7. Lion's Lair
2022 East Colfax Avenue
From down and dirty to down and dirtier: The Lion's Lair got its start as a bar in the 1930s, when it was the Playboy Club and hosted jazz stars. That ended in 1956, when Playboy magazine determined that this country wasn't big enough for the both of them and the space turned into the Aladdin Lounge. In 1967, Johnny Lyons bought it and transformed it into the Lion's Lair. It's been a rock-and-roll institution since 1991, when it started hosting live music; after Lyons sold the place in 1995 (he passed away the next day), the music just got louder. Local punk, rock and garage bands are likely to be found on the elevated stage, though hot touring acts sometimes pack the place. Other draws include the history, the cheap drafts and the company: a combination of music fans, crusty regulars and the occasional Colfax drop-in.
8. Mercury Cafe
2199 California Street
For over forty years, Marilyn Megenity has hosted a moveable feast of fun at the Mercury Cafe, her club/cafe/community gathering place that finally landed in what was then the outer reaches of downtown over two decades ago. Today it's an institution known as much for its enlightening entertainment options filling the different spaces — plays, poetry slams, tango dancing — as it is for its healthy hippie fare. Whether vegan or carnivore, libertarian or commie, everyone feels at home at the Merc, the embodiment of Denver eclecticism. It's time to raise a glass — whether wheatgrass or craft beer — to Megenity.
9. My Brother's Bar
2376 15th Street
This is Denver's longest continually operating bar. It got its start in 1873 as the Highland House and has been pouring ever since through a series of owners, losing its second story somewhere along the way but winning generations of fans, including Neal Cassady. (He wrote a letter from the state reformatory to a pal, asking him to take care of his tab at what was then called Paul's Place.) In 1970, Jim and Angelo Karagas took over the historic address, naming it "My Brother's" by default. It's never had a sign, never needed one — and won't get one now that new owners the Newman family are taking over, staving off the developers who've been eyeing this prime piece of property.
10. Ship Tavern
321 17th Street
The Brown Palace was a little slower than the Oxford to open its bar after Prohibition; the Ship Tavern, which took over a space that had been a ladies' lounge, didn't open until August 1934. The reason for its nautical theme in this landlocked city? Owner Claude Boettcher, who lived with his wife in the mansion that's now the Governor's Residence, had brought home a collection of clipper-ship models that apparently didn't fit her decor concept; she suggested he take them to the hotel. They still grace the Ship Tavern, where you can anchor yourself on one of those decade-old stools and soak in the history — and a few drinks. The spot is a classic, but there could be rough waters ahead: New owners have changed out some of the furniture for orange chairs and formica-topped tables better suited for a diner. Can we have a quick course correction?