Don't Lament a Lost Dive Bar: The Kentucky Inn Still Has a Heart

Sarah McGill
The Kentucky Inn might be new and improved, but not beyond recognition, for regulars who have been coming here for years.
Any time an Old Denver bar undergoes a makeover, like many lovers of divey environments, I am suspicious that the renovations will detract from the character of the place. With that concern in the back of my mind, I walked into the new version of the Kentucky Inn at 890 South Pearl Street, which has been under new ownership since 2016 and underwent renovations in 2017.

I was pleasantly surprised, though, that the updated interior leaves most of the old space and vibe to love. The vintage bar, built in 1956 by the same folks who constructed the one at the nearby Candlelight Tavern, is still topped with smooth formica worn down by decades of drinks and elbows on the bar, and the building itself holds much of the same character it has maintained for decades. The main difference is that the Inn expanded into what used to be an old dry-cleaning business next door — the vintage neon signs are still there, but you can't get your shirts pressed here anymore — to add a back room with a pool table and a new full-service kitchen. Also new are the floors and wood paneling on the walls, but they blend in with the decor, making for a clean and tidy Denver dive that doesn't feel at all fancy.

click to enlarge Love for Wisconsin is represented at the Kentucky Inn with tasty cheese curds. - SARAH MCGILL
Love for Wisconsin is represented at the Kentucky Inn with tasty cheese curds.
Sarah McGill

I met a group of friends here on a recent Monday night. The place was pleasantly full of neighborhood regulars, young and old, with bro-y backwards caps and puffy jackets for the younger set, or vintage bowling shirts and orthotic shoes for the older crowd, which included a few gentlemen well into their seventies dining in the middle room separated from the front room by a brick archway. A few of the older patrons were playing pool, and a big group of regulars played a dice game at a big table near the high-top my friends selected. A youngish group of guys and gals in their twenties with Patagonia jackets spread themselves and their winter gear across the corner of the bar. Several TV screens showed a variety of college basketball contests, hyping things up for the impending March Madness tournament. The Touchtunes jukebox was kicking out some sweet old-school hip-hop jams by the likes of Salt-N-Pepa and TLC. We approved, and added a few selections of our own.

We grabbed a round of beers, which were $1 off for happy hour, as were glasses of wines and well drinks. Also available during happy hour were $4.75 shots of Fireball, Jack Fire, Jagermeister and Rumple Minze. I considered getting some Rumple Minze just because it was so random, but was more enticed by the multitude of draft beers, local and otherwise. Happy hour runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays, with another late-night happy hour from midnight to 2 a.m. The rest of the week, it's 4 to 7 p.m.

click to enlarge The expansion at the Kentucky Inn made room for billiards, a kitchen and more seating. - SARAH MCGILL
The expansion at the Kentucky Inn made room for billiards, a kitchen and more seating.
Sarah McGill
Our server, Troy, bustled about, running the whole place solo while still giving us great service. I hate being that annoying table, but I think we might have been those people. I was with an ever-changing cast of characters, some of whom had dietary restrictions, very specific drink requests and, of course, the need to split the bill five ways. Despite all that, Troy remained good-natured and even took the time to explain the Wisconsin connections of the bar: One of the new owners, Jim Armstrong, is a former sports writer and a huge Packers fan, and many of the bar staff had been Wisconsin fans for years before he came on the scene.

To keep the Wisconsin spirit alive, a Badgers flag and some Packers framed certificates are on the walls, and fried cheese curds are on the menu — either solo or on the Wisconsin burger, which is also topped with cheddar cheese. We sampled the cheese curds sans burger, and the whole table agreed that they lived up to their gooey and delicious reputation. Also tasted and approved: regular fries, poutine fries, tater tots, fried pickles, a balsamic chicken sandwich, a Reuben sandwich, and a half-dozen wings, which the folks in the kitchen kindly split between two flavors, Buffalo and mango habanero. In keeping with the Great Lakes spirit, there's even a walleye fish fry for dinner every Friday.

Our server explained that he had worked for the previous owners, Lisa and Dave Bryan, and stayed on when the bar transitioned to new owners Armstrong, Fred Cooke, Nell Sahni and Greg Socha, who completed most of the renovations while keeping the place open but shut down for a short time and reopened just over a year ago. The changes don't seem to have alienated any of the neighborhood faithful, probably because many of the faces behind the bar are the same, as are the service, welcoming vibe and warm, if less divey, environs.

When we made our way out into the frigid night, one of my friends left her to-go box on the table. Troy rushed out into the blowing snow to find us and make sure she got her leftovers, wincing at the cold in his "Dirty Bird" T-shirt. It was just the kind of thing that makes you remember a place for more than just cheap beer, pool and jukebox music. The Kentucky Inn may not be the classic dive bar it once was, but now it's something equally valuable: a neighborhood bar that pays attention to every neighbor who comes in.