What do we mean when we mourn “old Denver?” Running into seemingly everybody we’ve ever met over breakfast at Racines? Throwing back a Coors stubby bottle while jammed inside a wall-to-wall crowd at El Chapultepec? Sneaking out of Colfax’s Rockbar or LoDo’s Rock Island for a cigarette? Rock on. “Old Denver” is increasingly a two-word code to mean “Denver was much cooler before everyone realized it was cool,” when rents were cheap, strangers were familiar and the town was stuffed with neon. RIP?
Iconic greasy spoons such as Tom’s and the Denver Diner are gone, soon to be redeveloped into something glossy and glass-clad — a fate Annie’s Cafe may yet meet now that its building has been listed for sale. But you can stumble into Pete’s Kitchen at 1962 East Colfax Avenue, still packed with folks. Its famed flapjack-flipping neon sign is aglow as the kitchen is once again open for 24-hour service, at least on weekends. It’s joined by a twin flame, the snaking sign for Pete’s Satire Lounge next door, in reminding everyone that old Denver ain’t quite down for the count.
Although for a minute there, it almost was — at least to the folks who run Pete’s Restaurants, the family-owned enterprise behind Denver’s most familiar food and drinks. Founding father Pete Contos passed away at age 85 in May 2019, throwing the entire operation into flux. What was Pete’s…without Pete?
Tough decisions followed. Pete’s family — wife Elizabeth, son Dean, daughter Nikki Phillips and son-in-law Dean Phillips — closed Pete’s Gyros Place in Congress Park by the end of 2019. Pete helped the previous owner open it in 1976 and purchased it outright in 1991. Old Denver history buffs might remember the place as a favorite of Alan Berg, the outspoken radio host whose 1984 assassination outside his nearby home inspired Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio.
Not even a year after Pete’s death came a second blow: COVID-19. Pete’s Greek Town in Congress Park, Pete’s University Park near the University of Denver and the Satire all shuttered temporarily. Pete’s Central One in Wash Park and Pete’s Kitchen pivoted to a limited takeout schedule. “Pete’s Kitchen was always, always open 24 hours a day. And suddenly it was like, ‘We have to lock the door?’ We didn’t know where the key was,” says Pete's grandson Alex Barakos.
With the pandemic raging, Barakos felt an urgency to join the ranks of his family in Denver. Then a senior studying hotel and restaurant management at Northern Arizona University, he had apprenticed at his family’s restaurants in his freshman and sophomore years. “Pete and I would go in the back of Greek Town, and he taught me how to pour drinks with a bottle of water,” he remembers. “‘That’s short,’ or ‘That’s over.’ He really beat it into me.”
Between all the spinning plates sat the Satire, perhaps the most old Denver of the bunch. Once owned by ex-University of Denver football star Sam Sugarman, it plodded along as a sports bar dubbed Sugie’s Lounge until 1960. That's when Sugarman looked at Denver’s growing folk-music scene and renamed his place the Satire, built a stage and hired local legend Walt Conley as his booker. The pre-fame Smothers Brothers lived in an apartment overhead and played regularly as the house act. That summer, even Bob Dylan gigged there — that is, before he was run out of town by Tom and Dick Smothers, well-coiffed comedians who didn’t get Dylan’s whole gruff and woody Woody Guthrie act.
Pete Contos and a business partner scooped the place from Sugarman on December 1, 1962, kicking off a nearly six-decade legacy that synonymized Pete with old Denver. While many Denverites, new and old, say “Pete’s” as a shorthand for Pete’s Kitchen, the Satire was the first to bear Contos’s name. Pete’s Kitchen didn’t come along until he and Elizabeth purchased the diner in 1988.
To keep Pete’s Satire Lounge dark might’ve cast a shadow on all the history that flowed from it. Still, even amid easing pandemic restrictions, it sat empty throughout 2020. “I don’t know if this place would be open if I wasn’t constantly pushing my family to get parts rolling. We held out until we knew we could open full-steam ahead, and that happened to be February of this year,” Barakos says.
And so: The neon is back on, at least five nights a week, and Pete’s Satire Lounge is getting ready to kick off its 59th year with a warm familiarity. Stumble in, sit a while, and you’ll hear Joey Mestas — the jovial jack-of-all-trades who’s worked there since February 1972 — whose “Plates are hot! Have a nice time,” catchphrase is an institution all its own. Behind the bar is Shannon Hollingsworth, just as she has been since 2003 and just as her mom, Tannia Chamberlayne, was before her. Longtime regulars sit around trading stories, like the one about the dented can of creamed corn perched atop the backbar, dropped one night by a regular who disappeared shortly thereafter; or Chamberlayne’s wedding there, when she was given away by Pete; or the black sparkly ceilings wiped away in a 2009 remodel. Just as they’ve done generation after generation, these folks holler names as friends roll in, sing along to the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s standards blaring from the jukebox, and shell out for drinks for other barflies — new and old — as things begin to get hazy.
As comforting as that will be to the denizens of old Denver, there are some differences, and more change is on the horizon. For starters, the Satire is not presently a Mexican restaurant. Its kitchen is closed, though Joey will happily run you over a hot plate from Pete’s Kitchen.
And there’s no Pete at Pete’s Satire Lounge. But there is Barakos, a gregarious recent graduate who’s managed to fill the place with friends his age — kids who might be able to name one Bob Dylan song, but assuredly have never heard of the Smothers Brothers.
So how do those regulars feel about all these Zoomer-led transformations along this famously stubborn stretch of Colfax? So far, so good, says Hollingsworth, who would know. “We’re still getting the same regulars we always have, but there are new ones, too,” she says. “I’ve worked here my entire adult life, and it’s the same place. But Alex is bringing fresh air in, which we needed.”
Longtime patron Wade Kresak agrees. “It’s the Satire. It can’t not be cool,” he notes. “But no matter what you do, it’ll be ‘kickback cool,’ not ‘status cool.’ It’s Colfax.”
The Satire became the Satire when Sam Sugarman changed the name and the format. It transformed into a Mexican cantina after 22-year-old Pete Contos took it over in 1962. He changed it a few more times over the years. It will necessarily change again. After all, to win old Denver status, it isn’t enough to merely defy or resist everything going on around you. You must adapt and survive each successive wave of new Denvers until collective memories blur.
Cheap, stiff drinks help with that, and Barakos promises those aren’t going anywhere. “The goal isn’t to completely change the place to win new customers,” he said. “It’s to keep the seats ready for our regulars while creating an affordable, intimate space that teaches younger people why they should be attracted to places like this.”
Along the way, Barakos is working to mint the sort of events, like Friday and Sunday night karaoke, that these new regulars might remember decades from now as a tradition from their eras of old Denver, which will continue to be born anew again and again throughout their lives.
But old-school cool will always find a home here. “If Bob Dylan ever wanted to come back and redeem himself,” Barakos laughs, “the Satire would welcome him with open arms.”
The Satire Lounge is located at 1920 East Colfax Avenue; for information, call 303-322-2227.