Thunderbird Lounge

Something about the Thunderbird Lounge (721 Quebec Street) makes me want to take off my shoes and get more comfortable, maybe hang my coat in the hallway closet and then grab a bite from the fridge. I've never been here before and know only the people I came with, but walking into the warmly lit, thinly carpeted dive feels a lot like coming home for the holidays, like arriving late to a party where everyone knows my name.

It helps that Carey and Joe, the friends who brought me here, are longtime regulars, and that when we arrive, we walk straight to a group of tall tables and booths on the side of the bar known as the Spitfire, where three generations of families are already in full Friday-night swing. Steak knives and pinkish puddles of meat grease — evidence of tonight's prime-rib special — lie abandoned on porcelain plates and tabletops as the parents and grandparents who left them there drink draught beer and wine, tell stories and smile. Their elementary-age kin catapult Lord of the Rings action figures over fake poinsettia displays in brown wicker pots, sip soda from plastic cups with lids, and eat popcorn chicken and onion rings out of red plastic baskets lined with checkered waxed paper. Everyone seems happy to be here, and by God, so are we.

Over on the T-Bird side, it's more of the same. Twenty-somethings crowded into a pink padded booth share pitchers of beer and baskets of Frings (fries and onion rings) while paying haphazard attention to the corner-mounted TVs and making plans for the rest of the night. Three women in pink and black embroidered bowling shirts that read "Dolls With Balls" laugh like sisters and take shots of something chilled. And in the blue-painted, concrete-walled pool room, a couple of boys roll the cue ball back and forth and rub chalk between their fingers. But they're on borrowed time: No kids on the pool tables after 8 p.m. — bar policy.

On both sides of the bar, flat-screen TVs and an Internet jukebox share real estate with glossies of long-retired stock cars, Broncos and Buffs memorabilia, Budweiser mirrors commemorating fifty years of NASCAR, and black-and-white pictures of Union Station and downtown Denver at the turn of the last century. Trophies and team pictures from Thunderbird-sponsored golf tournaments and championship bar-league billiards teams litter the walls and dark, dusty corners. Computer-printed signs hung with worn-out invisible tape advertise Sunday brunch (Bloody Mary bar!) in bold red letters.

While I drink a bottle of Bud and take everything in, Carey cradles her six-month-old baby, calls the waitresses (Sandy and Kelly) by name, orders special items from the kitchen that aren't on the menu. Joe's son Alex orders "the usual," and Sandy knows what he means. When our food comes, we pass plates like family. When it's gone, we loosen our belts and rub our bellies; we clean up after ourselves and compliment the cook like Ma made it herself.

It's Friday-night family time, and we might as well be at home.

To see where Drew Bixby's been drinking, check out this map.

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