The Atomic Cowboy Is a Neighborhood Bar for Three Neighborhoods

Sarah McGill
The first location of the Atomic Cowboy, which has grown into a Denver bar and restaurant dynasty, still satisfies the neighbors with beer, pizza and biscuits at 3237 East Colfax Avenue.
I used to frequent the Atomic Cowboy (the original one, at 3237 East Colfax Avenue) when I first moved to Denver more than ten years ago — and so did nearly everyone else in my Congress Park neighborhood. Back then, the Atomic Cowboy was just a simple but hip bar for a new, slightly-less-sketchy Colfax crowd. I went back the other night for old times' sake with a few friends, one of whom used to be my Congress Park neighbor. The place still felt the same in many ways; there was still a guy stamping hands at the door, but this time I appreciated being ID'd, because it made me feel young. Gone, however, was the nightclub-like line that I remember snaking out the door and down the street. It was a Saturday night and there were plenty of people inside, but not in a standing-room-only, spill-beer-on-the-person-next-to-you sort of way. The reassuringly weird space-cowboy art was still hanging on the exposed brick walls, and there was still a selection of board games to play. All in all, it was the same old place.

Atomic, as we used to call it, was initially opened by Leigh Jones, who is now part of a group that runs the Horseshoe Lounge, Inga's Alpine Lounge and the Bar Car. Shortly after the Atomic's opening in 2004, current owner Drew Shader took the reins, and he's overseen the bar's growth and development ever since.

When I lived across the street, the food menu was minimal and the beer list was large and full of craft beers — a novelty at the time. This is no longer a cutting-edge thing, but there are still 24 varied taps with craft beers from near and far. Trivia night was also a big deal (before that, too, became ubiquitous), and people used to get really excited about it. Apparently trivia night is no longer, but according to our peppy young server, people still call asking about it. Happy hour remains remarkably similar, though, running from 3 to 6 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to close Sunday through Thursday. On offer are $2 PBRs, $3 well drinks, $4 for all other beers, and $5 for Hornitos and Jim Beam drinks.

click to enlarge All of the Atomic Cowboys are filled with art featuring cowboy and outer-space themes, but this one might be my favorite. - SARAH MCGILL
All of the Atomic Cowboys are filled with art featuring cowboy and outer-space themes, but this one might be my favorite.
Sarah McGill
This large space, with high ceilings, brick walls, a bar in the middle and booths around the edges, somehow manages to keep a good volume level, even with music playing. Because of this, the bar always seemed like a good place for groups of friends, dates and everyone else.

I've definitely met a few new friends at this bar and even ended a first date here with a Brazilian guy who wouldn't stop talking. He told me his whole life story, which included extreme international baby-mama drama, a semi-professional basketball career and other assorted things that you just can't make up. Escape meant calling an actual cab (this was before the dawn of services like Lyft and Uber) so that he wouldn't follow me home. The moral of that story is that the Atomic Cowboy's booths have an intimate feel that allows people to talk easily, welcome or not.

In 2008, the Atomic Cowboy might have been the pinnacle of East Colfax nightlife, but it wasn't much of a food destination, so Shader and his wife and new co-owner, Ashleigh, got the genius idea to add some drunk munchies in the form of huge-ass pizza slices. Fat Sully's New York Pizza was born, with delicious and large thin-crust pizza by the slice or by the pie — and people lost their freakin' minds. Half the time, the pizza line was as long as the line to get into the bar. Fat Sully's was also an early adopter of offering gluten-free pizza, which added to the draw for many early adopters of a gluten-free lifestyle.

Not satisfied with just helping drunk people eat food late at night, the Shaders started offering breakfast, too, opening the Denver Biscuit Company in 2009. The idea was originally meant as a food truck, but when Shader and chef Jonathan Larsen started testing things out in the Atomic Cowboy kitchen, people in the neighborhood went nuts yet again, this time for biscuits. Now there was pretty much a boatload of people in the bar at all times of day, and it truly became more than just a local watering hole. The biscuits are huge, fluffy and full of unhealthy and delicious fillings — primarily bacon and fried chicken. The "DBC Club" biscuit even has bacon AND fried chicken. There weren't that many brunch options within walking distance of the many apartment buildings on East Colfax at the time, so it was common for me and everyone else in the area to roll out of bed and head over. But as a person who gets really hangry when brunch involves a wait of longer than fifteen minutes to be seated, I would sometimes lose patience with the seemingly endless line.

click to enlarge Sometimes you just need a biscuit full of bacon after a rough night. Denver Biscuit Company is here for you. - WESTWORD
Sometimes you just need a biscuit full of bacon after a rough night. Denver Biscuit Company is here for you.
Word spread beyond the neighborhood, luring food writers, the Cooking Channel, CNN and the Food Network; both businesses have been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri — signed memorabilia hangs on one wall to prove it.

It was around this peak-Atomic Cowboy era that I moved out of the apartment blocks away from the bar and stopped going there as much. But it's clear that the business has survived without me. Nowadays, both Fat Sully's and Denver Biscuit Company have traveling food trucks about town, available for private rental in addition to frequent public events. And several more iterations of the bar/biscuit/pizza trio have sprung up around town, starting with the Fat Sully's on South Broadway, which soon gave rise to an adjacent Atomic Cowboy and Denver Biscuit Company in 2013, and continuing with a 2015 opening on Tennyson Street. There's even a stand-alone Denver Biscuit Company in Stanley Marketplace in Aurora that opened last year. All run true to form, full of cowboy space art, vintage furniture and craft beers.

And the expansion hasn't stopped there. The latest news is that this summer, a new location will be opening up down in Colorado Springs. As my friends and I drank our beers in our booth, we reflected that the story of this bar is a very Denver one: When you've got a good thing going on, open more! And be sure to open one in or adjacent to Stapleton for the stroller set! Many a Denver restaurant or bar has done something similar: Rosenberg's Bagels, Comida, Los Chingones, Next Door, Cuba Cuba and Infinite Monkey Theorem. It's clearly a formula that works in our growing city, which loves local eats and drinks.

This transformation from hip Colfax bar to bar with mass appeal to multi-business success story was evident in the gradual transformation of the bathrooms at the original Atomic Cowboy location. They were pretty dicey in my early days, became a bit less graffiti- and garbage-filled as the crowds and staff grew, and now have brushed-metal stalls and a beautiful sink and mirror with Restoration Hardware-type fixtures.The selection of branded merchandise, which today includes many styles of hats and baby onesies, has also grown, taking over the wall above the pizza window, where you can still see dough being tossed high in the air.

Despite all that, on my most recent visit, the atmosphere was still that of a neighborhood bar, a place to catch up with neighborhood friends. The pool table still has a rocket sculpture hanging above it, the crowd is still mostly made up of fresh-faced twenty- and thirty-somethings wearing puffy winter coats and nice jeans, and you can still look down on the entire scene from the raised seating area some five feet or so above the bar.

The neighborhood and the neighborhood denizens have calmed down a little over the years; after all, East Colfax is no longer the newest, hipster-est part of town. That's not a bad thing, though, and you no longer have to wait outside for thirty minutes before coming in for a drink. Whether you're new here or you've lived here all your life, it's easy to enjoy some time with your new old friend the Atomic Cowboy, a neighborhood bar in many neighborhoods, a place that represents an ever-evolving Denver story.