One of the many amenities that dried up during the pandemic was the opportunity to belly up to a bar, sit on a stool and soak up the atmosphere (and a few drinks) while meeting with friends — or making new ones.
When all Colorado restaurants and bars were ordered closed to on-premises dining in March 2020, the only ones allowed to remain in business at all were those offering to-go food and liquor. That immediately ruled out most dive bars, which frequently limit their snack options to old bags of chips and maybe a Tombstone pizza. On May 27 of last year, when restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms at 25 percent capacity, bars were allowed to follow suit — but only if they had actual food available (a food truck out front or a deal with a sandwich store next door counted, but bags of chips did not...though many spots quickly stocked up on frozen pizzas). And they had to follow social distancing rules — which basically ruled out most seating at the bar.
In other words: True dive bars were sunk.
But even most of those places managed to resurface and somehow tread water until bars were allowed to reopen without any food offerings, and at full capacity. So now is an ideal time to toast many old favorites in metro Denver — true dives that remain off the radar and are not now part of local chains, no matter how respectful of the bar's origins (think Don's Club Tavern), or classics that rise above the dive designation (My Brother's Bar).
These are the ten best dives in Denver right now:
12 Volt Tavern7514 Grandview Avenue, Arvada
Arvada took action early on during the pandemic, shutting down streets to allow people to stroll from store to shop and restaurant to bar, including the dark and down-home 12 Volt Tavern, an old dive in the heart of the new and improved Olde Town. While many of those bars already had food service, the 12 Volt Tavern did not, but it came up with a one-dollar sandwich that fit the bill — and a deal with the sandwich shop next door if you wanted something fancier. Now the 12 Volt has left those gourmet days behind and returned to being a dependable joint with a good jukebox, cold beer, drink specials, friendly pool games, live music, theme nights...and better bathrooms than you might remember.
Ace-Hi Tavern1216 Washington Avenue, Golden
Since alcohol put Golden on the map, it’s not surprising that one of the area’s best dive bars is located in this town. Bar fans have been living it up at the Ace-Hi since Leo Stillman purchased the old Opera House restaurant on historic Washington Avenue and opened the bar back in 1961. Today it’s run by Leo’s grandson, Sid Stillman, and it’s still a place where workers getting off their shifts at Coors Brewing plop themselves next to Colorado School of Mines students preparing for a tough day of classes. The place is Western-themed and Colorado-proud, with maps of the state and “Native” signs adorning the walls, and old-fashioned steer horns fancied up with Mardi Gras beads stationed above the cash register.
Carioca Cafe/Bar Bar2060 Champa Street
As downtown continues to develop, the survival of Carioca Cafe — better known as Bar Bar — is something to celebrate. Perhaps with a drink or ten. It’s fascinating to watch how the clientele at this spot changes over the course of a day...when it's open all day (hours have become more sporadic during the pandemic.) In the old days, you could get there before noon and grab a cup of coffee and some eclectic reading material — or just study a few of Denver’s finest barflies, a couple of whom might have been here since the doors opened at 7 a.m. As the hour gets later, an assortment of hipsters, punks and rockers mixes in with those barflies, the conversation flows, and next thing you know, it's last call. (No phone, BTW.)
Columbine Cafe15630 South Golden Road, Golden
The Columbine Cafe opened the year Prohibition ended, in a former barbershop by a patch of horse pastures. The nearest landmark was the Coors brewery, and workers from that plant kept the place in business for many years. Today Golden sprawls just down the road, but the Columbine still feels like an out-of-the-way discovery. There's a beer garden in back, the site of summer barbecues, horseshoe tournaments and music performances; there's sometimes live music in the tiny bar space, too, though the only nod to the "Cafe" in the name are breakfast burritos supplied on Sundays. But who needs food when the ambience is so satisfying? This is the kind of place where everyone knows your name...long after you've forgotten it.
Dr. Proctor's Lounge4201 East Mississippi Avenue
The Glendale strip mall that houses such family-friendly shops as the Bookies is also home to a true dive: Dr. Proctor's Lounge (aka Bar and Grill). Behind its nondescript facade, it's been cranking out comfort food — burgers and burritos for lunch and dinner — as well as pouring good, stiff drinks for almost forty years. Happy hour runs from mid-day through early evening on weekdays, and there's karaoke later in the week. Most of the time, though, you can find locals knocking back brews and knocking billiard balls around, keeping the good doctor in business.
Lakeview Lounge2375 Sheridan Boulevard, Edgewater
At the break of dawn on the last day of Daylight Savings Time, regulars gather at the Lakeview Lounge — which opens at 7 a.m. — and toast the new day as the sun rises over the Denver skyline, Sloan’s Lake and Sheridan Boulevard. The sunrise service is a time-honored tradition at this weathered dive that time otherwise forgot — even though the bar got new owners, Eugene "Geno" and Jill Martinez, shortly before the pandemic hit. The pair managed to keep the place going, though, and it remains an ideal place to come for stiff Bloody Marys in the morning and mystery shots in brown paper bags late into the night. They're best enjoyed from a bar stool that's worn its own hole deep into the linoleum, or perhaps from one of the picnic tables out front.
Nob Hill Inn420 East Colfax Avenue
If there were a love song to the Nob Hill Inn, it would be played on a steel guitar. The song would have some twang to it, and it would be sad and satisfying and honest. But last year, it was almost silenced. The Nob Hill Inn has been a drinker's paradise for seventy years — serving everyone from Bob Dylan to politicos who used to make deals over the phone in corner booths — but this down-and-dirty watering hole on Colfax almost dried up entirely during the pandemic. Without a kitchen or passable alternative, the place closed for months while it sold pizza and to-go drinks out of the back door and regulars hosted fundraisers. "We've had hard times before," said John Plessinger, whose father bought the Nob in 1969 and put it in his name. "But nothing like this." Still, Denver's best dive bar survived, and today the Nob Hill Inn is again pouring drinks at its horseshoe-shaped bar.
PS Lounge3416 East Colfax Avenue
Like most great dive bars in this town, the PS Lounge is a place we’d never want to see in the daylight — but at night, the Lounge commands a special place in our bar-loving hearts. The place has its quirks: The cash-only establishment won’t let you keep a running tab, for instance. But where else would the bar's owner — Pete Siahamis, in this case — send you a round (or two) of Alabama Slammers, a sweet, Day-Glo-orange concoction made of sloe gin, SoCo and orange juice that tastes more like Tang, just to show his appreciation for your patronage?
Sam’s Bar & Lounge6801 Leetsdale Drive
While hipsters have discovered many of Denver’s iconic bars, we’re betting you won’t find a single hipster at Sam’s Bar & Lounge, a watering hole that opened on Leetsdale Drive in 1954. The place has weathered some hard times recently, but you can still grab a seat at the big four-sided bar — there are a few comfy booths, too — and chat it up with the bartender, who pours stiff, inexpensive drinks. As so much of old Denver disappears, the neon sign of Sam’s shines like a beacon.
Twins Inn5201 Ralston Road, Arvada
Double trouble! The Twins Inn is as bare-bones as it gets — with a Facebook page that hasn’t been updated in years and no website — but the space is clean, the jukebox is good, the beer is cold and the regulars are very, very friendly. The Twins Inn has been pouring beer on this corner since 1961, and although the pet bird that used to frequent the place has flown the coop, things are back to normal. Except, as one bartender points out, "Things are never normal here."