There are far worse places to spend a snowy day than sitting inside Club 404, the saloon that Jerry Feld bought 57 years ago from a man who'd opened it on the day Prohibition ended. When he became its proud owner, Jerry was a student at the University of Denver, too young to put the liquor license in his own name.
That changed at midnight on St. Patrick's Day, because Jerry turned 21 on March 18. And ever since, St. Patrick's Day has been one big party at the 404. But this joint is no slouch on Hanukkah, Christmas or New Year's Eve, either, and glittery decorations advertising all three are now hanging on the walls, right by the blackboards that advertise the endless specials coming out of the kitchen. In fact, any day — whether holiday, snow day or maybe today — is a good day to celebrate at the 404, to sit in its bright, remodeled dining room or the clubhouse-like original bar area and toast this tavern's long, liquid history.
With any luck, we'll be able to toast it for many, many more days.
When I arranged a debate between Mason Tvert, the man who pushed to make marijuana legal in Denver, and Frank Rich, the founder of Modern Drunkard, who didn't appreciate Tvert's deprecating comments about alcohol, we met — where else? — at the 404. After a Stock Show gathering one year, I suggested that John Hickenlooper pop into the 404 to wash off some dust. "Hey, Mayor, let me buy you a shot!" cried a regular at the bar. (Hickenlooper declined.) And this coming Saturday, the Central City Press Club — an organization that still counts Denver Post scribe Jack Kisling as its president, even though he passed away close to a decade ago — will convene at the 404 to make some more history.
Over the years, Jerry Feld has gotten offers to buy his place, but it's part of the family. The 404 — Jerry named it after its address on Broadway so he wouldn't forget — has put four kids through college, and then there are the six grandkids. His wife works here; so do his daughter, his son. Jerry does, too, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he's not having dialysis treatments. But he's slowing down — and business is definitely slowing down.
So when Carol Core of Artistic Communities ("profitable collaborations through art and development") recently approached him about a possible deal on the property, the timing finally seemed like it might be right to sell. "The only thing is, honey, it's not making me any money anymore," Jerry tells me. "The restaurant business has gone to shit."
Core not only got Jerry's seal of approval, she also got the okay from the owner of the bungalows around the corner on Lincoln Street, as well as the buildings right up Broadway that house a thrift store and a swingers' club. Yes, a swingers' club. Jerry has a good story about that, as he does about almost anything. One night a couple of years ago, he was watching Channel 4 — he usually catches 9's newscast — when a story came on about a controversial swingers' club in the 400 block of Broadway. It was the Scarlet Ranch, but the video showed the 404. And all the next day, people kept calling Jerry — "I've made a lot of friends in my life here," he says — to tell him that they didn't know he was running that kind of place. And he wasn't: "I've been married to the same lady for 55 years!" Jerry points out. The same lady, and the same bar for just a little longer.
Although the swingers' club would be history if Core's plan to put a residential project on this end of the block goes forward, she can envision making the 404 a part of the complex. Conceptually, at least. And right now, with financing frozen, her project will remain conceptual. "At this point, it's just on hold," she says. "I think, eventually, as all of this shakes out economically, it's going to be so exciting. But it clearly needs a development partner, and all development partners are on hold."
But Club 404 is not. As other classic dives — Duffy's, the Bamboo Hut — disappear, it remains open for business, serving the same stiff drinks, the same filling lunches and bargain-priced dinners (cheap steaks are a specialty, particularly T-bones) that it's featured since Jerry really started promoting the restaurant side two decades ago. Some of the crowd is the same, too, but after 10 p.m., it's gotten a lot younger, with kids "looking for where the action is," he says. Club 404 provides it with comedy, half-off deals advertised on the back of Herman's Hideaway tickets (a cousin owns the club), and thirty kinds of flavored vodka. "You want to guess how many kinds I had when we opened?" he asks, then answers: "One."
Even though he wasn't yet legal then, Jerry knew his vodka. He was born in Denver, one of three sons, and their father got the first liquor-store license after Prohibition and opened a shop at Seventh Avenue and Santa Fe. After he died, at 43, Jerry's mother kept the store going. She thought Jerry was headed for law school at Northwestern — but then he told her he wanted to buy a bar. She was disappointed, "but she helped me buy the joint," he says.
He's been there ever since, seeing Denver through boom and bust and boom and bust again. Club 404 will see us through this one, too.
"We just have to wait a while," says Core, who may have put her plans on hold but isn't about to give up now. "We've seen stuff like this before."
But we may never see the likes of Club 404 again. It's a good day to join the Club.