Any ol' bar, from snazzy to seedy, can offer $2 cans of PBR and still make more than a 300 percent profit on even the most egregious retail thirty-pack price; in Denver, plenty do, though often just during happy hour. The Squeaky Bean, however, is different. In a lot of ways. For starters, the Bean stands out with $2 Banquet Beers all day, every day. I'm ruminating aloud about how refreshing this is — to drink cheap Coors instead of PBR for once, especially in a single-page-menu, candlelit-bistro type of place — when the guy wiping glasses behind the bar says thanks.
That's it, just "thanks." Maybe there's a "for noticing" in there as well, but if he says it, I don't need to hear it. His gracious smile and grateful eyes tell me that he'd noticed the same thing and wanted to do something different. For once.
This guy, I soon discover, is Johnny Ballen, owner of the five-month-old Squeaky Bean. That he's behind the bar of his baby on a Friday night isn't surprising; that he's personable and eager to please isn't, either. That his bartender is pressing, squeezing, muddling and mixing fresh, organic fruit into custom cocktails accented by cardamom and nutmeg but still serving $2 Banquets? While discerning diners wearing Burberry scarves over J. Crew peacoats eat duck confit sandwiches? That, frankly, is surprising. Awesomely so.
As is our next interaction, another welcome eavesdrop on Ballen's part, which begins with me noticing a bottle of Hornitos tequila to the left of a Mr. Bean bobblehead on the back shelf and remarking to a friend about it being my house wine, the best 100 percent agave juice for the buck. Again with the smiling, the nodding.
"That's my shwag," Ballen finally pipes in, by which he means, 'I wouldn't stock anything that says "made with agave,"' and not 'Your house tequila is like low-grade weed' — my initial impression. I tell him how Applejack always has the handle for around $32, but he already knows, because that's where he buys it for the bar. He admits to being a cork dork, both about good tequila and fine wine, and I tell him he shouldn't say it so sheepishly. Then he whips out the bottle, pours me and my friend free 60 ml shots in clever glass beakers with measurement markers, and taps and cheers us both with his own, already-poured beaker of sauce, all while carrying on with the wiping and mollycoddling.
While some dude plays acoustic jams — REM, John Mayer, Oasis, Phil Collins — in the corner and the kitchen continues to hustle hot plates to tables, I stay put at the bar and drink more Coors cans than I can count, getting much, much drunker than my tab eventually accounts for. While whipping up specialty drinks for paying customers, bartender Dan makes a point to pour too much and slide me a taster of what's left. Over and over. One drink is made with pineapple vodka, lemon, soda and cardamom. Another, which Dan calls the Spiked Bean and refers to as "a little slice of heaven," mingles Van Gogh brand Double Espresso vodka, Van Gogh Dutch Chocolate, cream and nutmeg. Two hours into my stay, my hand-eye coordination is that of an infant, with beer sliding down the front of my sweater instead of my throat. "Aiming for your other mouth?" a server jabs playfully. "My belly gets impatient," I garble back. Me missing and spilling and mostly making an ass of myself — that's not surprising or different.
The Squeaky Bean, however, is both.