On a recent Saturday afternoon, I met up with a friend who had never been to Billy's and another who has lived in Berkeley for several years. We were immediately greeted by a ridiculously attentive staff, despite the fact that the joint was almost completely full of what seemed to be a cross-section of the neighborhood. A clump of Latino guys in their twenties sporting international soccer jerseys sat at the bar watching college football. Older couples were eating lunch and drinking inside, and the patio was almost entirely full of groups of thirty-somethings with or without kids enjoying the surprising mid-November patio weather. My friend headed for the bathroom while I grabbed a seat, and I had a beer in my hand by the time she got back. I have only been to Billy's a handful of times, but have been consistently impressed by the efficient service.
Although I am not a tequila connoisseur myself, my friends were impressed by the large array of tequilas and margaritas. Billy's Inn features monthly tequila flights and specials as well as a tequila club that allows patrons access to special promotions and tequila dinners with food pairings created by chef and proprietor Sterling Robinson. My friends considered "La Smokey Margarita" to be a particular standout for tasting "like Sean Connery, but in a good way." If, like me, you aren't into that idea, the bar also offers a wide range of other cocktail options as well as an impressive tap list. I decided to milk the last of the remaining pumpkin-flavored items of the season by getting a New Belgium Pumpkick. Call me basic, but I'm a sucker for pumpkin beers. At least I wasn't wearing yoga pants at the time.
Fortuitously, we happened to sit down next to two friendly regulars eating lunch who overheard my conversation with our server about researching the bar. They shared with us that the staff at Billy's actually helped make their surprise wedding proposal happen in the bar a few years ago. Both Denver natives, they moved into the neighborhood a little while back and have been fixing up a decades-old house not far from Billy's. They told us that they have fallen in love with the area — and with the bar. What they love specifically are the bartenders who know your name and the other regulars, even the odd ones, who love telling stories and talking about anything and everything. Luckily, our new friends were also amateur historians, with particular emphasis on the Berkeley neighborhood and the west side of town. We exchanged interesting historical notes about the area, from Sloan's Lake and the Manhattan Beach amusement park that used to exist there, to the Smaldone family of Northside mafia fame who once ran things around these parts, to the history of Billy's itself.
I also got a few tips on the past and present of the bar and building from Robinson. The building was built in the late 1800s as a crematorium, then became a service station in the 1900s, catering to folks making one last stop before leaving town for Boulder or Golden. On our recent visit to Billy's, we happened to be sitting right next to a trap door that now leads down to a storage area, but which used to be the service bay where mechanics would get underneath cars to work on them. Billy and Judy Smith were the originators of Billy's as a bar in 1933; they ran the place place until 1950. During that time, there were also a few rooms for rent upstairs — hence the "Inn" part of the name — until that portion of the building burned down in the '50s. The next notable owners were the Von Feldt family, who kept the pub going through two generations, from 1956 to 2008. Our new Berkeley-dwelling friends also shared that Billy's held out for years in allowing smoking inside the bar, even after the smoking ban was passed in 2006.
In 2008, Larimer Associates, a group that owns the real estate for multiple restaurants and bars around town (including TAG and other Troy Guard restaurants) bought Billy's. They scrubbed the smoke off the ceilings and redecorated the interior, but left the exterior, which suggests some sort of taco shack, refreshingly unchanged. Guard consulted on a new menu of Mexican and American fare, including everything from tortas and tacos to pie and burgers. The menu has continued to evolve under the creativity of Robinson, who prides himself on menu items that you don't see at your everyday neighborhood bar, such as the Skippy Burger, topped with peanut butter, bacon and pepper Jack cheese. Whenever I've eaten at Billy's, food has been consistently unique, tasty and reasonably priced. Brunch always draws a crowd, as does trivia night and all-day happy hour on Mondays, which includes a lengthy list of food and drink specials.
Aside from continued culinary upgrades, there are other big plans afoot at Billy's. A rooftop bar with its own menu and atmosphere is slated to open this May; Robinson urges patrons to stay tuned for a celebration to open this fun new addition.
But according to Robinson, as well as the regulars and staff we met, people come back to Billy's for the people. The shifts in neighborhood demographics have brought tons of new bars and restaurants to the surrounding blocks, but Billy's remains a fixture for area residents, old and new, to come to connect with friends over food and drinks. He tells me that a typical Friday includes appearances from college students from nearby Regis University, "white hairs" who have called Berkeley and Billy's their home for decades, families, bikers, hipsters, couples on date nights and groups of single fellas and ladies out with friends. In a part of Denver that is in the process of forging an identity that retains some of the area's rich history while making room for new ideas and reinventions, Billy's fits right in.