In the heart of Capitol Hill, Charlie Brown's Bar & Grill has been serving booze since the Prohibition era. Notable Denver characters new and old have made the bar their own over the years. The history of this classic bar starts with Judge Earnest Colburn, a mine owner who made his fortune in Cripple Creek and opened the Colburn Hotel in 1928. The bar at the Colburn, which would later become Charlie Brown's, wasn't much of a bar then, at least officially. It's rumored that an elevator shaft that goes only down — into the basement — might have been used to secretly transport alcohol to patrons of the hotel. Prohibition ended in 1933, but it took the bar at the Colburn until 1947 to get a liquor license, because the city still didn't want drinking to affect the morals of local youth in the growing Capitol Hill neighborhood — sort of like how these days pot shops aren't supposed to be within 1,000 feet of schools.
The bar and hotel changed hands several times after Colburn sold the establishment in 1932. The bar got its name in 1964, when it was sold to new owners, who named it Charlie Brown's for no other reason than the fact that they thought it sounded like a good name for a bar, and the name has remained the same ever since. Before that, in the late 1940s, the Beat writer crowd, including Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, used to get drinks at the Colburn Hotel bar. Famous actors — Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando among them — also stayed at the Colburn while filming Westerns in Colorado in the ’50s and ’60s. Nowadays, the Colburn Hotel isn't a hotel; it's been turned into apartments, and the bar isn't affiliated with the complex.
Charlie Brown's is currently owned by George Andrianakos, and has been for the past 28 years. During his tenure, the bar's piano players have become famous in their own right, including long-running legend Paul Lopez and current piano man Patrick Stone. In more recent years, other famous faces who have popped in for some piano sing-a-longs or just for a drink include Tony Bennett and Bill Murray.
So if you're a history buff, definitely hang around Charlie Brown's any night of the week; the crowd and the atmosphere will remind you of times gone by. From the architecture of the building itself to the wooden bar with glass cases filled with antique liquor bottles to the historic photos and paintings, Charlie Brown's is a throwback that still holds pieces of every era. When a friend of mine who used to live near the bar and I met up with a few others on a Friday night at the establishment, it was dinnertime for the over-forty, and even over-sixty, crowd. The smoking-allowed patio was full of people doing just that, and the main bar and dining area were bumping with older folks chatting with friends and eating steak dinners. Our friendly waiter knew most of the customers dining at the tables next to us, and I got the sense that some of the them probably have their own table, where they sit at every visit and order the same thing every Friday. Also familiar with the regulars and the overall goings-on at the bar is manager Steven Gregory, who filled me in on new happenings at the old bar.
Our group ordered some food, beers and a couple of cocktails from the menu of diner-style food, which offers a little something to fit any mood, from bar appetizers and burgers to Greek specialties to prime rib and king crab legs. I have never tried any of the more ambitious menu items myself; I usually stick to the Greek salad or pita-related options, because they are reliably solid.
As my friends and I chatted, I reflected over the many times I have been into Charlie Brown's over the years and never taken the time to stop and appreciate the bar for what it is. I've watched multiple Broncos games there, and even had my first experience of "touchdown shots" at the bar right after I moved to Denver. Of course, Charlie Brown's is loyal to the hometown team. I've found myself here after volleyball games, for people's birthdays and for many a happy hour. It's an especially good choice for birthdays, because the birthday boy or girl drinks free, as long as long as they can prove their status on the day itself with a driver's license. That was a big deal for me and my friends in our younger, broker days.
The place is always full of people, no matter the day or time. I honestly cannot think of an occasion when it wasn't packed with what can best be described as a "Capitol Hill" crowd — that is, a mix of ages, races, couples, singles, professionals, college students, bros, locals and tourists. It truly attracts a varied crew and always feels homey and comfortable, the kind of place where you can just relax and be sure that no one will care what you are wearing, what you are drinking or who is joining you.
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The piano tunes were off to a good start the night we visited, with a crowd of hard-core show-tune and Billy Joel enthusiasts already taking up the prime real estate around the piano, so my friends and I had to listen from afar. But we weren't worried about not getting right in on the action that night; after all, the piano player keeps things going every night from 6 p.m. to last call. Most nights feature the previously mentioned long-running piano man Patrick Stone. There's something magical about that communal sing-a-long feeling in a true piano bar that's almost as good as my second-favorite musical bar activity, karaoke.
Aside from the piano, the history and the food, the drinks at Charlie Brown's tend to be stiff. The daily two-for-one happy hours — from 4 to 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. — on calls, wells, domestic beers and house wines make them affordable, too. And in case you need some free food to convince you to come out to Charlie Brown's, I suggest Fridays in the summer. The summer tradition of Friday night pig roasts will be starting up again in June and continuing through the end of August. The first pig roast of the summer this year is June 2, and Gregory and company at Charlie Brown's will be serving up free slow-roasted pork at happy hour, along with the usual free wings available throughout the year on Fridays.
Charlie Brown's is a true Denver institution, one of those Old Denver haunts that hasn't changed much as time has marched on. The commitment the team at Charlie Brown's has to drinking, eating, spending time with friends and maybe a little singing is something I've come to rely on over the years — like Jack Kerouac and Bill Murray.