Denver has been losing its dive bars at a frightening speed, as gentrification gobbles up some of the seedier parts of town. Other classic watering holes have been purchased and renovated beyond dive status, as happened with Club 404, which went through a series of names and classier concept changes before going dark.
On March 17, 2020, every bar in Colorado went dark; in late May of that year, they were allowed to reopen only if they had some kind of approved food setup. But this past April, just in time for the Best of Denver 2021, all bars were allowed back in business at limited capacity...and without kitchens.
Since all bars were closed when we published the Best of Denver 2020, we didn't include the Best Dive Bar category in that edition. But now it's back, and how. Keep reading for the Best Dive Bar winners over the past thirteen years (along with the descriptions that accompanied the award that year and italicized updates), ending with the toast of the town for 2021. Cheers!
76 South Broadway
Save for the jukebox and TVs, the Brown Barrel looks like it hasn't changed since the ’60s. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? It's easy to walk past this joint; the exterior is about as nondescript as a plainclothes policeman at a dad convention. And it's even easier to miss at night, since it can close as early as 11 p.m., depending on how busy it is. But if you're an early-morning drinker and need a mug of Landshark Lager instead of a cuppa joe, the Brown Barrel's the place for you — especially on Sundays, when happy hour runs from 8 a.m. to noon. In 2011, the Brown Barrel became Badger's Pub, a University of Wisconsin hangout. Still divey, but more sporty.
Nob Hill Inn
420 East Colfax Avenue
The Nob Hill Inn recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday. It's daunting to think of all the people who have spent hours on the stools there, killing time and waiting for the day to the end. But it's the kind of joint where it's easy to lose track of time. The square-shaped bar makes for easy people-watching, and with some of Colfax's finest camping out there, it's usually entertaining as hell. If Bukowski were still alive, this might be his idea of nirvana. Still going strong now that it's passed sixty.
Is Club 404 a dive? Absolutely. But we mean that in only the sweetest, most endearing way. If you're looking for wasabi mashed potatoes and tenderloins with mango chutney, this is not the place for you. But if your idea of atmosphere is cheap beers at 10 a.m., 365-days-a-year Christmas lights and a seasoned waitress who could tell you firsthand what Methuselah was like in the sack, Club 404 is where it's at. There isn't a single item on the wide-ranging, greasy spoon/steakhouse menu that'll run you north of fifteen bucks, and if you plan your meals around the specials, you can easily enjoy a big dinner for less than a ten-spot. No charge for the ambience. Sadly, Jerry Feld sold Club 404, which he'd bought when he wasn't even old enough to have a beer in his place, soon after it won the Best Dive Bar award, and after that it underwent extensive remodeling even as it changed hands several times. The last incarnation, Rory's, dried up two years ago.
890 South Pearl Street
Dive right in! An utterly unceremonious spot that we'd never want to see in the light of day, the Kentucky Inn is a classic dive that's never been anything but. A jukebox serves up drinker's picks, which range from Eminem to Miles Davis to Metallica, depending on who's in control. A pool table occasionally plays host to a group of Wash Park neighbors who wander in for drinks. But most regulars just cozy up to the bar, where amiable bartender Red pours all sorts of alcohol (including PBR, cider and fernet), engages everyone in conversation, and keeps us coming back when we've got nothing but time on our hands. The Kentucky Inn changed hands a few years ago and just completed a renovation that gave it a real kitchen; today it's less a dive than a true neighborhood hangout, and a very welcome one in West Washington Park.
3416 East Colfax Avenue
Like most dive bars in this town, the PS Lounge is a place we'd never want to see in the daylight; we're guessing the old sports paraphernalia and playbills lining the walls would look a lot more grimy and a lot less charming. But at night, the Lounge commands a special place in our dive-loving hearts. The place has its quirks: the cash-only establishment won't let you keep a running tab, for instance, and you'll have to walk down the street if you need an ATM. But Pete, the bar's owner, will also 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, and he'll give the ladies in your group each a red rose. And if those gestures aren't enough to win you over, the down-home atmosphere that draws hipsters and Colfax creatures alike is sure to seal the deal. Dive, he said. Still a great dive; give the lady a rose.
Bar Bar (Carioca Cafe)
2060 Champa Street
Dive bars are drying up in Denver, swept away by tides of development. We've lost many of this city's celebrated saloons over the past few years, which makes the survival of Carioca Cafe — better known as Bar Bar, thanks to the neon outside — something to celebrate. Perhaps with a drink or ten. For more than a century, this spot has held down the corner of Champa and 20th streets, serving drinks nineteen hours a day to an assortment of regulars, would-be Great American Novelists, hipsters, transients and rockers (during the Eisenhower era, it reportedly served something else in the game room, then a whorehouse); today the entertainment focuses more on the jukebox, live-music acts and endless inebriated conversations. The drinks are stiff, the bathrooms awful, and the atmosphere beyond compare. Leave the credit cards at home; this place is strictly cash and carry on.
2375 Sheridan Boulevard
At the break of dawn on the last day of Daylight Saving Time, a hearty crew of regulars gather at the Lakeview Lounge — it opens at 7 a.m. — and toast as the sun rises over Sheridan Boulevard, Sloan's Lake and the Denver skyline. It's a time-honored tradition at a weathered dive that time otherwise forgot. While construction gets under way on the old St. Anthony's project, the Lakeview continues with bar business as usual, serving stiff Bloody Marys early in the morning and mystery shots in brown paper bags late into the night. The bar stools have each worn their own set of holes deep into the linoleum; the water closet is a real hellhole. But no matter how dim the lighting, this is a classic dive where the outlook is always sunny.
Ace Hi Tavern
1216 Washington Avenue, Golden
Since alcohol put Golden on the map, it's not surprising that metro Denver's best dive bar is in this once-sleepy foothills town. Bar fans have been living it up at the Ace Hi Tavern 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 plop themselves next to Colorado School of Mines students preparing for a tough day of class. 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. You can sink into a cushy booth if you don't feel perky enough to perch on a bar stool, and the tavern has plenty of distractions for drinkers who need to rev up for another round, including a pool table. But at a true dive, you don't need more than good company and good drinks for a winning hand — and Ace Hi deals plenty of both.
Sam's Bar & Lounge
6801 Leetsdale Drive
Several of Denver's best dive bars disappeared this year: The Rocky Flats Lounge suffered a devastating fire; the owner of the Rustic Tavern sold the spot, which is now a bakery and breakfast joint; the Filling Station will soon be wiped off the map by a big RiNo development. Other longtime dives have been renovated into shiny shadows of their former selves, often transformed into hangouts for hipsters. Well, we're betting you won't find a single hipster at Sam's Bar & Lounge, a watering hole that opened on Leetsdale Drive 62 years ago. You won't find any Wi-Fi, either; as one message on the bar's chalkboard urges, "Talk to each other and get drunk." That's not hard, especially if you sit 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 dries up, the neon sign of Sam's shines like a beacon. Drink up!
Best Dive Bar 2017
Bar Bar (Carioca Cafe)
2060 Champa Street
Yes, back for another round...as the city booms all around this bar, its survival in the heart of downtown was a small miracle in 2017...and a major miracle in 2021.
2375 Sheridan Boulevard
Yes, we went back for another round at the Lakeview Lounge in the Best of Denver 2018. Since then, the bar has been purchased by longtime regulars, and it remains a great hangout.
15630 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.
And the Best Dive Bar in 2021? It's an oldie but a goodie, which is back after suffering tough times during the pandemic.
Nob Hill Inn
420 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 seventy years — serving everyone from Bob Dylan to politicos who used to make deals over the phone in corner booths — but this classic, 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.
What's your favorite dive bar in Denver? Post a comment or email [email protected].
See more Best of Denver 2021 winners here.