I've been to the Nob Hill Inn (420 East Colfax Avenue) many times over the years, and I've never had the same experience there twice. With its gritty charm, the bar is a piece of Denver history that never disappoints. The old joint remains comfortingly unchanged while the customers and bartenders keep everything interesting and new.
The bar's decor could easily be called just worn out, but if you didn't know just how old the Nob Hill Inn really is, you might think it was designed by hipsters looking for a "throwback" aesthetic. Renovations have been few and far between; the address has been a bar or restaurant since 1937, has carried the Nob Hill Inn name since 1954, and has been owned by the same family since 1969. The joint always looks clean and kept up, even oddly beautiful, with shiny leather booths, stained-glass windows softening the bright lights of Colfax outside, and burnished dark wood everywhere.
A series of paintings created by owner John Plessinger during his days as an art school student at the University of Denver in the 1980s add to the vintage ambience. I, like many other customers, particularly enjoy one painting that depicts a clown surrounded by hecklers or fans (their facial expressions make it hard to determine which). One regular, in with her boyfriend and two dogs, suggests that the paintings as a whole make a statement about gender and sexual identity. (I'm no art critic, but I can see her point.)
Aesthetics aside, the spirit of a good drinking locale is in its customers and their stories, of which there are plenty on any given day at the Nob. On a cold Monday night, not five minutes after my friends (new to the bar) and I arrive, one of the regulars was reported down in the alley; he had either hit or been hit by a barely moving car. With an ambulance on the way, our no-nonsense bartender, who introduces herself as Christy, glides in and out several times, providing towels and whatever else she can in the way of first aid.
We thought the incident was just bad juju, but Christy assures us that there's always a crazy story worth retelling. She prefers night shifts, because the few times she worked the day shift were too stressful, with people banging on the door to get in when she was a few minutes late unlocking the doors in the morning (drinks are served starting at 7 a.m.).
A cigarette rep (a job I didn't know still existed) prowls the floor while the dogs and their owners leave and the ambulance lights slide into the distance through the stained glass. One patron tells a story about the time he went home from the Nob with an eighty-year-old woman — but only because she wanted to cook for him.
Politicians in suits and ties, prostitutes, drug dealers, twenty-somethings and regulars so entrenched that they call each other "Nobs" have all been part of the mix over the decades. This part of Colfax has cleaned up a little during that time, but not so much that newcomers won't feel just a little intimidated.
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The off-band jukebox still takes dollar bills, and the musical selection swings from Garth Brooks to the Offspring to Teena Marie as drinkers feed their money into the slot. The crowd ebbs and flows as hipsters, old-timers, and guys wearing sunglasses indoors all come and go. One patron, assuming we're of the right age, asks us to settle a dispute over a Game of Thrones argument. One of the things I appreciate about old-school bars like the Nob is that people actually talk to each other rather than training their eyes on rows of TVs. Yes, the Nob Hill Inn has televisions, but they're a side note and not the focal point of the room.
The mixed drinks Christy serves up are strong, and between my friends and I, we also down a few bottled beers and shots of tequila. Trips to the restroom take us down a hallway decorated with awards and accolades, including a letter from Representative Diana DeGette, offering congratulations after the bar won Westword's Best Dive Bar award in 2009. That's a pretty Denver thing to have: a framed letter from Diana DeGette.
Whether you're a politician, transplant, hipster, old-timer or "Nob," if you haven't added your chapter to the continuing story of life at the Nob Hill Inn, the bar's history and each new day on Colfax prove that it's not too late to begin.