The Piper Inn has beckoned me for years from its perch on a little triangular island of concrete at the intersection of South Parker Road and East Iliff Avenue. The bar looks like a major biker spot, with its skull-and-wings logo and rows of motorcycles always packing the parking lot. But a friend and I finally stepped inside for a Friday afternoon happy hour, and what we found was a surprising swath of south Denver folks, with after-work colleagues from nearby offices sharing plates of wings; younger, tatted-up guys and gals; and a diverse mix of drinkers — beyond the stereotypical ponytailed dude in a leather vest expected at an establishment so heavily Harley-themed — enjoying discounted beers and bar grub.
We sat on the patio next to a group of ladies who reminded me of my mom, a table of several couples from the neighborhood who were getting ready to tear up some wings, and a youngish group who appeared to be celebrating something, judging by the number of shots they were ordering. Perhaps it was someone's birthday, because the Piper Inn always serves you a drink on the house if it's your birthday.
Since 1968, the roadhouse has been slinging wings and drinks under the ownership of multiple generations of the Levin family. The bar is known as a hot spot for food, with a menu covering a variety of burgers, appetizers, and Mexican and Cantonese specialties. The kitchen was rented out for decades by a Chinese family, and three years ago, when the last generation of that family retired, they passed along many of their famous recipes to the current kitchen staff, who have kept the egg rolls, egg foo young and cashew chicken cooking.
The standouts here are wings, burgers and carne asada fries. The wings won a Westword Best of Denver award way back in 2001, and they still hold up to competitors to this day. My friend and I made a meal of wings and fries; the house special "Chinese style" wings were salty, tangy and spicy all at once, as well as meaty and crispy. The carne asada fries were delicious, with well-seasoned chunks of steak, some nice orange liquid cheese, and green chile and sour cream to top it off. To go with our feast, we selected beers from the large beer list, which included various local craft brews and other domestic standbys. Happy hour offers $2.50 domestic drafts and $3.50 wells and house wines, and food specials that make things cheaper to overdo it a little.
Our seats on the covered patio gave us a great view of all the gleaming Harleys, Suzukis and Yamahas in the parking lot facing Parker Road, the sea of strip malls beyond, and the Rockies fans at tables next to us enjoying a ballgame on the patio TVs. This part of town used to be farmland, with a dirt airstrip across the street. The name Piper Inn comes from Piper airplanes, the smallish propeller planes common in early American military and commercial aviation. Back in the day, our server explained, people used to ride horses to the bar and hitch them up where a car wash now stands on the back side of the lot. Nobody's ridden a horse here in decades, so parking spaces have replaced hitching posts to accommodate the crowds flocking to the Piper after work and on the weekends.
While the two covered patios are perfect for warm, breezy days, the main room inside is always packed. There are two pool tables and a TouchTunes jukebox vacillating between expected AC/DC and Journey numbers and ’90s hip-hop and country. Neon signs and metal beer ads crowd the walls, and the place feels busy and bustling but not claustrophobic. The patios have heat lamps and exterior covers, providing overflow space even during colder months.
Each new generation of the Levin family has brought in new clientele, and as Denver's building boom continues, the bar welcomes new, young faces from the nearby apartments and condos that have replaced farms and wide open spaces. Old Denver is represented in both customers and staff; one of the servers, Matt Dowse, grew up in the Park Hill and Mayfair neighborhoods. He's been working here long enough that regulars have pointed out that his last name is also a verb, and it has become a thing here to "get Dowsed" (though we thought it wise not to pry for details).
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Dowse was wearing a Celebrity Sports Center shirt, and he and my friend, also a Denver native, reminisced about that South Denver childhood landmark for those who grew up here. Dowse also told us about the possibility of ghosts (my favorite bar topic) at the Piper Inn. He and another server shared stories of weird happenings in the basement and custodial staff who have seen people or things that weren't supposed to be down there. The spirits apparently get extra-excited and active around Halloween, at least according to the custodial crew.
Halloween and other holidays are big events here, each striking a festive tone with decorations, contests and drink specials. For the Fourth of July, the bar offered $2 hot dogs in additional to the typical menu. The Inn doesn't offer much in the way of weekday specials or activities; the occasional band might come through for a show, or you might find a car show in the spacious parking lot. Mostly it's just a comfortable place to eat, drink, socialize and maybe watch a NASCAR race or sporting event. Hometown teams, of course, are the main focus here.
My drinking companion lives just a few minutes down the road, so we were pleased to find a bar so welcoming and inclusive where we could fill up on wings and beer. The rows of motorcycles and the squat, stuccoed building accented in orange and black may signify biker bar, but the Piper Inn is far more — so pull up on your Harley, in your car, or even on your horse.
The Piper Inn is located at 2251 South Parker Road and is open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day. For more information, call 303-755-0771 or visit the bar's website.