I found myself in the north Denver town of Welby, just south of Thornton, on a recent chilly Sunday — or really, I went there for a bar. I went because I immediately liked the name of the place when I heard it: Drunken Monkeys Neighborhood Tavern.
A friend of mine used to live in this part-industrial, part-residential community near the many off-ramps of I-25, I-76 and I-270, but during the time she lived there, Drunken Monkeys sadly did not yet exist. Back for a drink in the old neighborhood, we shook off the cold and cozied up to the warmth of the well-lit bar at 7667 Washington Street. We were immediately welcomed with smiles and banter from Janelle Leyba, who owns the place with her husband, Tony, and two female regulars who were drinking beers and playing video trivia. The rest of the seating and game areas were empty, but our conversation and the Nuggets game on TV seemed to fill the large space well enough.
Janelle Leyba and the two customers, one of whom was named Lynda and is apparently the "unofficial GM" of the establishment, told us all kinds of interesting stories about the building and the bar, which has only been Drunken Monkeys for a year and a few months, though the Leybas have lived just down the street from the bar for more than ten years.
The building, which was built in 1963 and had a "gala opening," according to the historic photo given to the Leybas by the Adducci family, which owns the building, has seen several bars come and go over the decades. The last was Mischiefs, a motorcycle bar that drew crowds of rival bike clubs. When the space went up for rent after Mischiefs closed, Tony Leyba pitched the idea of taking it over to Janelle, and, in her words, they "went all in," completely renovating the space and teaching themselves how to run a bar.
Tony still works his day job installing fire and sprinkler systems, but Janelle quit her work in accounting to keep a handle on things behind the bar. They named the bar Drunken Monkeys because that was the name of Tony's fantasy football team, and the name stuck, despite the fact that they discovered that there is a bar in Fort Collins with a similar name, and one in Staten Island, New York, featured on the reality show Mob Wives. The business has been gradually growing ever since, and Janelle says customers get really excited when the bar is busy, because everyone wants to see the family succeed in a building that hasn't had much stability lately.
In such an old building, Janelle and I are convinced that there must be ghosts of someone still lingering. She knows the widow of a bartender who had a heart attack and passed away behind the bar, and thinks that maybe his spirit has stuck around. Janelle told us that one day during the renovation, she burned sage and lit some candles, and right then, the power went out. It turned out that a goose flew into the transformer down the street, but the Leybas' teenage daughter claims the goose died because of her mom's attempts to mess with the spirits of the bar. Another spooky occurrence is when the new Touchtunes jukebox occasionally comes on without warning in the middle of the night or in the morning.
But on this particular night, the jukebox was being operated by the living, and it started playing Lynda's song, "Lynda," by Steve Wariner.
On Friday nights, the jukebox turns off and the bar's characters show up for karaoke night, singing everything from country music to Vanilla Ice. One regular, according to Janelle, likes to put on a hip-hop karaoke track and perform his own freestyle rap.
On one corner of the bar sits a monkey statue that a customer found at a thrift store. On this particular night, the monkey had a blue towel wrapped modestly around his waist, but Janelle laughed as she took the towel off, revealing the statue's anatomically correct lower half. She quickly put the towel back on, murmuring something about keeping him "presentable." On rowdy nights like karaoke Fridays, though, the monkey often finds himself disrobed by customers.
For a neighborhood bar, there's a pretty varied tap list; we chose tall Blue Moon pours from a selection that included everything from Coors Light to beers from Boulevard, New Belgium and Lagunitas. To go with the beer, I followed the recommendation of a sign promoting happy-hour deals on cucumber shots, which turned out to be garnished with Tajín seasoning and a cucumber slice. Janelle suggested we both try a Mexican Candy shot, which were peach schnapps shots rimmed with chili-lime salt, tasting surprisingly like one of those sweet-spicy lollipops sold in Mexican supermarkets.
Drunken Monkeys doesn't have a full kitchen; instead of building one, the Leybas opted for more space for foosball, ping-pong, cornhole and giant Jenga. But customers can order Rocky Mountain pizzas, which get heated up behind the bar in a toaster oven.
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The bar is spacious and bright, with white walls and dark wood on the ceilings. Everything looks clean and new, without a lot of clutter. Janelle's cousin painted a mural with the Drunken Monkeys logo on the wall, and also accidentally left a massive airbrushed painting of a sea turtle at the bar, which now adorns the wall by the ping-pong table (at least until he remembers to come back to get it). Outside the bar, next to the parking lot, there is more unusual folk art: a tree that resembles a totem pole, with faces and other decorations made from scrap metal instead of being carved into the wood, the name of its creator lost in time.
Welby goes to bed early, so the bar closes at 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. As Janelle says, this bar has been reclaimed for the neighborhood, by the neighborhood — and the neighbors aren't really that much of a late-night crowd. It's much more of a place for family and celebrations. The Leybas' teenage kids come by the bar, and Janelle says it's like they have a whole bar full of aunts and uncles. They also pass out free drink cards for teacher appreciation to their high school teachers and bus drivers; the depot for Thornton school bus drivers is nearby, so they often come for a drink after work.
As much as we don't want to venture back out into the snowy night, closing time and the prospect of Monday morning force us out. Drunken Monkeys is closed on Mondays, though, so for Janelle it's the end of a long work week. Everyone tells me to come back on a Friday for karaoke, and I promise them I will. I might not be able to freestyle rap, but I think I can find a song or two that the whole crowd might like.