This is the final installment of our three-part Beermuda Triangle series, which explores the Beer Depot, Tennyson's Tap and the Berkeley Inn, three bars at the corner of West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street that are as easy to get lost in as the mysterious waters of the Atlantic Ocean. For the other two corners of the Triangle, here's a tour of the Beer Depot and a stop at Tennyson's Tap.
The last stop on my journey into the Beermuda Triangle was the Berkeley Inn, where I went with a few friends for some beers and conversation on a weekday night just before Christmas. The naturally dark space was lit up with a cheery mixture of neon and Christmas lights. Our bartender was a friendly Denver native who told us all about the Berkeley while mixing up drinks and heating a frozen pizza in the toaster oven. (Like the other two bars that make up the Triangle, the Berkeley doesn't have a kitchen.)
The crowd was small when we arrived but grew as the night wore on. Several older guys played pool in the back of the bar, a group of younger folks sat next to us on stools at the bar, and a few couples stared deep into each other's eyes at the little booths in the back. We chatted with regulars and the bartender, who revealed that there are tunnels (now boarded up) underneath the bar that once connected the Berkeley to the Beer Depot and other businesses in the area. According to the story, the "Italian tunnels" were used for making and transporting bootleg booze during Prohibition and originally stretched all the way to downtown Denver (which seems unlikely, given the distance).
The tunnels came up in conversation because, always a fan of ghost stories at older bars, I had asked about the possibility of a haunting here. The Berkeley, which opened in 1934, is one of the oldest bars in town; bartenders say the building feels alive with the stories and histories of patrons who have been coming here for decades —and possibly those who come from the great beyond. Our bartender told us that before she ever heard about the tunnels, she was closing one night and heard and felt knocking coming from the floor. After asking around, she was told that a section of a tunnel was located right below the floor behind the bar. Although there could be any number of logical explanations for the noise that she heard coming from the floor, I like to think that it was a code from the spirits of Northside bootleggers still trying to keep their operation going down in the tunnels, signaling to their partners aboveground.
Real or embellished history aside, the Berkeley Inn is an original that has stayed true to the surrounding neighborhood for the past 84 years. For the past six years, it's been owned by Lisa Sanchez, who started out as a bartender here twenty years ago. Some of my favorite bars in town are owned by women, and it has been my experience that such places often have three things in common: creative specials, purse hooks under the bar, and relatively nice bathrooms. Check, check, and check: The Berkeley Inn has all three. Bars owned by bartenders are also usually good places to work and tend to never run out of cocktail ingredients. Our bartender confirmed that she loves working for Sanchez because of the owner's appreciation for her staff and her organized way of running things.
As for the creative specials, highlights include $4 Jameson shots from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every weeknight for industry employees getting off work; the Monday Fun Day quarter flip, which will land you either a $3 well drink or a $4 you-call-it; and specialty drink names such as Blue Balls (a PBR can and a shot of Fireball) and Berkeley on Fire (a Moscow Mule made with Fireball).
As further proof of the bar's staying power, there are signs from the original Elitch Gardens (which once took up several blocks on the south side of 38th Avenue before moving to its current Platte Valley location) on the walls. Many of the bartenders and customers live in the neighborhood; it's a diverse crew, from new transplants to regulars with their own designated seats and pool cues. They keep themselves entertained with conversation, drinking, billiards, darts, giant Jenga and, on Fridays, live music from local bands.
On a table in the middle of the long galley of the bar, the heavily graffitied giant Jenga set beckoned. My friends and I gave it a shot and got the Jenga blocks stacked surprisingly high before they all came tumbling down with a satisfying crash that turned the heads of everyone in the place. After picking up the resulting debris, we lingered for a while. The glow of the Golden Tee and the various TVs provided a backdrop as we got ready to pay our tabs. Our attentive bartender was on the move, bringing drinks and receipts to us almost before we had a chance to ask for them.
"PBR just goes down so easily. So does revenge," I overheard a customer in a fedora tell his friend. He didn't seem out to get anyone, or at least not anyone present; nearly everyone in the place appeared to be friends. (Like several other neighborhood bars I've visited recently, this one has a "Buy a Friend a Drink" board, where patrons can pay it forward by buying future drinks for members of their bar family.) The place is quiet and inviting now, but I'm told it was a big biker hangout in the ’60s and ’70s, when customers purportedly rode their motorcycles inside. Maybe things were a little rowdier back then, but on this particular evening, we were the noisiest ones, getting loud over our giant Jenga competition.
Sanchez always opens up on holidays when many other bars are closed, getting things going as early as 7 a.m. for patrons who don't have anywhere else to go and serving a prime rib dinner on Christmas day. Along with celebrating customer birthdays and anniversaries, she's also known to help regulars out if she hears they're in need of a hand — buying work clothes or a coat, or hosting a fundraiser to help friends of the bar cover the cost of unexpected life events.
Sanchez also just added my favorite drinking activity, karoake, on Thursday nights, so I'm sure I'll return soon. Although this was the last stop on my voyage into the Beermuda Triangle, it won't be the last time I let myself get sucked into this magical part of town, filled with neighborly love and Denver history.
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