Sometimes you want your bartender to impress you with rare spirits, a stunning cocktail and a little flair behind the bar, and other times you just want a comfortable place where you can relax with friends any night of the week. Our picks for the Best New Bar over the past decade have shown love for all styles of watering hole: the instant dive bar, the neighborhood hangout and the swanky cocktail lounge. Here are our picks each year from 2009 to this year, with our descriptions from the year they won.
Tooey's Off Colfax
1521 Marion Street
As a local rep for PBR, Alissa Anderson visited a quite a few bars in this town. The next logical step was to own a bar of her own. So last October, she and her husband bought the former Club Boca, which had been vacant for close to a year, did a quick renovation that involved moving the bar to the front near the window, and opened in a flash. Just as quickly, the bar was attracting regulars, especially service-industry folks, and Anderson started bringing in bands, DJs, art shows and a whole lot more. While the place still doesn't have a sign up, it's pretty easy to find: Just look for the neon beer lights and lots of people in the window.
Our Best New Bar award is given for a specific year based on bars that opened the previous year. Despite a number of excellent bars opening in 2009, many of which are still pouring great drinks, no award was given for Best New Bar in 2010. Some contenders that year would have been the Arvada Tavern, Ernie's Bar & Pizza, Interstate Kitchen & Bar, The Rackhouse Pub (in its original Kalamath Street location) and Sketch.
From the moment Jesse Morreale bought the old First Avenue Hotel, he envisioned something special for the big space on the first floor that faces both Broadway and First Avenue. And he created it with El Diablo, a hellaciously clever tequila joint and Mexican restaurant. (Sean Yontz is in charge of the kitchen.) To one side are booths beneath Mexican-style murals lit by salvaged, red glass lamps, to the other tables flanking First Avenue, and at the edges are a handful of dark corners, suitable for all sorts of debauchery. But the center of the action, without a doubt, is the massive bar in the center of the space, which is always flanked with drinkers. That bar pours margaritas that run the flavor gamut from sweet to spicy, as well as Mexican beer and dozens of varieties of tequila and mezcal. And, as at any great bar, an air of naughty sexiness hangs over the entire scene, making anything feel possible. The devil you say! El Diablo closed in May 2013, and the entire building, which was once the First Avenue Hotel, sold in 2015, but so far the space occupied by El Diablo and sister bar Sketch have not been claimed by a new establishment.
Williams & Graham
3160 Tejon Street
It took longer than expected for Todd Colehour and Sean Kenyon, author of Westword's "Ask the Bartender," to get the doors open at their spot in Highland, but the wait was worth it: They created a sexy, sexy place with Williams & Graham. Step across a threshold concealed by a miniature bookstore and you're in a 1920s-themed world, filled with plush leather, dark woods and quirky artifacts from the age of Prohibition. It's the perfect setting for enjoying Kenyon's comprehensive cocktail and spirits list, which includes inventive twists on classics and rare selections from all over the world. And don't miss chef David Bumgardner's menu, either: The food is excellent and perfect for pairing.
1553 Platte Street
There are plenty of high-end cocktail caves tucked into Denver's trendiest ’hoods, but Ste. Ellie, an intriguing fifty-seat boutique and small-plates retreat in the underbelly of Colt & Gray, rises above the rest. Although the black-and-white color palette, moody lighting, modular chairs and crescent-shaped booths are ambience-rich and obligingly swank, owner Nelson Perkins and head barman Kevin Burke have smartly assembled a behind-the-bar cast that harbors none of the snoot that too often plagues cocktail bars whose aesthetics are 100-proof highbrow. Fifteen cocktails — a fair split between classic and current, all impeccably accomplished — are augmented by a "based-on-your-preferences" bartender's choice, potent punch for a crowd, and a well-curated selection of wines, champagne and beer. There's no shortage of food cred here, either: Try the clams and octopus with viande ’nduja, an Italian pork sausage, or the duck-confit poutine.
Ace Eat Serve
501 East 17th Avenue
Ace is much more than a bar, of course. Owners Josh and Jen Wolkon took a cavernous, 9,000-square-foot garage next to Steuben's and turned it into a hangout extraordinaire, with an ambitious kitchen that reinterprets Asian food with smart, silly twists; a huge front patio with a couple of ping-pong tables; and a back room with many more. But even without the ping-pong, this space would feel like a party: lights low, music pumping, the decor full of fun touches and, most important, a big, curvy bar that barman Randy Layman has stocked with scorpion bowls, alcoholic shaved ices and clever cocktails. The menu has gone through a few tweaks since the place opened last August — but as a bar, Ace has scored from the start.
Dunbar Kitchen & Tap House
2844 Welton Street
After decades of operating bars and restaurants in Grand County, Mike Ayre and Charles Wessels had gotten out of the business — but then they found a spot in Denver that was just too good to refuse, in the heart of Five Points, a part of town that was once jumping with joints. A deal had just gone south on the 115-year-old house and fifty-year-old storefront next door that had been occupied by Dunbar's barbershop; Ayre, who was working in real estate, persuaded Wessels to get back in the game and help put the "bar" in Dunbar. The result is a casual, comfortable spot with exposed-brick walls and a bar made from old wood reclaimed from the house; the original barbershop sign hangs on an interior wall, near old photos of the barbershop and other old Denver scenes. Nearly all of the beer and liquor offered here is local; the food menu is a nod to Wessels's roots, with Southern specials that include a pimento-cheese appetizer. The big Sunday brunch is one of the best-kept secrets in town — almost as big a find as the new patio out back. All in all, Dunbar is a great neighborhood hangout — in a great neighborhood that's making a strong comeback.
Union Lodge No. 1
1543 Champa Street
In the cocktail world, there's a lot of focus on Prohibition this and Prohibition that, but Union Lodge No.1 delves even deeper into America's past, resurrecting recipes and techniques from the glorious barroom days of the late nineteenth century. The cocktail is an American invention, and owners Mike Huggins and Lenka Juchelkova open a window onto history with a menu that's chock-full of cobblers, flips, fizzes, sours, smashes and juleps. They essentially created a museum of bygone cocktails, keeping alive recipes like the Ramos gin fizz, the Saratoga, the Knickerbocker and the Blue Blazer. The back bar is limited to products that were available around 1880 (no vodka here, and no Coke or Pepsi, either). Bar manager Alex Daniluk trains his bartenders to carefully craft each drink in the traditional way of the period. Union Lodge No. 1 continues to impress, winning our Best Cocktail Bar award for 2018.
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1967 S. Broadway
Denver musician Nathaniel Rateliff teamed up with a couple of his bandmembers and the owners of the hi-dive to take over the former Bushwacker's Saloon and unveil it as the Overland in the summer of 2016. But don't go here because you're a fan of the Night Sweats; the team has created a bona fide Broadway watering hole, worthy of a stop for late-night whiskeys after a long shift, beers with friends at happy hour or a solid plate of grub (don't miss the poblano hush puppies) in an unpretentious setting. While not exactly a dive, the Overland feels lived-in and low-key, with just enough dining-room space for those who want to get a little rowdy without disturbing the regulars at the low-slung bar. That bar is a wonder in and of itself, with a sunken floor so that bartenders greet you at eye level rather than looking over your head for the next customer. Grab a stool and a drink and soak in the atmosphere without worrying about obscure cocktail ingredients or a head-spinning array of fancy beers. Sure, there are fancier saloons in town, but the Overland is where you'll want to go day in and day out, when everything else in Denver feels too fancy by half. The Overland closed in June 2017, after less than a year in business. But its replacement, the Brutal Poodle, won the Readers' Choice poll for Best New Bar this year.
3440 Larimer Street
Bar Helix owner Kendra Anderson, aka Swirl Girl Denver, has been educating the Mile High on the magic of food-and-wine pairings — and unsung wine varietals — on social media for years. But with Bar Helix, she's taking education to an experiential level. The sultry spot combines a high-echelon wine list with a top-notch cocktail program and drinking munchies that whimsically match highbrow to lowbrow flourishes — Pop Tarts with foie gras, for instance, and Pringles with caviar. Through her menu, Anderson touts a few pet causes: "soulmate" pairings of food and drink, Negronis, Champagne and wines from unusual regions. The quirky mix makes Bar Helix an easy stop for any drinker, and an exhilarating one for those looking to expand their palates and horizons.
Read all of our bar and restaurant picks on this year's Best of Denver Food & Drink page.