Like many people in our fair city, I have always referred to Don's Club Tavern as "Don's Mixed Drinks," because that's what it says on the neon sign outside the bar at 723 East Sixth Avenue. Despite the fact that I'd probably been there ten times or more, I only learned the real name of the place after doing some research.
The Don behind Don's Club Tavern opened the bar in 1974 and ran it until his death in 2000. His wife, Barbara, took over for the next six years, then sold the place to the Little Pub Company, a local company that now owns two dozen neighborhood bars. General manager Ryan McDaniel, who's been at Don's for the past five years, says that Little Pub has always operated according to the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" theory when it comes to acquiring successful bars.
So Little Pub really hasn't fixed much at Don's. The company did a small expansion project in 2009, taking over the space of an adjacent pet store and knocking down the wall to make more room in the bar for thirsty Denverites (and put in new bathrooms). But much of Don's remains the same as it's always been. The pictures that adorn the walls offer a photographic history of the bar and the many regulars who have called Don's their home away from home over the years. The pool table and shuffleboard table, the promotional beer lamps and signs from the '70s and '80s, and the classic booths give the bar an old but comfortable feel, kind of like your uncle's basement. (You know, that one uncle who has poker night and smokes cigars inside the house. )
McDaniel says that Don's has profited from the millennial generation's obsession with the concept of dive bars. The website even proclaims that it is "Denver's Best Dive Bar." And on Friday and Saturday nights, Don's is definitely bursting at the seams with clusters of bearded Denver-transplant-looking dudes and blond girls who are probably from Iowa.
By contrast, the daytime crowd is composed of a crew of old regulars, some of whom are in their seventies or even older. The bar opens at 11 a.m., despite the fact that Don's doesn't serve food. In the bar's early days, Don's reportedly had a kitchen and served Greek food. But one day a man came in and ordered something to eat, Don went back to make it, and the guy stole cash from the register: That was the end of food service at Don's, unless you count the famous vending machine, a fan favorite stocked with frozen pizzas and burritos alongside condoms, cigarettes and random snacks. I think I even saw a pack of men's cotton underwear in there once. McDaniel is proud of this vending machine and takes the time to personally handcraft each weird offering by taping things together into little packages. Depending on the day, you can get a couple of cigarettes taped to a candy bar, or a condom attached to a bag of chips. I've never actually eaten anything from the vending machine, but McDaniel insists that the food in there is surprisingly fresh, because he has to restock it frequently.
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Maybe next time.
My most recent trip to Don's was on a Wednesday night, with a friend who used to live just blocks from there and definitely considered it her neighborhood bar. We sat at the bar, which was a little too busy for us to get a good conversation going with the bartender, but our drinks were cheap and the service was efficient. Although I opted for a slightly more pricey beer, Don's offers some of the cheaper all-day specials in town. Instead of a happy hour, it boasts $2 Coors bottles and $3 well cocktails all the time.
My friend had many memorable experiences to share about her life and times at Don's. She remembers seeing a little pug sitting on a bar stool, patiently watching its owners drink. Because there is no food made at Don's, dogs are allowed inside the bar, not just on the patio. She once met a local artist, Dustin McNae, who'd painted all the tables on the back patio and in the smoking area of the tavern. She had a cast on her leg at the time, and he painted a design on it that was a work of art. Another time, when she was at the bar with her rather young ex-boyfriend, another patron saw her and mistook her for someone he knew, planting a kiss on her cheek. Her ex went nuts and eventually got into a fight with the guy, which abruptly ended their night at Don's.
The most ridiculous experience I've ever had at Don's was when I went there on a date with some guy I'd met through one of the online dating sites people used to use before the dawn of Tinder. He had chosen an extremely old picture of himself for his dating profile, to the point that I didn't recognize him and he had to come find me at the bar after I walked right by him. That's what happens if your picture is fifty-plus pounds ago and your hair used to be brown and now it's essentially white. Yikes. It was super-awkward, but at least the beer was good. He'd chosen Don's because he said he lived in the neighborhood — but the bar is so centrally located, it serves many neighborhoods.
So whether you want to enjoy a good environment during a terrible date, drink cheap drinks, play shuffleboard, let your dog sit on the bar stool next to you, or eat a frozen burrito that comes with a free condom, Don's Club Tavern could be your neighborhood bar.