In my journey through Denver's bars, I sometimes question whether an establishment falls into the category of "neighborhood bar" or not. But Esters Neighborhood Pub in Virginia Village makes my deliberation easy by including "neighborhood" in its name. And I discovered that the place is definitely a watering hole for Virginia Village neighbors, especially those with kids, when I stopped in for a bite to eat and a beer with a friend on a Tuesday night. There were children in high chairs, children playing under tables and children getting balloon animals made. Yes, owner Paul Sullivan even hires a balloon-animal artist specifically for Tuesday nights, when kids eat free.
The only other time I had been to Esters was for brunch, when it was just as busy, albeit less full of children. The clientele on both occasions was made up mostly of neighbors from the surrounding blocks, along with some folks from elsewhere in the city lured by the kitchen's reputation for great pizza; almost all of them appeared to be in their thirties and fit — the kind of people who take selfies from the tops of Colorado's fourteeners.
The lunch and dinner menus at Esters are primarily centered on pizzas, including a gluten-free version, with some sandwiches and salads thrown in for good measure, and everything I've had there has been worthy of its reputation. On this visit, server Dan Ford, who moves through the busy spot with lightning speed and a smile, paused to tell us that the pizzas are named after Phish songs because of Sullivan's love for the band. The brunch menu reflects Southern and Mexican influences, with huevos rancheros and chilaquiles up for grabs alongside shrimp and grits and chicken and waffles.
My friend and I both ordered sandwiches and beers, and I had to go with my current obsession: Epic Los Locos lager. This beer, brewed with salt and lime, could be considered a summer beer, but not by me — and apparently not by many other beer drinkers, because I've seen it at quite a few places around town recently, to my delight.
The beer list at Esters is extensive, with many rare and unusual finds, thanks to Sullivan's previous career at New Belgium, where he met (and still keeps in touch with) all kinds of people from local breweries and taprooms. He even partners every year with the Virginia Village/Ellis Community Association to tap its own special beer, brewed by Brew on Broadway. This year's beer was a porter, and the event was a benefit for Ellis Elementary. Fundraising events related to beer are common here; the bar also participated in "Drink Pink," to raise money for breast cancer research last October, donating proceeds from sales of Denver Beer Co.'s Princess Yum Yum to the American Cancer Society. But not to worry if you aren't in the mood for beer: Kombucha from Edgewater's Happy Leaf and wine from Infinite Monkey Theorem are available on tap as well.
As kids and families filtered out into the cold, wintry night, the place calmed down and the dinner crowd made way for neighbors catching up over beers and watching college basketball. Sports have been a part of the bar since its inception. Esters is a hangout for Iowa Hawkeyes college fans, as well as devotees of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, paying homage to Sullivan's home town. On game days, the bar, which won our award for Best Sports Bar for Watching Games last year, offers special foods from Buffalo to celebrate.
Esters is a relatively newcomer to the Denver bar scene. In 2015, Sullivan and his partners bought the place — which had been a divey spot called E-Z Pickin's and then a slightly nicer joint called the Chinook Bar and Grill —and gutted it to create a bright, inviting dining room (even if there aren't any windows in the back bar area). The interior was designed by Adam Harding. (Harding was voted Young Architect of the Year for the Mountain West Region in 2014 by the American Institute of Architects.) The decor is a mix of sports bar and farmhouse-themed restaurant — sort of hip, but not to the extent that it makes you roll your eyes. "Sully's Back Room" is available for private parties, and there's also an inviting patio that stays open and heated in the winter.
The place is not named after someone named Ester, as I initially thought, but after the esters found in beers. Despite having lived in Colorado a while and having talked to my fair share of beer nerds, I had never heard this term before. In case you're in the same boat, esters are the fruity flavors and aromas produced during the fermentation process, created by the "esterification" of ethanol alcohol. So now you know and can talk about it pretentiously when you drink craft beer at Esters or elsewhere.
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Ford and manager Craig Casamento chatted with us about the specials at Esters, which include half-price bottles of wine on Wednesdays and two happy hours every weekday, with $1 off drafts beers, well spirits and wine from 3 to 6 p.m. and from 9 p.m. to close. Indicative of the owner's brewery ties, Fat Tire Friday sees $3 drafts of the famous Fort Collins beer.
Casamento also let us know that a second Esters is opening in a new neighborhood. That location is shaping up in Park Hill's Oneida Park shopping center, which is currently in the process of being extensively redeveloped, with an anticipated late-summer or early-fall opening. The new Esters will serve a new menu and will champion different sports teams; it's clear that it plans to be as much a part of the Park Hill neighborhood as the original is in Virginia Village, where much of the current staff lives as well as works. Despite its short time in the area, Esters has made its mark on families, beer lovers, football fans, brunch aficionados and neighbors from all over Denver.