Booze

Get the Lowdown on These Five Sunken Bars in Denver

The Brutal Poodle's co-owner, Wesley Moralez, helped restore the sunken bar at the South Broadway restaurant.
The Brutal Poodle's co-owner, Wesley Moralez, helped restore the sunken bar at the South Broadway restaurant. Mark Antonation
A bar stool isn't always the best spot for enjoying a drink. There's more distance between you and the ground, making any fall by a tipsy tippler that much more painful. But back in the golden age of bar design, architects came up with a solution to keep you grounded while putting you at eye level with your bartender. Sunken bars were practical and stylish, giving a room a wide-open view while offering standard-height perches for patrons. While sunken bars fell out of favor decades ago, there are still a few old-school ones left in Denver, as well as a brand-new model. Here's the lowdown on five watering holes where you can get a drink down low:

click to enlarge Five-cent dances are a thing of the past at Bastien's. - MARK ANTONATION
Five-cent dances are a thing of the past at Bastien's.
Mark Antonation
Bastien's Restaurant
3503 East Colfax Avenue
303-322-0363
bastiensrestaurant.com

There's no need to track down a long history of proprietors and changes at Bastien's; the steakhouse and its sunken bar haven't changed since 1958, when founder William Bastien rebuilt his establishment after tearing down the original Moon Drive-In, which he'd run since 1937. These days, Bastien's is run by the founder's granddaughter, Jeannine Bastien. While most diners prefer the circular main dining room and the bird's-nest mezzanine level with its piano and views of the tables below, the sunken bar, accessible from a separate door on the east side of the building, is an appropriate spot to enjoy drinks and a sugar steak — Bastien's signature slab of beef dusted with just enough sugar to add a caramelized note during grilling (just don't order the steak more than medium-rare). An old "5 Cents a Dance" neon sign illuminates the bar, a reminder of the steakhouse's long history on Colfax.

click to enlarge The curved part of the sunken bar at the Brutal Poodle was never a stage for exotic dancers. - MARK ANTONATION
The curved part of the sunken bar at the Brutal Poodle was never a stage for exotic dancers.
Mark Antonation
The Brutal Poodle
1967 South Broadway
720-379-6281
brutalpoodledenver.com

The bar near the corner of South Broadway and West Asbury Avenue was built in the 1950s, but it didn't become the Brutal Poodle until January 2018. Owned by members of the band Son Survivor, the Poodle takes its name from an imaginary band that only plays metal versions of nursery rhymes. Co-owner Wesley Moralez says he doesn't know what the original bar was called, but in the ’60s and ’70s, the address held a strip club, and some have speculated that the shape of the sunken bar — with a short curved section sticking out at the end nearest the kitchen — created a stage for dancers, but Moralez says that theory is incorrect. He discovered that the stages were all where the dining room is now, and that the bar had been built in its current shape at the very beginning, given that the original plumbing was built for the recessed floor and low bar height.

Moralez and his partners rebuilt the bar when they took over, as much of the structure was falling apart. The new pine bar top and stools look vintage, but they're the result of the sanding, staining and varnishing the bandmembers completed before the Poodle opened. Older Broadway denizens may remember Bushwackers Saloon, which held down this spot for fourteen years, but few will recall its replacement, the Overland, which lasted less than a year. Between the bar's strip club days and when Bushwackers took over, it was a neighborhood watering hole called Nathan's Lounge, owned by Nathan Nemirow.


click to enlarge The sunken bar at the Castle Bar & Grille sit in the middle of what was once a drive-through restaurant called Sir Casserole. - MARK ANTONATION
The sunken bar at the Castle Bar & Grille sit in the middle of what was once a drive-through restaurant called Sir Casserole.
Mark Antonation
The Castle Bar & Grille
6657 South Broadway, Littleton
303-798-5981
castlebarandgrill.net

The Castle has been in the hands of current owners Tapp and Kara Smith for the past ten years, but the sunken bar has been part of the building for much longer. "I like that the guests can be eye to eye with our bartenders," Tapp explains. "And it opens the space up, because you can look over the bar instead of trying to look through it."

While the Smiths have modernized some of the decor in their burger joint and added windows at the front of the building, the biggest change came back in the 1970s, according to Albert Allais, who owned the bar with his brother, Robert, for nearly ten years in the ’80s. Back then it was called the Knights of Old, but Allais says the building started out as a drive-thru restaurant called Sir Casserole before it was converted into a bar in 1977, which is when the sunken bar was installed. Allais still works at the Castle and says he's bartended under several owners spanning the 37 years since the place was his; along with names that were variations on the Castle, at one point it was called Punch & Judy's. While casseroles are long gone, you can pull up a captain's chair at the bar (no bar stool required), look the bartender in the eye and order one of the best burgers in Littleton, if not the whole metro area.

click to enlarge Get low at the Dive Inn's sunken bar or take have drinks in a boat. - COURTESY THE DIVE INN
Get low at the Dive Inn's sunken bar or take have drinks in a boat.
Courtesy The Dive Inn
The Dive Inn
1380 South Broadway
720-242-6157
facebook.com/diveinndenver

Jason Tietjen opened the Dive Inn on South Broadway in 2012, but the sunken bar had already been there for decades before his renovations. For more than thirty years, the address was home to BJ's Carousel, founded as a gay bar by Bob Engel in 1977. Stubby padded stools now form a row along the two-sided bar that once saw its fair share of drag queens and the annual Carousel Ball, which raised money for charitable organizations.

Tietjen's bar is considerably less flamboyant, but there's still plenty of fun to be had in the many side rooms and patios that hold ping-pong, cornhole, billiards and other games. There's even a motor boat right next to the sunken bar where you can sit in the captain's chair and toast the nautical life that the Dive Inn tries to capture.


click to enlarge The sunken bar at the Family Jones pours drinks right beneath a working distillery. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
The sunken bar at the Family Jones pours drinks right beneath a working distillery.
Danielle Lirette
The Family Jones
3245 Osage Street
303-481-8185
thefamilyjones.co

At just over a year old, the Family Jones houses Denver's youngest sunken bar. Cushy bar stools clad in crushed velvet surround the U-shaped bar, where you can order cocktails or straight spirits made in the stills on the mezzanine right above your head. Partners in the distillery/restaurant include Paul Tamburello (founder of Little Man Ice Cream) and distiller Rob Masters. The Family Jones is certainly a little posher than the other watering holes with sunken bars around town, but after a couple of house cocktails, you'll appreciate that your feet are on the ground and the bartender isn't towering over you. 
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation