If there were a love song to the Nob Hill Inn, it would be played on a steel guitar. It would have some twang to it, and it would be sad and satisfying and honest. You could sing to it. You could dance in the narrow aisles to it. You could toast to someone sitting across the squared-off bar, down your drink, and ask for another. And you’d get change with a two-dollar bill. It’s a tune that would have fit perfectly on the Nob Hill Inn's old jukebox, the one that sat against the east wall for years before finally being replaced because of a shortage of vintage parts. But the new jukebox is fine, and it plays most of the same songs as the old one did back in the days when Natty Lite was on tap, the Roslyn was down the street, and waltzes played outside the door to Jerry’s Record Exchange.
When the Nob Hill is open. It's not today.
The two-dollar bills are only one of the memories that longtime drinkers have of the venerable Colfax bar. “We were going through so many singles that I thought, why not try twos?" recalls owner John Plessinger. "Old bars used to have matchbooks with their names on them so people would remember where they drank the night before. It’s the same with the twos. I wanted a guy to wake up in the morning and find a two-dollar bill in his pocket and think, 'I must have been at Nob Hill last night.'”
Over the past five-plus decades, a lot of people have found twos in their pockets, including Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and a sports reporter from Channel 2 who was so inebriated at the time I saw him there some years back that pretty much all he could say was, "I'm a sports reporter on Channel 2."
And now the Nob Hill Inn needs the support of a city that it’s so long supported. Closed during the stay-at-home order, then stymied in its attempt to reopen when Governor Jared Polis again ordered bars shut on June 30 (unless they employ the food-service loophole), it's struggling to survive until it can open its doors again. A GoFundMe to save Nob Hill has been started so that people who have a Nob memory or two in their past can repay the favor. The bar is also selling drinks and pizza from its back-door entrance from 4 to about 8 p.m. every night: You can order any drink you’d normally be able to on the inside, served in a to-go cup; the Nob has added frozen margaritas for the summer months, too. The pizzas are humble and lovable, at $8 for a full-sized pie or $1 a slice.
“We’ve had hard times before,” says Plessinger, who’s run the Nob since his father bought the bar in 1969 and put it in his name. “But nothing like this. We can survive a lot. We can clean up the graffiti,” he adds, referring to the demonstrations downtown. “Lots of places around here had to board everything up, but the Lexan plastic over the stained glass in the front is a half-inch thick and can stop a .38.”
Nob Hill has long been a fixture on the changing landscape of Colfax Avenue. In the early days, politicos would man the corner booths where the tables were equipped with phones so they could get a call when they were needed back at the Capitol. And then there were the rough times in the ’90s, when Colfax was arguably at its worst and prostitution and the drug trade ran the streets. These days, it’s a somewhat different world, but it's the same Nob Hill. It’s been a constant for a long time, and that’s only one of the reasons most Denver residents have a Nob Hill story.
But surviving the forced closure due to the pandemic is “another thing altogether,” according to Plessinger. “We closed on March 16, and we made it okay. We were going to open July 1, but then the bars were closed again June 30. Coors took back the kegs that had spoiled and sent us new ones, but all of a sudden we couldn’t serve again.”
Christy Simonsen, who’s tended bar at the Nob for over eight years, remembers how disappointing it was not to be able to open on July 1 as planned. “We had a meeting to talk about the new rules and social distancing and all that,” Simonsen says. “John was so happy to be opening the doors again.” But that night, word came that Governor Polis was closing the bars again. “I called John and said to turn on the news,” Simonsen recalls. “I could just hear his heart breaking over the phone.”
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In response, Simonsen and fellow Nob employee Madison Claire Reese came up with the idea of starting a GoFundMe to benefit the bar. “It sort of took off,” Simonsen says. In the first five days, they raised nearly $5,000.
Plessinger says he’s “so grateful” to Simonsen, Reese and all the people who have donated, but the fundraiser is also just a start. “With rent and all, we need about $3,000 a month” to keep going, he says. “The jukebox rental alone costs $200 every month.”
But he thinks the back-door sales and GoFundMe can help the Nob Hill Inn make it to the day when the doors will reopen. “We were going to do it with only twelve people in the bar at one time, masks required unless you were sitting at a table, and if you get up, the mask goes back on," he says. "You know, social distancing at its best. We could still do it."
And fans of the Nob Hill Inn hope they will. “The regulars are nervous that we’ll have to close," Simonsen says. "For a lot of people, it’s a home away from home. Nob Hill is the most unique bar I’ve ever worked. We have 95-year-olds that come in, we have 21-year-olds that come in. They talk with each other. They appreciate each other. Where else does that happen?”