Pete's Satire Lounge Keeps Old Denver Alive

I'm not from Denver, but after living here for eleven years, I feel like a local compared to the constant barrage of newcomers who have arrived within the past year or two or five. And I can't help but remember the Denver I experienced when I first moved here: It seemed a little more cowtown (in just the right way), a little less artisan-cheese-plate-and-craft-sour-beer pairing. (I don't even know if those two things go together, but you get the idea.)

My first Denver residence was near Cheesman Park; I shared a basement apartment with a roommate and spent many hours in establishments that are part of Pete Contos's Denver Greek empire. One of those was Pete's Satire Lounge. The cheap drinks and friendly crowd made it a common stop for my friends and I during nights out in the early 2000s. 

A few weeks ago on a Saturday night, I stopped in for a drink with a friend who represents the rare species known as the Denver native. We were both pleased to note that pretty much nothing had changed about the Satire since the days when we frequented the bar. From the antique Denver Broncos memorabilia watching over the bar to the neon sign outside that dates back to the 1960s, it was just the way we left it. The ambience and crowd, some of them regulars we recognized from a decade ago, gave us that comforting feeling (a feeling that probably means you're getting old) of being in a place that has been largely untouched by the changes that have swept through town, especially in the past five years. 

"That's old Denver right there," my friend proclaimed, pointing to a group of older-looking guys, one of whom was rocking a ZZ Top beard, in a booth behind us — a booth they've probably claimed as their own for as long as they've been old enough to drink. Just in front of them, another guy enjoyed a pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream with his drink while listening to music through his headphones. 

It was busiest around the bar itself, but we were able to snag a couple seats among the battle-weary but content (meaning drunk) regulars. The bartenders and patrons chatted and joked with each other, and us, about a variety of topics — including the purported sexual exploits of Kid Rock, a number of whose songs someone had added the jukebox.

The bartender took me over to a hidden side room (one I'd never noticed before) to meet Paul Washum, the general manager of the Satire, who was working on some accounting but was happy to talk to me about his experiences there. Washum has worked for the Contos family for seventeen years, much of that time at the Satire, but also with some time as a roving manager for several of Pete's restaurants. An unassuming sort, Washum surprises me when he says he also plays in a few different rock bands around town, often at the Lion's Lair down the block. He tells me that the Satire also features live music, usually on Friday nights that coincide with a regular's birthday. Those regulars are faithful at the Satire, according to the manager; even customers who move to different parts of town often make their way back to the bar.

As with any neighborhood watering hole, there's a level of easy intimacy even among strangers. My friend and I somehow got into a conversation about infant brain development with a guy who was trying to buy me a drink. He made the assumption that we were nurses, but quickly backtracked when he realized it was sexist to assume we were nurses and not doctors. We appreciated the gesture and told him that we were neither, but rather a social worker and a speech language pathologist.

At some point, that conversation was disrupted by a regular wearing a sideways East High baseball cap, whose antics generated some good-natured yelling, trash talking and NSFW comments between the group at the bar and the bartender. 
In addition to the usual crew on weekends or weeknights, Broncos games draw a crowd at the Satire. On game days, the kitchen trades its usual Denver-style Mexican fare for a hot dog buffet and touchdown shots. And who doesn't like a good hot dog buffet? 

Other fun tidbits to know about the Satire include the fact that Bob Dylan played there once in the '60s, when he was first starting out. During that same era, the Smothers Brothers comedy and singing duo lived in an apartment above the building that has since been turned into offices and storage space. 

Back at the bar, the TVs were tuned not to sports, but to a PBS pledge drive and a montage of behind-the-scenes footage of Downton Abbey, something that would have been more appropriate in my mom's living room than at a Colfax Avenue bar.
A few of our new friends at the bar moved on to their next location, and we decided to head out as well. When our tab came, we were pleasantly surprised that the prices at the Satire also haven't changed much over the years: Our mixed drinks and beers came out to about $4 or $5 apiece. As we walked back out into the cool night on Colfax Avenue, we couldn't help but feel reassured that some parts of Denver will never turn into cold-pressed juiceries or farm-to-table restaurants where the waitstaff dress like blacksmiths from the 1920s. There's a time and place for those things, too, but at the Satire Lounge, it's comforting to retreat into a preserved piece of old Denver, even if just for a little while.
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Sarah McGill is a contributor to Westword's Food & Drink section and can be found exploring Denver's neighborhood bars. She is also a ghost story and karaoke enthusiast. Despite not being from Colorado, Sarah and Denver have been in a long-term relationship, and it seems like this one might be for real.