Spend enough time squinting up at the iconic sign snaking above Pete’s Satire Lounge and you’ll almost find yourself flung to the Colfax Avenue of yesteryear. It’s a humming memorial to the days when neon used to ring the block — from the Aladdin Theatre (now a Walgreens) to the Playboy Lounge (now the Lion’s Lair) to advertisements for “topless talent” at Sid King’s Crazy Horse Bar (most recently the Irish Snug) just down the way.
All told, these signs were monuments not just to commerce, but to sin in the age of the automobile, from beer runs at John’s Liquor Store to three-martini lunches at Bastien’s and the Bluebird Theater’s sordid streak as a stroke palace.
Famous as Colfax is for its characters, you might imagine the sort of person running these joints: good-timing lounge lizards with whiskey on their breath and cigarettes in hand. That certainly was true of Sid King, the diminutive club owner known as the “sultan of striptease.” It might have been true of Sam Sugarman, who erected the Satire’s famed marquee when he owned the place. He advertised it, known then as Sugie’s Cocktail Lounge, as a “headquarters for good fellowship and good cheer.” He changed the name in 1960, swapping out the neon letters “S-U-G-I-E-S” with “S-A-T-I-R-E” when he rebranded as a live-music venue — about the same time that Bob Dylan got booted off the stage.
Drawings from the Gordon Neon archives, the business that swapped out "S-U-G-I-E-S” with “S-A-T-I-R-E."
Save the Signs
Look below the Satire’s main marquee and you’ll see a more modest sign welcoming you to Pete’s Lounge. Pete, of course, is Pete Contos, the Greek immigrant who, after opening the Satire in December 1962, launched an empire that grew to encompass nine businesses. And while that story can’t be told without tales of spilled drinks, slurred words and barroom brawls, it starts where you’d least expect it to: church.
It was at the Assumption of the Theotokos church, then located at Sixth and Pennsylvania, where Pete Contos first met Elizabeth “Liz” Zavaras in 1957 — just two years after he stepped off the plane from Greece. Born and raised in Denver to Greek immigrant parents, Liz is about as solidly “old Denver” as it comes. She graduated from Dora Moore Elementary, Morey Junior High and East High School — as did her brother, Ari Zavaras, who later served as Denver’s police chief and in the cabinets of governors Roy Romer and Bill Owens and Mayor Wellington Webb. Zavaras ran for mayor himself in 2003, coming in third to John Hickenlooper after a stint as the presumed frontrunner.
Liz was wrapping up at East when she started going out with Pete, seven years her senior. “He’d come pick me up at the high school,” she laughs. They were engaged by 1958 and married in October 1959. “I had a scholarship to go to Vassar, and we met, and I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stay here.’”
The Contoses' son, Dean, was born in 1960, while Pete was still chasing dreams. “The first day Pete was in this country, his uncle took him to a little bar downtown,” Liz says. “He was mesmerized watching the bartender, and he looked at his uncle and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.'” Liz took a job at an insurance company while her husband worked at various fine-dining joints around town, with the small family initially living with Liz’s parents in Alamo Placita. “Pete would say that we couldn’t get ahead if we had to pay rent, so we stuck together and put our money together so that he could do what he wanted to do,” she says.
The stars aligned on December 1, 1962, when Pete, Liz and a business partner were able to buy the Satire Lounge from Sam Sugarman, though the barman figured it was a temporary sort of departure. “Sugarman told all the customers in here, ‘These Greek kids don’t know what they’re doing. They won’t make it. I’ll be back here in six months,’” Liz recalls.
The Satire sign still glows today.
Sugie was wrong: By 1965, Liz and Pete were able to buy out their partner — and “Pete’s Lounge” was born. While it was Pete’s name that graced the door, and his near-constant presence behind the bar that set the tone, the enterprise very much belonged to Liz, too.
“We made a deal when we bought it: He took care of hiring, firing, the menu, whatever went on in the place,” Liz says, “and I took care of everything else: the books, the checks, managing the money, managing it all. I told him, ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do, and you don’t tell me what to do, and we’ll be just fine.’” In all those years, Pete only ever signed one check — which created a problem when the bank didn’t recognize the signature and took it for fraud.
Still, while her signature graced nearly everything, Liz didn’t take a visible role in those early years. Little wonder why: On top of all the complexities of managing a small business, she was also raising a family. Daughter Andrea came in 1963, followed by another girl, Nikki, born on Christmas Day 1966 — the only time Pete had to shut down the Satire early.
Pete was a family man through and through. The bar’s schedule allowed him days at home with the kids followed by evening shifts behind the pine. Sometimes he’d be able to sneak dinner back at the house, but often Liz would prepare a meal and load the kids in the car so they could eat together at the bar. “The regulars would laugh and say, 'You’ve got a restaurant, and your wife is bringing you dinner?’” Liz remembers. “Pete would say, ‘Look, we’ve got the best Mexican food in town, but you can’t eat it every single day, and I want to see my family.’”
Before long, the Satire became something like a living room for the Contos clan. Dean started coming in regularly as a tyke. “I grew up in here,” he says. “He had me washing glasses at five.”
Pete's is still the perfect setting for blurry nights out.
The family would soon blend with the family of regulars who made the Satire home. As they bought each other drinks, they’d buy Dean one, too. “I’d have a ginger ale shot, and we’re all sitting there taking shots together. Those guys became my uncles,” he says.
Nikki, who also learned her way around the dish pit, remembers it much the same way. “It was run-of-the-mill people. When you think of a bar that’s literally Cheers, that’s what it was,” she says. “The same people every day after work.”
For all these surprisingly wholesome moments, the Satire was still situated on Colfax in its heyday. Pete wouldn’t get home from work until 5 or 6 a.m. — which meant he often couldn’t wake up in time for church on Sundays, and sometimes things became decidedly more Road House
. There was the time Pete phoned Liz at 1 a.m. to tell her he was getting rid of the pool table, right that very minute. “People would get in fights over pool,” she says. Or when he got home early one morning wearing a collar and a tie — but no shirt. Liz recalls Pete’s explanation: “There was an altercation at the bar, and the guy grabbed me from behind, and he pulled the shirt clean off of me.”
Things never seemed out of control, though. “We grew up on Colfax,” Nikki notes. “It could never be scary.”
“There would be some nights where I’d be working up in the office and wouldn’t leave until two or three o’clock in the morning, and nobody would ever bother me,” Liz adds. “People would tell me it’s not safe, and I’d say, ‘It’s fine.’”
Then there were all those magical moments that happen much more frequently in bars than in front of living room fireplaces. Author James Michener spent several nights a week in the Satire quietly researching his novel Centennial
, even if “Pete didn’t know who he was,” Liz laughs.
Or the time Clint Eastwood was filming scenes for Every Which Way but Loose
in front of Sid King’s Crazy Horse, only to wander into the Satire with his orangutan co-star. “Dad sees the monkey and he starts screaming at [Clint Eastwood], ‘Take the monkey out of here!’” Dean remembers. “People were like, ‘Don’t you know who that is?’ And Dad says, 'I don’t care who it is. Don’t bring a monkey into the bar.’”
Enough magic can summon up success. Pete Contos came to helm nine businesses: Pete’s Satire Lounge, The Olympic Flame, Pete’s Kitchen, Pete’s Gyros Place, Pete’s University Park Cafe, Pete’s Central One, Pete’s Ice Cream & Coffee, Pete’s Greektown Cafe and The Bank Bar and Grill.
While many carried Pete’s name, they remained family businesses to their core. Liz continued to manage the books, the business operations and what became a sprawling payroll, while the kids jumped in as they wanted to. Nikki worked as a hostess at the Olympic Flame during her high school summers. Dean, who learned to cook from his mom and grandmother, worked the line at Pete's Kitchen. And Andrea, who always wanted to be a teacher, pursued her interests beyond restaurants.
“They were not the traditional Greek parents that insisted you get into the family business and take it over and that’s all you get to do,” Nikki says.
Pete's Kitchen, next door to the Satire, is another longtime staple from the Contos family.
In unison, Liz, Nikki and Dean all repeat one of Pete’s mantras: Go do something else. “He told me that every day,” Dean recalls. “'Go do something else. Be a lawyer. Be a doctor. Don’t come into this business; it’s not for you.' But it was for me.”
Andrea started a family with Andrew Barakos in Arizona. Nikki married Dean Phillips and moved away to Boston. Dean Contos bounced around a bit, but always found himself working alongside his parents. “We’d get in a fight and Pete would fire me, and then I’d move away, and then I’d move back, and then we’d get in a fight again and then I’d fire me, and then we’d get in a fight and then we’d both fire me. But I’m still here,” he says.
Eventually, Nikki returned to the fold, picking up shifts opposite her husband at Pete’s Gyros Place while learning how to manage the behind-the-scenes operations from her mom. As much as it became a family affair, questions would arise about whose family.
“When Dad was here, this is what we had to do,” Dean says. “Not for him, but for everybody else. For the employees. For you, the customers. We felt like we had to do what was best for you.”
While Pete, who into his eighties would stop in to work at each of his operations nearly every day, seemingly drank from an endless font of energy, no dream can last forever. “He was still dreaming through his illness, telling us he saw a really good restaurant up for sale,” Nikki says.
Pete Contos passed away in May 2019 at age 85, though his extant businesses, family-run as they were, kept their lights aglow. But the family members had to weigh their own lives against the dreams they were married and born into. They shuttered Pete’s Gyros Place later that year, and Pete’s Greek Town never reopened after the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That leaves four operations and countless tough questions. Dean Phillips, Nikki’s husband, runs Pete’s University Park. Nikki handles Pete’s Central One alongside her brother, who runs the kitchen there. And Pete’s grandson, 24-year-old Alex Barakos, took over Pete’s Kitchen and Pete’s Satire Lounge.
While you can still see the glimmers of sixty years of dreaming in their eyes, those dreams get grounded in a post-Pete reality. Dean Contos hasn’t taken a vacation in fourteen years, though “I went to Colorado Springs once,” he says.
Nikki said she feels responsible for so many families beyond their own — not to mention the pressures from all the folks who feel betrayed when she and her siblings don’t always do things just as Pete would’ve done them. And Liz, who started all this right out of high school, wants to do what any octogenarian does after a successful career: visit family, go to dinner with friends, maybe take in a movie here and there.
The Satire's interior got a makeover in early 2022.
The family remains committed to living the dream at all four locations, though they’re decidedly less hard-charging than Pete might have been. “We have family discussions about what businesses aren’t going anywhere, and the Satire is clearly one of those. The Kitchen is one of those,” Nikki notes. “As far as the rest go, it just depends. We have to think about what’s right for our family.”
Of eight grandchildren, only Barakos has chosen the family business, and with a vision and resolve that, moment after moment, remind everyone of Pete: If he has his way, the Satire’s neon will glow for at least another forty years. “We’re going to make it to one hundred,” he says to Liz with a laugh, though it’s very clear he isn’t joking.
Sixty years of history might serve as a prologue. Barakos has lived in his grandmother’s home since moving to Denver after college — just as Pete and Liz lived with her parents. And while Liz has been able to delegate the business of the family business, there’s nobody who’ll ever be able to manage the family part quite like her.
“She does my laundry,” Barakos admits with a glint of embarrassment. “But it’s Yiayia,” he adds, using the Greek word for grandma. “Yiayia has to be busy; she has to have something to do.”
“You just do things and make it work,” Liz says. “That’s all I can tell you. That’s the restaurant business. Restaurants don’t stand still.”
And while it doesn’t necessarily stand still, one thing hasn’t changed, and perhaps never will. “It’s that sign. It’s that neon. People talk about that sign all the time,” Nikki says.
Pete’s Satire Lounge is located at 1920 East Colfax Avenue and is open 5 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday through Sunday. For more information, visit petesrestaurants.com.