Despite working in the surrounding neighborhood for years, I had never made it to Phil's Place. My co-worker and I recently decided to stop in for a drink on a Friday after an event at our office, which is just blocks from the unassuming little bar that sits on the corner of 35th and Larimer, in the shadow of the Tracks/EXDO Event Center complex.
We were greeted by a friendly, chatty bartender who was super-quick with the Bud Lights. The beer selection is not nearly as extensive as at nearby hip beer emporiums like Finn's Manor or First Draft, but it's definitely much cheaper. The space is small, with wood-paneled walls decorated with a conglomeration of memorabilia, photos and signs with slogans like "Complaint Department 100 Miles Away." There are several smallish tables, as well as a series of stationary metal bar stools lining the bar that suggest an old ice cream parlor or drugstore. We had a seat at the bar, which was already mostly full.
The bartender promptly introduced us to Rich "Shadow" Garcia, who is a manager at Phil's and keeps an eye on things at night. Garcia, with help from a few regulars sitting next to us at the bar, told us the convoluted tale of his family and the various members of the Garcia clan who have owned the bar over the years, as well as other nearby establishments such as Mexico City Lounge and El Toro. From Willie Garcia, who opened the bar in the ’70s, to Bob, Dave and Linda Garcia, to Phil Garcia, the current owner, it has always been in the family. Phil, Shadow's cousin, bought the bar in 2002. He rented it out for a few years, during which it was known as Our Place. In 2004 it became Phil's Place, and it's still going strong under that name.
Also keeping things in the family, Junie Garcia, Phil's mother, runs the kitchen, which was unfortunately closed when we were there. For years she was in charge of the kitchen at the Bamboo Hut, a now-closed local treasure that was replaced by a strip of upscale restaurants down on 24th and Larimer. According to Shadow, Junie's is the best green chile around, and the tacos aren't bad, either. I resolve to come back for lunch, because the kitchen is only open Wednesday through Friday from 8 a.m to 4 p.m., and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the weekends — unless Junie is going to Vegas, in which case the kitchen closes down for a week. When I asked Garcia about an awesomely tacky calendar on the wall featuring the men of the Las Vegas male dance revue Thunder From Down Under, he told me that this particular piece of decor belongs to Junie. She is clearly a woman after my own heart; I can't think of many better ways to occupy your time than making green chile and watching hot men dance.
I learned some other fun facts about the bar, the neighborhood and even my own office building from Garcia and the friendly regulars, all Latino guys in their forties and fifties. For example, Phil's originally housed a drugstore back in the day, when trolley lines traveled up and down Larimer Street — hence the old-school soda-fountain stools. Garcia mentioned that they used to have a framed picture behind the bar of the building back when it was a drugstore, complete with a trolley car in front. "Used to" would be the key words here, because one day a woman was so excited about the photo that she asked to take it with her to make a copy — and never came back.
The crowd really is a neighborhood crowd, the regulars and Garcia explained; the patrons have all known each other for years and live on what they call "the east side." As I learned while hanging out at the nearby Jake's Sports & Spirits, some newer residents call the neighborhood RiNo, but not the longstanding denizens. Even with encroaching gentrification in the area, the bar remains friendly to everyone who comes in for a drink. Garcia said that a lot of new faces pop in to enjoy a cheap beer while waiting for a dinner reservation or event across the street, something that never happened in the earlier days of the bar.
Aside from the usual after-work and late-night crowds, Broncos Sundays are always a great time for the Phil's Place crew. Garcia, who was wearing a Raiders hat, was quick to point out that Broncos and Raides fans can peacefully coexist at Phil's. Which is more than I can say for pretty much any other bar I've ever been to in Denver.
So if you're in the area, you will be welcomed with a smile when you sidle up to the bar at Phil's Place —even if you call the neighborhood RiNo or root for the Raiders. And if you grab a stool at the right time, you might even be able to sample some of Junie's green chile.