The R & R Lounge has been welcoming one and all as an East Colfax neighborhood gay bar since before most Denverites knew that there were gay bars in their midst. At 4958 East Colfax, it also just happens to be within walking distance of my house in the Mayfair/Hale neighborhood. I'd seen the gleaming neon sign, complete with a martini glass (very old Denver, very Colfax, just how I like it) many times, but I'd never been inside until a friend invited me for a drink on a recent weekend night.
The small, welcoming crowd that night was overseen by bartender Esteban, who immediately greeted us. Our eyes were drawn to the long list of the month's birthdays on one wall, and Esteban brought us an old 2013 Ace Hardware Calendar so we could pencil in our birthdays, to be added to the wall during the proper upcoming month. Then we snagged some cocktails and Esteban showed us the many accolades that the R & R has earned over the years, including the pages in Denver's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Mile-High City (penned by former Westword bar writer Drew Bixby), a Westword award for Best Gay Bar 2016, and an OutFront award for "Best Place to Sit in Part of Denver's Queer History" in 2017.
But there's much more history to the bar that rightfully claims to be "Denver's oldest gay bar." The location has been a bar since the 1950s, when it was known as the Coral Lounge and was considered a "mixed" bar, which is basically what people called an incognito gay bar back then. In the ’70s, the bar was renamed the R & R Lounge. The R's don't stand for rest and relaxation, though it's a great place to enjoy some of that, but for Rick and Roger, the owners at the time. Also in the ’70s, the bar became an "out and proud, rainbow-on-the-door gay bar," according to owner Rich Illgen. And it's been that way ever since.
Illgen was also an owner at another historic gay bar in Denver, the original Triangle Bar, a legendary leather bar that shook up the scene from the ’70s until closing in the early 2000s. That's not to be confused with the new Triangle, which, although located in the same building at 2036 Broadway, has a reputation considerably tamer than the original. After the Triangle closed, Illgen worked as a manager at the R & R for several years and then bought the place in 2008.
According to Illgen and his team, their clientele is eclectic and the bar doesn't have a reputation for catering to any particular subset of the gay community; older and younger men and women, drag queens, members of the trans community, bears and cisgender folks are welcome and make themselves at home — as long as "your money is green and you can get along with everyone," Illgen adds. It's not in a gay neighborhood or strip of gay hot spots, which is part of the appeal of the R & R. It's just a chill neighborhood bar that's also a gay bar.
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The small, dark bar isn't much different than any other neighborhood bar in town, with a few dart boards, a Bonus Hole machine and a jukebox for entertainment. TVs displaying a rotation of ads for specials, glamour shots of the bartenders with notes on what night you can find them, candid shots of bar regulars and pictures of half-naked guys that came "from the Internet," according to Esteban, add a little eye candy to the room. The jukebox was turning out a variety of pop hits, and everyone in attendance discussed their thoughts about Taylor Swift's new song, "Delicate," and the debate about whether or not the video was ripped off from a Spike Jonze perfume commercial.
The bar hosts ’70s-themed costume parties, kilt nights, pajama parties and many other opportunities to dress up. Holiday celebrations, including this weekend's Cinco de Mayo festivities (which will run from Friday to Sunday), are always festive, especially in the warmer months, when the R & R puts on a barbecue outside in the parking lot. This weekend there will be a free Mexican buffet, $4 Mexican beers on Friday, $1 off tequila shots on Saturday, and both of those specials on Sunday. Coming up on May 19, the bar will host a Mad Hatter Party, which mostly involves everyone wearing their finest hats, whether fedoras, derbys, top hats, crowns or anything else that suits you.
Recently, the R & R Lounge was chosen as the setting for an independent film called Gay Bashed from director Jc Scott Gray; it was filmed last November, with some of the staff and customers cast as extras, and is scheduled to come out this month. Illgen says he will probably screen the film at the bar soon.
The R & R Lounge opens at 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 1 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, closing at 2 a.m. nightly. Happy hour runs from 3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Call 303-320-9337 for more details and nightly specials.