Review: Looking for a hangout in Park Hill? The Abbey Tavern is a lucky find

The Abbey Tavern 5151 East Colfax Avenue 303-321-5151

There's no shortage of places in this town where you can quench a thirst, but that didn't discourage Glen Eastwood. And after enough plot twists to fill a Frank McCourt novel, last fall he and business partner Andrew Cudden opened The Abbey Tavern.

That was after a lease at Fourth and Broadway was signed, then fell through. After they found a replacement spot on East Colfax Avenue, and the new chef didn't show up on his first day. After another job search found a replacement chef, who dropped out a day before he was supposed to start. But nothing deterred these two Irishmen, who'd met on a soccer pitch in the '90s and stayed friends throughout the years. "It turned out to be a blessing," Eastwood says of the move to Colfax. "This was a better location for what we're trying to do," away from "the white noise of Broadway."

See also: A Closer Look at The Abbey Tavern

On one level, what Eastwood is trying to do is fill seats and pour drinks -- a mission he's familiar with, having worked as the general manager at Casey's and Fadó Irish Pub. But he's also trying to do what Peter Ryan has done so successfully at the Plimoth, and what Amy Vitale and Dustin Barrett did at Tables before that: give this restaurant-starved part of Denver another neighborhood go-to spot. To think of the Abbey Tavern as just another bar, then, is to miss the point. It is an Irish pub that does what Irish pubs in Ireland do so well: It brings locals together. Here, however, the locals are men, women and children, making the Abbey Tavern feel less like the man cave that Irish pubs tend to be and more like a community center or park. Every time I visited, I saw people of all ages laughing, sharing stories and cheering whatever team happened to be on TV that night. Booths were filled with parents and kids playing peekaboo. Gray-haired couples rested their drinks on Irish whiskey casks while waiting for seats to open up. Thirty-somethings crowded together at the community counter, eating wings and ordering another round. Outside of the grocery store, that's more generations than I've seen rubbing elbows in a long time, lending a homey, friendly air to the place.

I could be cynical and say they're here because they don't have anywhere else to go: Park Hill isn't exactly rife with restaurants. But even so, the Abbey is something special. My hunch -- and I say this as a longtime Park Hill resident -- is that despite the painted brick walls and archways reminiscent of a somber, old-world abbey (hence the name), the Abbey Tavern was born with a twinkle in its eye. If it were human, it would be the person everyone clusters around at parties, the one with the hearty laugh and clever tale. And to see where that twinkle comes from, look no further than Eastwood, a man who prides himself on knowing kids' names and remembering what people like to drink. "An Irish pub, to me, is a form of inviting hospitality and warmth, very welcoming," says Eastwood, who stresses these traits in his staff and will even "hire people with no experience as long as they have the right personality."

Even when servers are slammed, as often happens during the weekday happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., when well drinks and draught beers (except Guinness) are $3, they exude a genuine eagerness to make sure you're having a good time. They'll even go so far as to anticipate problems before they happen, offering to take a few dollars off the tab for something minor like no berries for the crème-brûlée cheesecake, a sign of hospitality that's increasingly hard to find, even at higher-end establishments. Keep reading for the rest of our review of the Abbey Tavern. Executed by Jay Johnson, who spent time at McCormick & Schmick's, Steuben's and Ace, the menu is a predictable cross between Irish standards and American bar fare. Some dishes, like the Abbey rolls, turned out to be an amalgam of both, with corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese fried in an egg-roll wrapper. That was more successful than a couple of classic dishes, given the overdose of herbs in the beef stew and thyme in the shepherd's pie. (Another trait that Eastwood must stress for his servers: honesty. Ours warned us that the shepherd's pie had too much thyme, and she was spot-on.) Execution was a problem with the fish and chips, too: The cod was coated in a crisp beer batter, but on several occasions the fillets were so long and skinny that they came out looking like witch's fingernails, and were dried out, to boot. And for diners increasingly accustomed to housemade charcuterie, the sausage-heavy Irish breakfast falls a little flat. Served at dinner and for brunch on weekends, the dish featured eggs, rashers, two tough sausages and slices of black and white pudding (with pig's blood and cornmeal, respectively) that reminded me of coarse, salty breakfast sausage. The dish isn't a popular seller, but Eastwood thinks it's important to keep as a token of Ireland, like the old Irish coins set into the bar. If you want to soak up alcohol, the appetizers are a better option -- especially during happy hour, when full-portion appetizers cost just $5.95. The Irish nachos were irresistible, with long strips of house-fried kettle chips freckled with corned beef and drizzled with two sauces: horseradish cream sauce and a stout-spiked cheddar sauce similar to Welsh rarebit. The BBQ pulled-pork sliders were tasty, too, with crunchy coleslaw, dill pickles and soft pretzel buns. Chicken wings were slicked with the same Guinness barbecue sauce used on the pork; the sauce tasted sweeter than I would've expected, given the stout in its name, but still managed to please everyone at the table, even those die-hard Frank's RedHot fans.

After so many appetizers, you may not want a full dinner. Fortunately, the Abbey has a wide selection of sandwiches that are easy to split and come with a generous portion of skin-on fries. (Coleslaw, mashed potatoes and a house salad are the other possibilities, but they lacked seasoning when I tried them, so stick with the fries.) Your best bets: the corned beef Reuben, which can be made with sauerkraut instead of coleslaw on request; the Southwest steak wrap, with red peppers, greens and spicy chipotle aioli; and the burger, which tops a thin patty with barbecue sauce, sharp Irish cheddar and bacon. While most of the food is unlikely to win any awards, that's almost beside the point -- because the place itself has such winning ways. Like McCourt, Eastwood overcame plenty of challenges to get this spot off the ground. But that's the luck of the Irish.

Select menu items at the Abbey Tavern Abbey roll $7.95 BBQ pulled-pork sliders $8.95 Irish nachos $8.95 Guinness BBQ chicken wings $9.95 Corned beef Reuben $9.95 BBQ bacon cheeseburger $10.95 Southwest steak wrap $9.95 Fish and chips $10.95 Shepherd's pie $11.95 Guinness beef stew $11.95 Irish breakfast $12.95

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