On the second-to-last day of 2017, I found myself at Sam's Bar & Lounge (6801 Leetsdale Drive) with my roommate, celebrating my return to Denver after a holiday trip to the East Coast to visit my family. The day before New Year's Eve is not known as a big bar-going day, and things seemed eerily quiet when we first walked in. We shortly discovered that this was because everyone, including the bartender, was outside on the smoking patio, which is accessible only through a garage door that groans up and down each time someone wants to head out for a smoke in the frigid night air. As the bartender poured us some cocktails and beers, the rest of the crowd lingered outside. We asked about what's good at Sam's, and the bartender proudly pointed to the framed blurb from Westword's 2016 Best of Denver edition, where the spot was crowned Best Dive Bar.
Even before I saw the sign, I already had a good feeling about the place; it's a very welcoming sort of spot. The bar is indeed a dive in the sense that it's homey and full of ’70s-era decor, including outstanding old-school (or maybe just old) Christmas decorations, the kind you had as a kid: bears and snowmen and candy canes designed to be put on the wall. There was also a live Christmas tree, which impressed me if only because I have not yet reached the level of adulting where I can handle acquiring a real tree and keeping it alive.
The bar itself is a beautiful four-sided island in the middle of the place, bordered by pool tables, a Touchtunes jukebox, Big Buck Hunter and Golden Tee games, a pay phone and electronic darts on one side, and a series of comfy-looking brown booths and a raised stage with a sign proclaiming "KARAOKE FRIDAYS" on the other.
Luckily, as often seems to be the case, a regular/historian who wanted to be identified here as "Mr. X" happened to be seated next to us at the bar. Mr. X was helping my roommate and I bring the average age of patrons down ever so slightly (since the rest of the crew seemed to be over forty) but was definitely representing old Denver. I knew this when he asked how long I had been in Denver and nodded approvingly when he realized that my answer of twelve years put me decidedly in the pre-weed camp of Denver transplants. The post-weed crowd, or those people who moved here after the legalization of marijuana, gets hated on a lot for flooding our fair city with expensiveness and traffic. The hating sometimes comes from me as well as Denver natives, but I don't really think I actually have the right to talk, since I'm not from here, either. But I suppose I can claim being somewhat of an early adopter of Denver; I was here back when other people from the East Coast thought Denver was all cows and snow. At any rate, after that conversation seemed to impart some level of credibility to me, Mr. X was ready to let us in on a bit of the lowdown on Sam's.
According to his story, Mr. X lives down the street and first tried to go to Sam's as an underage drinker, but got chased away. Undeterred, he returned once he turned 21 to become part of the cast of regulars that he calls "rough characters you'd be privileged to meet."
Opened 64 years ago by the Maniatis family, Sam's hasn't changed much, from the neon sign outside (which makes it easy to spot amid the strip malls of east Denver's Leetsdale Drive) to the well-worn antique cash register that is still used every day. Mr. X showed us an old picture of several of the men of the Maniatis clan and explains that there apparently never was a Sam in the family, just a lot of Greek businessmen. Brothers Art and Sid Maniatis, the current owners and operators of Sam's, even have another Greek bar and restaurant industry magnate, Pete Contos (of Pete's Kitchen, Pete's Satire Lounge, and Pete's just-about-everything-else) as their godfather.
Our friendly historian, another guy who decided to be referred to as Mr. Y, and several of the other regulars and bartenders (some of whom were at the bar during their time off), all agreed that the whole group is a family, and they are probably all "a little off." They were all excited that I was interviewing them about their home away from home, and one guy even posed for a picture of his sweet pool skills while shooting a "badass combo."
Mr. X bought a round of shots, because "you can't come to Sam's without getting shots," and told us that he doesn't like to sing on karaoke night, but everyone else does. Depending on the night, he says, it will be quiet and relaxed (as it was on the night of our visit), or going off with huge crowds of people celebrating a birthday or getting crazy after bowling at the AMF Monaco Lanes next door. One of the off-duty bartenders told us that a group of firefighters from Littleton used to come in and haze new recruits by requiring them to sing Shania Twain's "Man, I Feel Like a Woman" on karaoke, with feeling.
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We continued making the rounds and talking to various groups of the growing crowd of neighborhood patrons, some playing pool, some playing the Megatouch game in the other corner of the bar, some coming over to talk to us about how great the bar is, some commenting that it's okay to be either a Raiders fan or a Broncos fan at Sam's (but that doesn't mean you won't get any crap for being a Raiders fan). The sports paraphernalia in the house is exclusively hometown: Rockies neon signs, Nuggets flags and Broncos signs and stickers are scattered around the bar and on the walls. During Broncos games there is often a buffet, since Sam's does have a kitchen with a small menu of burgers, gyros sandwiches and several Mexican options.
At one point, my phone rang during a conversation and I answered it a little too quickly, instantly feeling like a clueless millennial (although I suppose a more dedicated millennial would have been texting or on Snapchat). I apologized for my rudeness when I went back over to finish the conversation, but it was clear that no offense was taken, so we talked a little more about good grub and football. Everyone was warm and somehow parental, and loyal and proud of their home bar. It was hugs all around when we left, and I feel certain that I'll soon be following the neon sign of Sam's back for more drinks among friends in 2018.