The Backstreet Tavern and Grill really is on a back street — at 1150 South Galena Street, to be exact — off the beaten path on the frontier of Denver and Aurora. The bar is just a block from the bustling strip malls of Mississippi Avenue and Havana Street, but it feels entirely removed from all that, on a quiet block facing houses and apartment complexes, with the loading docks of the back side of a King Soopers as additional scenery.
I rolled up on a Monday night, expecting a calm scene with just a few older folks from the neighborhood tossing back some drinks. What I encountered, at 6:30 p.m. on a Monday evening, was quite another story. The place was full of an eclectic mix of neighborhood characters, and almost all of them were intently watching the "opening act" before karaoke night: a young girl playing cover songs on an acoustic guitar as part of an impromptu open-mic night.
My friends and I found a few open bar stools between a middle-aged Latino couple eating dinner and a few African-American guys who looked to be in their forties or fifties, who wandered from their home base next to us to mingle with other customers around the bar. After I told him I was a social worker with many side hustles, one of these gentlemen extolled the virtues of finding your passion and doing everything the best way you know how, no matter what your job is. We were on the same page about more than one topic; he also tipped me off to a few other neighborhood bars with good karaoke and atmosphere.
Our server, who gradually made friends with us over conversations about workouts, journalism and music, was young and bright-eyed, and full of suggestions about what to get on the menu, from wings to a Monte Cristo sandwich. My friend opted for an impressive green chile-smothered hamburger concoction called a slopper (apparently the official dish of Pueblo, Colorado), and I went for the special of the day, a chicken sandwich with Russian dressing, which for some reason was called a California chicken sandwich. It was good, especially washed down with a happy-hour $2.75 Bud Light, but I realized the slopper was the better option after tasting some of my friend's chile-covered fries.
Johnny D, the karaoke DJ for the night, took over after the acoustic guitarist finished. This was clearly what many people in the house had been waiting for. I waited for a few songs to read the crowd and see what they might enjoy, and by the time I put my name in, there were probably ten or more singers ahead of me. I didn't mind waiting, though, since it was a good opportunity to see how this diverse conglomeration of people would get down on the mic.
Johnny D was clearly a country fan himself, and introduced as dear friends several white-haired folks wearing Hawaiian shirts, American flag T-shirts, camouflage gear and other age-appropriate outfits. But there was also a young hipster who sang "The Girl All the Bad Guys Want," by Bowling for Soup, a fairly obscure song that came out in the early 2000s. My friends and I were probably the only other people in the bar who had ever heard the song before, but that didn't keep the hodgepodge audience from cheering and applauding heartily after his performance.
My friends had gone out to the spacious, partially covered patio for a smoke when my name was called, so I yelled for them to come back inside for my rendition of "Fancy," by Reba McEntire, a dramatic ’90s country song that was audibly appreciated by the over-forty country fans in the house. I got a few high-fives and perhaps the nicest compliment someone has ever given me about my karaoke performance skills, when an older woman came over to tell me, "You got some guts and you got a voice."
As the karaoke continued into the night, more people came in and very few left. Folks played pool on the two tables in the back, smoked on the patio, and circulated around the room, exchanging hugs, smiles and handshakes. We were struck most by the congenial, non-cliquish nature of the customers. An old guy who brought his own pool cue shared the table with a long-haired skater type and a couple of thirty-something women in leggings and workout shirts. Young couples wearing sports jerseys mingled with old-timers with walkers and a guy who looked uncannily like Colonel Sanders. When we first got there, there was even a child there with his grandfather, but they left before the night heated up.
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After more beers and tequila shots, my friends eventually mustered the courage to take the stage, performing a hilarious (at least to us) duet of "Barbie Girl," by Aqua, and "Suspicious Minds," by Elvis Presley. Our server let us know that aside from karaoke, which also happens on Friday, there's an actual open-mic night every Saturday, and a Tito's-and-tacos Tuesday (with three tacos for $6 and $1 Tito's vodka shots all day).
The tavern is run by Tara and Norm Boivin, who opened it four years ago. Before that, it was a sports bar and Italian joint that also had "backsteet" in the name. Norm is a military veteran, according to our server, so the Boivins hold fundraisers for veterans, first responders and other associated charities, as well as an annual car show and a Stamp Out Hunger food drive to benefit community organizations. Singing, sloppers and supporting the community — those are all things that will get me back to the Backstreet Tavern.
Backstreet Tavern and Grill is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day but Sunday, when the bar opens at 10 a.m. Call 303-745-4003 or visit the Backstreet Facebook page for more details.