Let's be honest: There aren't that many dive bars in Denver anymore, let alone in West Washington Park, one of Denver's more expensive neighborhoods. Some would assert that the Candlelight Tavern is a dive bar, while some would debate the definition of a dive bar for hours without coming to a definitive answer. According to the Candlelight's website, which proudly proclaims that it is a Denver dive bar, and to owners Lisa and Dave Bryan, the label seems to fit. And the bar certainly has earned respect as a dive here at Westword. With its classic neon sign, cheap drinks and eats and unpretentious vibe, it's safe to say that most of the elements of a true Denver dive are in place.
I've been to the Candlelight several times, including on a weird date that was basically saved by the shuffleboard table, which allowed us to avoid extremely awkward conversation after we discovered that our political views were polar opposites. (I know you aren't supposed to talk politics on a first date, but sometimes it just happens.)
I stopped back in to see what was new at the Candlelight with a friend on a recent Wednesday night. Things were pretty much the same as always: it was full of older regulars, with a few younger folks grabbing a beer or a bite to eat. The crowd tends to be a mix of business suits coming after work along with more casual bros and men in their forties and fifties in baseball caps and jeans. Co-owner Dave Bryan says the crowd of regulars is consistent, but that more and more new faces come in every day as the popular Wash Park neighborhood continues to attract new residents.
An interesting note that Bryan shared with me is that he has met around forty people who have gotten married after meeting at the Candlelight. Sometimes the couples stay together and keep stopping by the bar. Sometimes they get divorced and one half of the couple "gets the bar" in the divorce settlement, leaving the other partner to find somewhere else to drink. Bryan credits the friendly and open vibe as a catalyst for new relationships. Or perhaps it's the sheer volume of patrons. On the weekends the place is generally packed to the gills, but on this particular night, my friend and I were able to talk and catch up in the relatively quiet bar.
Despite having been in several times, I had never tried the food, so I ordered a burger — a staple for regulars — to go with my Coors Light. My friend ordered a bowl of chili, also a house specialty. My plate was uncomplicated: a straight-up burger served with a bag of Lays potato chips. Clearly, sticking to the basics works at the Candlelight. Lisa Bryan tells me that keeping things consistent is her philosophy. She and Dave Bryan have owned the bar together since 1997, and maintaining a certain level of simplicity is what kept them going through the recession, when many bars closed around town. The Bryans will celebrate twenty years as business partners this year, although they're no longer married.
The two come from backgrounds in the industry; Lisa specializes in the behind-the-scenes part of the operation, while Dave is a chef, so the burger and chili recipes are his. He even cooks up special homemade meals for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, because the Candlelight never closes, welcoming the regulars and staff they consider family to celebrate together. Many of the bar's staff have been with the Bryans for almost the entire time they've owned the place, especially bartender Scott Hanley, whom Lisa considers "a legend."
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Other bar highlights are the aforementioned shuffleboard table, as well as pool, darts and giant Jenga to keep customers entertained. Dave Bryan is a big Detroit Lions fan, so the Candlelight is a Lions bar but still shows love to the Broncos every football season. The Candlelight also hosts private parties, from corporate events to birthday parties and fundraisers. In addition to these events, Bryan notes, every year they host a golf tournament in August to benefit a different charity. This year, the Ronald McDonald House will be the recipient of the money raised.
One little-known fact: The Candlelight made an appearance in the 1997 TV miniseries version of Stephen King's The Shining. This lesser-known adaptation was actually made because Stephen King wasn't satisfied with Stanley Kubrick's version of the story, and it includes a scene where the main character walks outside the Candlelight and peers back into the window. But that brief moment of fame hasn't gone to the Candlelight's head; the bar is still just as down to earth as ever.
So if you want to meet your future husband or wife, come to the Candlelight solo or with friends. (I was clearly doing it wrong when I went there on a date.) Or just head in to enjoy a cheap beer and some shuffleboard, and soak up the glow of the neon lights at this Denver dive institution.