I've always noticed the Dirty Duck Bar's large sign displaying a cheerful, drunken duck on my way down Evans Avenue toward the I-25 on-ramps. Each time I drive by, I tell myself that I need to check the place out. I finally ventured in on a recent Sunday with a friend who has lived in the Virginia Village neighborhood for years but hadn't been to the bar before, either. Just the name, which actually pays homage to the original Dirty Duck Bar in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, makes a person curious. Based on the name, and based on the fact that some people I asked about the bar alluded to it being sketchy, I was expecting a grungy dive bar. What I found was less divey and more friendly than I expected.
When we arrived, things were calm. The bar hosted a line of regulars chatting together, and there was one guy sharing a pitcher of beer with himself at one of the booths. The interior of the bar isn't fancy, by any means, but everything looks clean and reasonably well maintained. Shelves near the ceiling hold an impressive collection of rubber duckies, which bartender Curtis King later told me have all been brought in as gifts by customers. We wandered over to check out a side room with arcade games and pool tables, but it was empty on this particular day, with patrons sticking close to the bar area.
As we took our seats at the bar, we got the sense that King, and the rest of the regulars next to us, could tell we were new to the scene. King was prompt and businesslike, but warmed up when we started asking him about himself and the bar. He told us that he had been coming to the Dirty Duck for years before he started working there. We chatted as he made intense-looking Long Island iced teas for a group of younger girls next to us. A patron who introduced himself as "Uncle Bill" also came over to welcome us and profess his love for the Dirty Duck.
Through the combined wisdom of King and Uncle Bill, we learned quite a few facts about the bar in rapid succession. Apparently the little spot on Evans Avenue has always been a bar: first the Heartbreak Saloon and then Oscar's before owner Liza McGuire took over and it became the Dirty Duck. We heard about the fact that multiple people who work with Uncle Bill across the street at Image Audiovisuals have married bartenders from the Dirty Duck. We heard tales of legendary bartender Darren, who has worked at the bar for 23 years. He's such a fixture there that his birthday is a special celebration, as evidenced by the marquee outside mentioning the big event, coming up on February 24.
The crew also filled us in on the origin of a sign on the "Bonus Hole" bar game next to our bar stools that read "Due to certain people's poor choices, this game is now under 24-hour surveillance!" A few years ago, a couple of customers came into the bar on a mission. One man distracted the bartender while the other broke into the Bonus Hole game through the side panel and stole all the quarters before they both ran out, presumably into a getaway car. The thieves were never caught, but Uncle Bill says he heard that they were professional Bonus Hole robbers and that they had hit other bars around town that night as well. So beware, people of Denver: A gang of Bonus Hole robbers might still be at large.
Another bit of bad luck that befell the Dirty Duck was the next-door Rockies Inn fire last April, which forced the bar to close temporarily because of power outages and concerns about possible damage to the building. The vacant hotel fire may or may not have been caused by arson, but it definitely caused a ruckus for staff and regulars when the Dirty Duck had to be evacuated and closed for weeks afterward. The hotel has since been demolished, while the Duck remains.
Regulars of the bar note that their favorite pastimes include watching Broncos games, checking out Fiesta Friday once a month for free tacos and an extra-discounted happy hour, buying an awesome tie-dyed Dirty Duck T-shirt, or just seeing old friends. The crowd really is a neighborhood one, with a mixture of older guys in their forties and fifties and clusters of younger couples and groups who live in the numerous apartment buildings nearby. A large number of small businesses rent space in the strip malls surrounding the bar, so after-work crowds come in to enjoy the generously long happy hours, from 4 to 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight. The bar offers a daily lunch special of a hamburger and a Budweiser for $6.50 for hungry shoppers and workers in the neighborhood.
In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by the welcoming neighborhood joint, and my friend and I enjoyed the very low price tag for our beers and cocktails. We resolved to come back again, perhaps on a Fiesta Friday, or possibly for Darren's birthday. Maybe we'll even bring a rubber duckie next time, or some quarters for the Bonus Hole.
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