In the wake of a Denver dining boom that can be exhausting to keep up with, it's a little baffling that more places don’t aspire to be true neighborhood restaurants. Sure, many newcomers pay lip service to that designation; after all, most restaurants eventually draw the majority of their clientele from surrounding blocks. But real neighborhood restaurants never have to call themselves such, because they never have a moment to trumpet their credentials in the first place. These restaurants usually exist quietly, serving a customer base that comes in on nights when they don’t really feel like going out but aren’t willing to cook, either. These restaurants are comfortable, not flashy, and they’re affordable enough to assuage any guilt about eating there multiple nights a week. Most important, they have familiar, craveable touch points. A wise chef once told me that the true mark of a neighborhood restaurant is that you know what you’re going to order before you leave your house.
Most of us have our old reliable, and as Denver dining continues to crest — with each new opening one-upping the last — it feels more essential to moor oneself to those spots, if only for a moment of sanity amid the never-ending quest for newness. One such place is Billy’s Inn, a watering hole housed in a hacienda-like building on Lowell.
Billy’s has served the Berkeley neighborhood since 1933, back when it was actually an Inn (then-owners Billy and Judy Smith rented upstairs rooms to patrons). It’s changed hands a couple of times since, eventually landing with Larimer Associates in 2008, which cleaned the place up and gave the food menu an update with an assist from Troy Guard before Sterling Robinson became proprietor. Always a magnet for locals, Billy’s still has a knack for nurturing regulars; when I stopped by for happy hour, most of the crowd was clustered around the bar, engaged in familiar conversation with the bartender.
I’ve never achieved that status at Billy’s, but I do find myself returning over and over again for three favorites: nachos, margaritas and happy hour.
In fact, Billy’s happy hour, which runs from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, is so enticing, I’m pressed to remember a time I’ve been to the restaurant during other hours. You can get that margarita — a particularly poundable version, sharply balanced as it is between sweet and tart — for $5 (or $6, if you want to add puréed strawberry). Those nachos ring in at $9, which is a true value considering the size of the offering: a family-sized serving platter comes heaped with thick house-fried corn chips deftly layered with black beans, queso, pickled jalapeños, pico de gallo, black olives, sour cream, a scoop of guacamole and a side of salsa.
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On warm days, you can enjoy this excellent combination on Billy’s patio. Although that deck isn’t the most picturesque in town — it looks into a strip-mall parking lot that holds a DMV — the half-covered, half-open space has none of the scene-y trappings of more popular porches in town, and it’s always easy to find a seat.
If you were wise, you’d just stop there, but I am not wise, and so every time I go to Billy’s, I add another snack or two, which leads to an intimidatingly large feast. Should you go this route, the half-pound of peel-and-eat shrimp is a decent addition, generously showered with Old Bay seasoning. The sleeper hit, though, are the veggie fries. Sweet-potato strips, zucchini, mushrooms and green onion, all with a shatter-crisp tempura batter, are ideally matched with a tart buttermilk ranch dressing. It’s good drinking food, especially if you follow up that margarita with a dollar-off draft beer.
One more thing worth knowing: Billy’s follows up its afternoon happy hour with a more limited menu of late-night deals. From 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, you can score a half-portion of those nachos for $5, and a quarter-pound of peel-and-eats for $6. And you'll still get happy-hour pricing on drinks.