The Horseshoe Lounge, Uptown's Neighborhood Bar for a Decade

The Horseshoe Lounge, at 414 East 20th Avenue, welcomes everyone in the Uptown neighborhood.
The Horseshoe Lounge, at 414 East 20th Avenue, welcomes everyone in the Uptown neighborhood. Sarah McGill
I've spent a fair amount of time at the Horseshoe Lounge. My old roommate is a regular who invites me there for a drink frequently, and I've been there on dates. I also once found myself there for a meet-up group that my friend was a part of — I don't even remember what the group was about, but they definitely met up at the Horseshoe Lounge. The Horseshoe is definitely a prototypical Denver neighborhood bar for the residents of the Uptown area. The slightly older regulars, most in their forties and fifties, and residents of the nearby upscale high-rise apartments are more likely to hang out on weeknights or during the day. On Friday and Saturday nights, all bets are off when it comes to the crowd; the place gets packed with everyone and anyone from the neighborhood and elsewhere because the location of the bar brings traffic from various crowds on their way into or out of downtown.

A few weeks ago, I met up with my tour guide to the joys of the Horseshoe Lounge, my old roommate, who lives blocks from the bar these days. She told me that once her power went out during a Broncos game and she stood outside"the ’Shoe," as she would later call it as a regular, watching the game from the street. She eventually went in and met a crew of new friends, and like many regulars, whether or not they live nearby, she always makes it back. We got rock-star treatment from Melanie Unruh, one of the owners, who goes by "Mel" and can generally be found slinging drinks, smiles and trash talk from behind the bar. On other occasions I have also felt like a celebrity in the bar because the regulars and staff love my roommate so much that I get to feel special by association.

As we sat at the bar, the place filled up with an eclectic crowd of after-work folks in various levels of business attire, and probably some people who are retired. My friend and I drank our strong cocktails and ate a delicious Chicago dog, which, according to Unruh, is the most authentic Chicago-style hot dog in Denver. I don't really know much about all that, having never managed to make it to Chicago myself, but it definitely tasted good. While all this was going on, I pieced together the story on the Horseshoe with insight from my friend, her compatriots at the bar, and Unruh and the other friendly staff.
click to enlarge Bar-goers get comfy in the living room-esque part of the Horseshoe Lounge. - SARAH MCGILL
Bar-goers get comfy in the living room-esque part of the Horseshoe Lounge.
Sarah McGill
The owners of the Horseshoe have connections to another Denver bar-scene legend, the late Gary Lee Bomar, who was the proprietor of Gary Lee's Motor Club and Grub. Before opening his own spot, Bomar worked at the Horseshoe; Unruh points out the spot on the bar, tiled with more than 24,000 dice and sealed with clear epoxy, where Bomar, who passed away in 2015, left a permanent mark. As Unruh tells it, Bomar was messing around trying to pick a dollar up off the bar with a huge kitchen knife; he ended up smashing part of the epoxy. Before fixing the damage, he wrote in tiny letters on one of the dice "God Damn Gary Lee." The writing is still visible, sealed under new epoxy, at the end of the bar nearest the door, and serves as a sort of memorial to a man that the Denver bar and music scene misses dearly.

click to enlarge A reminder of the late, great Gary Lee Bomar from his time working at the Horseshoe. - SARAH MCGILL
A reminder of the late, great Gary Lee Bomar from his time working at the Horseshoe.
Sarah McGill
The bar just turned ten years old in December, but rather than sticking around to celebrate, the staff, owners and some regulars took the party to Vegas. Unruh notes another proud milestone for the Horseshoe: It's the smallest bar in town to earn its own Jameson Whiskey barrel for selling more than 33,000 Jameson drinks.

Other than whiskey, main draws include Throwback Saturdays (the third weekend of every month), a dance party pumped up with Motown hits and ’90s hip-hop jams. And Unruh livens up the weekly trivia night with "box o' crap" prizes — packages of random items such as candy, lottery scratch tickets, shoelaces and dollar-store pregnancy tests. Once a quarter, the top trivia teams from the Horseshoe league face off in a Tournament of Champions to win bigger prizes like distillery and brewery tours.

Cheap canned beers like Olympia and Hamm's, labeled on the menu as "Shitty Cans of Beer," are favorites at the bar, along with along with inexpensive well liquors and the classic brown-bag mystery shots (a tradition at dive bars around town). Happy hour gives even more bang for your buck from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays, with $3 wells, $4 house wines and $1 off all draft beers.

Despite the Vegas lounge vibe, there's no single customer type here. You'll see business suits, cowboys and college kids among the regulars and newcomers. They're all here for the same reason: cheap drinks, friendly service and familiar faces.
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Sarah McGill is a contributor to Westword's Food & Drink section and can be found exploring Denver's neighborhood bars. She is also a ghost story and karaoke enthusiast. Despite not being from Colorado, Sarah and Denver have been in a long-term relationship, and it seems like this one might be for real.