On a recent Thursday night, I hit the Art District on Santa Fe with a friend who had just moved down the street from the Monkey Bar (1112 Santa Fe Drive). I've had drinks there a handful of times on First Friday Art Walk nights, when the place is packed with the random people who descend on the Santa Fe strip to drink and eat and look at art. On nights like that, it's hard to tell the character of a bar, so I knew I had to return at a different time if I wanted to meet the regular cast of characters who call the place home.
My friend beat me there by a few minutes and was seated at the bar when I walked in. Other than a large contingent of twenty-something girls and guys playing beer pong at the table in the center of the room, we were just about the only ones in the bar.
The evening's bartender showed off an impressive collection of monkey paraphernalia from all over the world, brought in by friends of the bar, and gave us some 100-proof Monkey pickle shots. The bar makes its own infused vodkas, so in addition to the pickle shots, there were also Monkey watermelon shots and Monkey pineapple shots available. The pickle shots went down surprisingly smoothly, since the salty, sour pickle juice masked the alcohol (in a dangerous way).
The bar's King Kong (also called the Funky Monkey) cocktail could also catch up to you quickly if you're not careful. Similar to Long Island iced tea, the drink is full of clear and blue liquors, resulting in a murky blue-green concoction. I went a little safer with the house twist on a Moscow mule, made with grapefruit vodka and a little bit of honey. The overall theme of the Monkey Bar's drink list seems to be packing maximum alcohol into every drink. We also got a taster of a Loaded Corona after one of the regulars ordered it. As the name suggests, the drink is a Corona beer loaded with tequila and lime, creating a whole Mexican beach vacation in one drink.
The smallish bar is cute inside, with exposed brick and monkey-related art everywhere, as well as such offbeat touches as a lava lamp, a set of lockers and a marquee that will soon move outside to replace the existing painted sign. We later learned that the new sign came from the business next door, Custom Signs Near Me, owned by Sam Beranek, part-time bartender and friend of the bar and neighborhood. We met Beranek and Monkey Bar owner Jen Busch as we enjoyed our drinks; the two are friends and couldn't stop talking about their love for the bar's patrons and this neighborhood. Both live nearby and know everyone from the nearby businesses, from the folks who work at the 7-Eleven across the street, to the chefs and owner at Chuey FU's Latin-Asian Grub, to the people who run various art galleries in the area.
Busch's favorite thing to do is just hang out and play games with her customers. The bar is full of games; Busch and co-owner Javy Maes designed it to be an "adult playground where kids go and play." A huge Pac-Man game, a foosball table, darts, beer pong, various board games and sometimes shuffleboard all attract drinkers looking for a little extra fun. On the secluded back patio are two pool tables, a ping-pong table, a giant Jenga set and additional seating for those who want to smoke, shoot pool or enjoy the covered patio, no matter the weather. On this night, the deck hosted a friendly, youngish crowd playing ping-pong, with several players wearing Monkey Bar shirts.
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Once Busch and Beranek joined us at the bar, we decided we had to try other drinks, like a sweet concoction called the Vineyard that was larger than a shot but, Beranek advises, is intended to be slurped up all at once through a straw. Shortly after that, a round of shooters appeared that the manager called the "Custom Signs Near Me green tea shot." At this point, I was starting to lose track of the nuances of the shots, but this one tasted pretty good.
Over the shots and cocktails, Busch shared info about upcoming events. I remembered from previous visits that live music was once common here; it's still offered, just less frequently. Instead, Wednesday night karaoke and comedy shows on the last Monday of every month fill in the gaps. Karaoke nights are also ladies' nights from 9 p.m. to midnight; as long as you're brave enough to get up and sing, the drinks are free. If there was ever a special designed with me in mind, that's the one.
Busch and the Monkey Bar support the observations I've had about female-owned bars having nice restrooms, better-than-average decor and purse hooks under the bar. Maes was the owner when the place was called the Wall Tavern back in 2013; the Monkey Bar was born in March 2015, when Busch came on board. In my opinion, three years solidifies a bar's status as an actual neighborhood bar, whether here in Lincoln Park or in other Denver neighborhoods.
The Monkey Bar doesn't serve food other than popcorn from a popcorn machine, which you can dust with a little white cheddar powder kept behind the bar. But customers often order in from neighborhood restaurants, and I don't think anyone would have looked askance if I had brought in the Crunchwrap Supreme I'd grabbed at a nearby Taco Bell at the start of the night. I'm not fancy, and neither is this Santa Fe watering hole — and it's just the kind of monkey business that would fit right in here.