As a student in graduate school at the University of Denver ten years ago, I used to hit up the Stadium Inn occasionally. Ten years later, I feel like I'm getting old — but the the Stadium Inn was a senior citizen even back then. On weekends, the place would be packed with DU undergrad hockey bros, law school bros, fraternity bros and other assorted bros. During the week it was a little quieter, with old-timers from the neighborhood drinking and socializing at the bar. But mostly I remember that the drinks were always cheap and sports fans could always find a televised game there. I recently took a friend down to revisit "The Old Standby," as the bar is nicknamed, and discovered that not much has changed since those days.
We stopped in on a Sunday afternoon, and after being earnestly carded by a woman (who was reading while drinking what appeared to be coffee) perched at one of the booths near the front door, we found a spot along the crowded formica-topped bar. The clientele was heavy on grungy, post-college dudes and a small crew of older guys wearing upscale golf attire. Our bartender (with her hair dyed bright blue) and her longer-tenured colleague shared details of the Inn's events and specials, along with a few additional historical tidbits, some of which I already knew from rumors during my DU days.
The storied bar has been open since the 1940s. In 1947, it was one of the first bars in Denver to de-segregate, in part because of pressure from returning World War II veterans (both white and black) who wanted to drink with their buddies. The college crowd has always been a staple — DU's been around since 1864 — except during what our bartenders described as a "dark time," when a rougher clientele of primarily bikers held sway in the ’70s. But that ended quickly when the Saliman family bought the place in 1977, and the bar has been a draw for college students and neighborhood residents ever since.
Back in the ’50s, the Stadium Inn offered a "degree" in drinking — either a "Bachelor of Suds," a "Master of Malts" or a "Doctor of Hops." Nowadays, the bar is big on Evan Williams bourbon, and regulars can get a different kind of honor: their name on a plaque on the wall for a "Degree of Bourbonology" upon filling a stamp card for a series of whiskeys. Evan Williams is on offer for $2 at all times, so landing that Bourbonology degree is not nearly as expensive as earning a diploma from DU.
Every surface in the bar is covered in either sports memorabilia or signs advertising drink specials and upcoming events. Happy hour is prominently advertised, because it is prominently long — from noon to 7 p.m. on weekdays, with free billiards, $1 off premium beers and $2 well drinks and select beers. Also popular are Geeks Who Drink trivia on Tuesdays, Service Industry Night specials on Sunday nights, and free pizza during big televised sporting events.
A big annual event before every DU graduation is "Dads and Grads," an early-morning celebration when the bar opens at 7 a.m. with Bloody Marys and mimosas to get graduates and their families ready for the big day. Somehow I missed out on this during my grad-student days; I probably could have used a mimosa before the super-long graduation ceremony. On every other day of the year, the bar opens at 9 a.m. for the morning crowd of regulars but is really only busy in the evenings, on the weekends and after DU hockey and other campus sports events.
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SHOW ME HOW
Like many of the old-school bars I love, the Stadium Inn is decorated in a patchwork of unexplained objects that seem to have an untold story. A huge teddy bear relaxes at the booth next to the Bonus Hole game; snapshots of bar regulars and handwritten signs are tacked haphazardly behind the bar, over and among the hodgepodge of hockey sticks and neon signs. Comforting in its lack of pretension, the bar is like a second home to neighbors — especially those who come and go from the back door, even though they must pass through the kitchen and a storage area to do so. And on their way out, they're likely to hear a goodbye called out by one of the bartenders.
The kitchen here only serves frozen pizzas, but the bar partners with various food trucks to provide other options for patrons. There was a Greek food truck on the day I visited, providing interesting, if overpriced, choices (as is common with modern food trucks).
Our bartenders waved goodbye as we departed through the front door (we weren't sure if we had earned the right to exit through the back). But the Stadium Inn is the kind of place where, after only a few more visits, everyone would know our names and we'd feel as comfortable as the other regulars who have earned their drinking degrees for the past seventy years.