In a city searching for authenticity and identity amid the constant barrage of shiny condo buildings springing up out of the skeletons of old hospitals and storefronts, new breweries opening on a seemingly daily basis, and a plethora of hipster restaurants opening in old warehouses, neighborhood bars are comforting reminders of what Denver used to be. Join Sarah McGill in her weekly exploration of the city's neighborhood watering holes.
This week's neighborhood bar adventure took me to William's Tavern, a spot that anyone and everyone in the Uptown neighborhood can call their local watering hole. On a Saturday night around 8 p.m., there's a decent crowd, but the bar's definitely not packed. Minutes after my companion and I have a seat at the bar, our friendly bartender, Kyle Stookey, tells us everything he knows about the place; he's been working there for six years. Stookey shares that upon moving to Denver from Oregon in 2010, the first bar he walked into was William's, and he knew immediately that he wanted to start working there. So that's what he did.
The bar has been known as William's Tavern since the current owners bought it fifteen years ago. Before that it was called Kilgore's, a fact that some of the older regulars remind Stookey about often. Before that, the building was a laundromat — something that becomes evident when you look at the ceiling's duct system, which was clearly designed to be attached to washers and dryers. The wooden bar itself is beautiful, an old-fashioned piece that came from another bar in town that closed down — but no one seems to remember what the place was called.
The small, one-room establishment is filled with a pool table, an assortment of arcade games, little mismatched tables, and church pews for seating; the name of the church, too, has been forgotten, but the pews have been there since the place became William's. Stookey suggests that I talk to a regular who's been around for years, known to everyone as Cowboy Mike. Cowboy Mike, a forty-something black man with a handlebar mustache and a cowboy hat, tells me that people used to pass out on the church benches back in the tavern's early days.
Mike knows everyone in the bar. He points out which patrons live in the neighborhood, tells me how long he's known them, and notes that a few of the regulars have even moved out of the area but still come back to see old friends. He says they get a lot of the same regulars, except after Sunday Beer Busts at the Denver Wrangler. The Wrangler is one of Uptown's neighborhood gay bars, though it's scheduled to move to RiNo later this month. When crowds spill over, Cowboy Mike tells me, he gets a lot of attention from men but has to let his admirers know that he doesn't "play for their team," as he puts it.
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SHOW ME HOW
While I went over to the pool table to get the scoop on the bar from Cowboy Mike, I left my friend at the bar with a baby-faced, twenty-something guy who had briefly and drunkenly introduced himself a few minutes earlier. Upon returning to my seat at the bar, I find out that this gentleman is a Denver native who lives in Englewood, and is also a self-proclaimed freestyle rapper. He demonstrates this by spitting a partially coherent rap about the Mile High City and his dope rhymes while we listen politely. He also buys us a round of Fireball shots and tells us he's been on a bar crawl with friends in the area; his friends no longer seem to be around, however.
Our new bar acquaintance attempts to reel us both in by saying that we are real, not like "those other girls over there." "Those girls over there" are also thirty-something white women, but they happen to be blond. Apparently the fact that my friend and I are brunettes makes us "real." He also says he can tell that we are smart and have goals and ambitions, also unlike "those girls over there," who seem unable to gain any favor in his mind, despite the fact that he does not know them and has never talked to them.
Nonetheless, "those girls over there" seem to be having a great time, along with everyone else in William's. The crowd is mostly made up of twenty- and thirty-something professionals who live in the many high-rise complexes and older apartment buildings that line the streets of Uptown. There's also a big late-night industry crowd that heads over for drinks after shifts at the many restaurants in the area. William's Tavern is also welcoming to the homeless folks who hang out in nearby Benedict Fountain Park, offering individual cigarettes for sale and cheap beers to anyone who'd like to come in for a drink. And on Sundays, there's even a free hangover brunch and $3 Bloody Marys, in case it's been a rough weekend.
According to the staff and regulars who live in Uptown, the neighborhood has gentrified, but not entirely. And that's the way they like it. Even with yet another big apartment building going in a few blocks down, Stookey thinks that the more things change in Uptown, the more they stay the same. The same goes for William's Tavern, and that's part of the beauty of this reliable Denver classic.