Denver’s best dive bars are fading away, author says

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(Photo: Courtesy of Marc Hughes)
<p>Beer Depot in northwest Denver</p>

Five years ago, self-proclaimed barfly Drew Bixby went on a quest. He visited nearly 100 dive bars in Denver, Boulder, and along Interstate 70 -- often more than once.

The result was a book: “Denver’s Best Dive Bars: Diving and Drinking in the Mile High City,” a survey of revered and seedy watering holes. He highlights his exploits in bars like King’s Court in southwest Denver, The Squire Lounge on East Colfax Avenue, and Herb’s near Coors Field, to name a few.

Yet his work is no longer useful as a handbook for navigating Denver’s diviest joints as it once was. As he predicted back when he was putting the book together, it would one day serve more as a historical reference. He has a heavy heart about many haunts closing, but he's optimistic about the future of bar culture in Denver and beyond.

After running the numbers, he discovered that 29 of the 95 bars -- roughly a third -- are either gone or changed since he wrote the book in 2009.

"Things are better than I thought they would be," Bixby says.

For the book, Bixby created his own rating system for the dives he writes about. Bars are rated on a scale of one to five bottles of beer. Five bottles: “Your mother might be propositioned by a meth head.” The dives are also rated on the chances you’ll run into hipsters. One ironic mustache means you’re not likely to rub elbows with a hipster. Three mustaches: “Known hipster hangout.”

Here are excerpts from four bars mentioned in "Denver's Best Dive Bars."

El Chapultepec, 1962 Market Street, Denver

Sinatra, Bennett, Fitzgerald, Miles Davis. McCartney, Jagger, Bono, Harry Connick Jr. They’ve all played here, so it goes. Even Denver’s favorite beatnik, Jack Kerouac, allegedly slept it off in his car outside but came in to clean up in the bathrooms. Mention El Chapultepec around these parts and the names of famous musicians rumored to have graced the tiny corner stage rain down like ten-ton cinderblocks. Take two tiny steps through the front door and into the narrow, 49-person-capacity front room, however, and your gut reaction is liable to be disbelief with a splash of amazement.

Squire Lounge, 1800 East Colfax Avenue, Denver

The story goes like so: Homeless Guy #1 hobbles/half falls in the front door gripping a wooden cane above his head and screaming about needing the police. Then Homeless Dude #2 tears in after him, demanding his stick back. A scuffle ensues. A bartender hops the bullet-shaped bar and bullies them to the curb, where they continue to have at each other. Someone calls the police. Two beats of a vagabond’s drum later, five of Denver’s finest have their guns drawn and their mad faces on. Yelling and handcuffing breaks out, and then: fire extinguished. Nothing to see here.

Ram Lounge, 5026 East Colfax Avenue, Denver

My friend Neddy absolutely loves this place. He’s an average white guy with limited funds and a healthier-than-average appetite for cheap domestic beer, so 7 a.m. happy hour, Busch on tap, $6.50 pitchers and a leave-no-trace cash-only policy greatly appeal to him. Free shots of peach brandy every time the Broncos score, even if they do taste like perfume, are also enticing, as is a Sunday spread of free food (turkey, rolls, chili, tacos, etc.) And though Neddy loves him some metal and psychedelia, a jukebox full of soul jams and disco hits always puts him in the mood to drink (and occasionally get hit on by 50 year-old black women).

Ace-Hi Tavern, 1216 Washington Avenue, Golden

Despite attempts at one time or another to be historic and touristy like Aspen or competitive and contemporary like Boulder, Golden today remains a small town within commuting distance of Denver -- a college town with twenty-somethings binge-drinking on loan money, an industry town with third-shift workers and a whole mess of Coors Brewing Co. employees in dire need of a 7 a.m. cocktail before it’s time for some shuteye. For better or worse, Golden is these people, and the Ace-Hi serves them without judgment or reservation.

Bixby spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about what makes a bar worthy of the “dive” title and examines the current state of Denver’s dive bar scene. The audio will be available shortly.