From Down-and-Dirty to Trendy: Denver's Best Bars Are Refreshingly Diverse
By Christine Loomis
Denver Local Expert
Denver knows bars. Its first permanent structure was a saloon. By 1910, there were 450 saloons offering nickel beers and free lunches—maybe there was such a thing as free lunch back then. While nickel beers are as extinct as the dinosaurs that once roamed Colorado, the pricier brews we quaff today are also more sophisticated, complex and tastier. Still, Denver does not live on beer alone. The bars we frequent cover a wide range to suit the most varied tastes, beverages and otherwise. Rockers and indie bands discovered Hi-Dive when it opened in 2003, and it’s still one of the best places to grab a drink and listen to cutting-edge music. Terminal Bar, opened summer 2014, anchors the magnificently renovated Union Station and offers locals, visitors and railroad passengers a sweet place to take a load off and raise a glass. Just down 17th street, the Art Deco Cruise Room has been popular with Denverites since it opened in 1933, the day after prohibition was repealed. High up in the Hyatt Regency Colorado Convention Center, Peaks Lounge serves its drinks with one of the best views in the city, and at Punch Bowl Social Denver, patrons can order a new-school cocktail before lacing up their bowling shoes for a little retro fun. And Williams & Graham brings a touch of old-school class and speakeasy mystique to cocktails but with contemporary flair. Cheers!
The Cruise Room Bar
Sit back, sip your old-school cocktail and listen to big bands and the crooners of the 1940s and '50s. That's the vibe at the long popular Cruise Room, which attracts every sort of patron from 20-something hipsters to boomers who may actually remember the Rat Pack. If you're craving a martini, this is the place. And if you're daring, consider ordering the Cruise Room's super popular version, a Red Widow, made with peach vodka, Champagne, St. Germain and jalapeno juice. Because the Cruise Room seats only about 60 guests, it's a good idea to arrive early. Between the Denverites who know it well and out-of-towners staying at the Oxford Hotel, in which the Cruise Room is located, it often fills quickly. ((303) 825-1107)
A neighborhood dive bar and proud of it--that's Candlelight Tavern, which has been serving the South Pearl neighborhood through several generations. Maybe that's why the patrons range from college students to gainfully employed workers to diehard sports fans and longtime locals. It's the kind of place where you can play darts, pool and foosball while enjoying a tapped brew, or catch the latest games on the TV. There's even a jukebox. If you're looking for contemporary or even remotely healthy fare, this is not the place. Candlelight Tavern's menu is all about burgers, onion rings and fries--just what a true dive bar demands. (303.778.8530)
Peaks Lounge sits high above the city in the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center. No mere convention hotel venue, Peaks is popular with locals, too, with good reason. It offers what is arguably the best sunset view in Denver. And if there's a rain storm, it's equally dramatic. Peaks is located near Denver's theater complex, making it ideal for an appetizer and drink before a show or dessert and Champagne after. Patrons can choose from nearly 50 wines by the glass and cocktail aficionados will savor specialty drinks made from locally and regionally sourced liquors and fresh ingredients (Denver is home to several excellent distillers). Appetizers and desserts also include regional and seasonal ingredients so they change with the season, providing plenty of variety. For stunning views and a setting that allows for conversation and companionship, Peaks Lounge is hard to beat. (303-486-4811)
Loud and fun. Those are the definitive words to describe this neighborhood bar and music venue that has drawn crowds since 2003. According to one bartender, "It's a classic dive bar with dark lighting that's perfect for watching fun bands and drinking with your friends in an unpretentious atmosphere." The fun bands tend to be up-and-coming local and national bands and the place is intimate enough that you can often meet the band members and buy all or one of them a drink. Musician-bartenders own Hi-Dive, and thus it appeals to musicians and those in the service industry, especially if they live along South Broadway. (303.733.0230)
Historian's Ale House
The name is a reference to the bar's mission: to bring attention to the history, as well as the natural wonders, of Colorado. Oh, and to Denver's impressive sports teams, too. Historian's Ale House is a bar and restaurant with 40 beers on tap, the majority of them brewed in Colorado. The menu, too, offers foods grown and raised in the Centennial State, including Colorado beef for the burgers and house-made green chili. In other words, there's no mistaking that Historian's is all about Denver and Colorado, right down to the décor that depicts the state's history and growth. Happy hour is definitely a winner here, with such deals as $2.50 craft brews and $4 house wines, plus tasty appetizers. (720.479.8505)
Caveau Wine Bar
Caveau wines pair nicely with the small plates made with local and seasonal ingredients. The bar offers an eclectic wine list, which typically features at least one wine from every major wine-producing region in the world as well as some from regions that aren't well known. Inviting and intimate, Caveau is all about making wine accessible and enjoyable even for wine novices. It offers cozy places for couples to sit and enjoy a romantic evening as well as areas where larger groups of friends and family can gather. This is also a wine bar with a heart. Management supports local refugee assistance programs and has even hired refugees to help give them the chance they need to start over. In addition to wine, Caveau offers a selection of cocktails along with beers and spirits, including several made in Colorado. (303.861.3747)
Punch Bowl Social Denver
The menu can please just about anybody--Hipster Hash, banana-split waffles, street tacos, rice noodle stir fry, daily vegetarian specials, cast-iron burgers, a catfish sandwich, smoked Colorado trout salad and so much more. The hefty drink menu ranges from breakfast drinks to old- and new-school cocktails, plus mixologist approved tea, coffee and milkshake drinks. Canned beer runs the brew gamut from PBR and Rolling Rock to Ska Modus Hoperandi and Oskar Blue's Dale's Pale Ale--and lots in between. There are a few wines as well and, of course, inspired punch variations. But there's a reason social is in the name. This is a place to play with your friends, whether darts, marbles, ping-pong, shuffleboard, vintage arcade games or bowling--b.y.o. socks. (303.765.2695)
Enter through the door of a tiny pie shop and suddenly you're in what's billed as a chef-driven cocktail joint. Like the food in Frank Bonanno's multiple Denver restaurants, the drinks here feature fresh, quality ingredients. Fresh herbs, house-made bitters and infused sodas are expertly crafted into trendy cocktails and paired with such goodies as pork belly pigs-in-a-blanket or loaded chips. And because there is a real pie shop, you can ask the bartender to match your cocktail to the pie of the day for a most unusual dessert combo. Jazz is the music theme here and there's live jazz on Sunday and Monday evenings. Green Russell is cozy; it does not accept groups larger than six, and reservations are not taken for any number so arrive early to ensure seating. (303.893.6505)
Opened summer 2014, Terminal Bar anchors one end of the meticulously renovated Union Station. Set inside the Great Hall but with its own patio area facing Wynkoop Street, Terminal Bar is integrated into the station and its LoDo neighborhood, making it a natural gathering spot for locals, train passengers and guests of the Crawford Hotel, also inside Union Station. If the bar resembles a train ticket office it's because that's exactly what the space once was, a nice historic note for those sipping some of the 30 Colorado beers on tap. There are also cocktails and wines available. As for food, bar patrons can order from Acme Burger & Brat Corporation just across the Great Hall, and have it served at the bar. (720.460.3701)
Williams & Graham
Williams & Graham, with its upmarket speakeasy ambiance and dark interior, is paradise for sophisticated cocktail lovers and those who appreciate fine whiskeys, cognacs, liquors and liqueurs. Whether your preference is for a classic Old Fashioned or a super creative contemporary cocktail, Williams & Graham is your spot. The drink menu is impressive, featuring dozens of cocktail options, cognac and brandy, American whiskies, blended and single-malt Scotch whisky and European and New World gins and vodkas, including small-batch variations crafted in Colorado. The list goes on. The compact food menu leans toward elevated comfort food with such options as roasted bone marrow with griddled bread and bacon jam, vichyssoise, deviled eggs and braised duck pot pie. (303.997.8886)
About Christine Loomis
Christine has written about every aspect of travel, from romance and adventure to family and wellness. She is also lucky to have had three major home states through the years: New York, Colorado and California. Today she divides time between the Denver and San Francisco areas. Christine loves shoe shopping and fishing; walking anywhere; horseback riding (she was on the equestrian team at the University of Oregon); and discovering menus that include small-batch whiskeys, craft beer and lesser-known wines. She would go anywhere in an RV and believes summer is best when it includes a rafting trip.
Read more about Christine Loomis here.