This story appears in our debut, Fifty Grande Magazine #1, the Hometowns issue.
Denver is growing in all directions, with newness everywhere. There are new apartment buildings, new restaurants, new pot shops — new, new, new. And while some stats show that the millennial surge into the Mile High City has abetted to a degree, you can hardly look up without seeing a crane.
Such sprouting certainly has its advantages: cool new shit to do in new places with new people. Its disadvantages are well-documented, too, led by gentrification, absurd housing costs and traffic. However, if you’re just visiting Denver for a carefree weekend of joints and microbrews, local socioeconomic concerns don’t need to make your agenda.
What should be on it, though, is seeing some of the city in the way it used to be.
Travel guides often hinge upon the trendy. And while many hot spots in Denver are well worth a visit, you’d certainly be missing a large part of the town if you just, ya know, ate tapas on a chic rooftop the entire time.
My grandfather, father and I were all born in the same Denver hospital. That hospital, St. Joseph’s, was demolished a few years ago and a new building stands in its place. You’d be wise to head to one of the spots below before they suffer the same fate.
This isn’t meant to be exhaustive: some are institutions, others lesser known. They all remind me of my childhood and a time gone by, but there’s still some history to be made at each one.
My Brother’s Bar
Kerouac was here. That’s the claim to fame of a few remaining renowned Denver watering holes: Jack and pal Neal Cassady (who was raised in town) drank some beers on these very stools. And while that may be the case, the self-proclaimed oldest bar in Denver doesn’t need pre-“On the Road” immortalization to be truly great. It’s jammed with quirks from free popcorn to constantly played classical music to boxes and boxes of Girl Scout Cookies for sale each year. The burgers — and their tray of accoutrements — are solid, the beers are cold, and the bartenders an equal mix of friendly and surly. If there’s a must-see tavern in the Mile High City, this is it.
When you’re in the Queen City of the Plains, you must eat Mexican food. And while there are plenty of venerable veteran choices — El Taco De Mexico, Brewery Bar II and Mexico City among them — nothing breathes history quite like La Fiesta. Founded in 1963, it has watched the surrounding downtown neighborhood completely morph. La Fiesta has not. The neon sign outside welcomes you into a time warp that is only amplified by the early ’70s wedding-hall vibe inside. And because nothing worth having comes easy, La Fiesta is closed on weekends, is only open for lunch during the week, and does its one dinner of the week on Friday. Order something with green chile on it: It’s a Denver thing.
Brown Palace Hotel
Perhaps no other Denver building evokes yesteryear as much as the Brown. It was built in 1892, the Beatles stayed there — all of that crap. And even though it’s run by Marriott now, it’s still an insanely nice place to stay — its atrium’s famed glass-stained ceiling and pianist greeting you as you leave your room. The hotel is brimming with traditions and establishments: an afternoon tea of which Queen Elizabeth would approve, a cigar bar, Sunday champagne brunch, and a nautically themed saloon. If less razzle-dazzle is more your speed, look no further than the Oxford Hotel, which was erected the year before the Brown. Its vermilion Cruise Room bar is made of bucket-list stuff.
You haven’t seen Denver unless you’ve seen Colfax Avenue — a long, strange road lined with dive bars, auto-part stores, boutique shops, chic restaurants, and the state Capitol. And there may be no more unique destination than this one, a steakhouse that resides under a Googie-style ceiling that looks like a big top. Bastien’s specializes in sugar steaks, which are, well, exactly what they sound like: steaks doused in sucrose. If you don’t have much of a sweet tooth, any piece of red meat on the menu will do, as will its list of Rat Pack-era cocktails. Complete your trip with a stop across the street at the PS Lounge, a cash-only dive that features a phenomenal jukebox, stiff pours, a free Alabama Slammer shot with your first order and a single red rose for any lady who dares enter.
Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill
Like My Brother’s Bar, the Beats used to belly up at this joint way back when. And, like that legendary saloon, it’s full of idiosyncrasies itself. There’s a menu as long as a New York City Greek diner’s. At night, it morphs into a piano bar and tipsy patrons sing along with the requested tunes. In the summer, Brown’s roasts pigs on the patio. About that deck: Where Charlie Brown’s separates itself from My Brother’s Bar — or a host of other storied drinking establishments in town — is a nice dose of grittiness. You can smoke (tobacco!) on the patio, and the cavernous interior is connected to the Colburn Hotel, which opened as a luxury retreat in 1928 but now serves as housing for peripatetic residents.
The Buckhorn Exchange
The Buckhorn claims to be Denver’s “original steakhouse” and oldest restaurant, and with “1893” stamped on the menu, you should probably just take their word for it. The walls adorned with stuffed animals make it clear that this place has the meats, even if “steakhouse” may be a bit misleading. The Buckhorn certainly stocks beef, and lots of it, but it really shines in its game meats, Colorado-style. There are the requisite Rocky Mountain oysters alongside elk, bison, and quail. All of those rarities will cost you, though, so more frugal travelers may want to stop in for lunch or just grab a drink at the upstairs bar. And if you’re still hankering for fried testicles (with a better view), head to the Fort, in Morrison, which isn’t as old as the Buckhorn but sure feels that way.
The area surrounding Coors Field is unrecognizable from its pre-’90s epoch — except for this place. There’s no better way to describe it than as a “Mexican jazz dive bar.” Yes, they have serviceable south-of-the-border food, but don’t feel bad about skipping it and going straight for a cold one. The best times to come are before or after a Rockies game or any night after 9 p.m.: That’s when the live jazz or blues gets going. Bring cash; that’s all they take.
The Edgewater may not technically be in Denver (it’s in a hyper-small city called, ahem, Edgewater), but it’s basically across the street. Like its central Denver compatriots, Edgewater’s west side hood — just a skipping stone’s throw from Sloan Lake — now welcomes more first-generation hipsters than immigrants. Brick-oven pizza is on the menu here, and so is a family-yet-barfly-friendly atmosphere. Order a schooner of Coors and take in the scene. It’s one you won’t soon forget.