From swanky lounges to boozy bars, we round up more than 40 of the city's best places to imbibe. Plus, the nondrinker's journal, bartenders' tips, and debunking the alcohol-altitude myth.
Click here to view our map of the best Denver-area bars
Bars are often confused with restaurants. It's a common mistake that can be avoided by understanding the main difference: Restaurants are destinations; bars are not. The best restaurants, through their food and fame, will draw people from across the city, the state—or sometimes the country—to enjoy their crispy Colorado striped bass filet or slow-braised Highland beef with roasted corn risotto. Bars are local joints. Regardless of whether they're swanky cocktail lounges or dingy hole-in-the-walls, they attract people that live, work, or play nearby to come in for a beer or three. Bars, like parks or libraries, belong to and reflect the surrounding blocks in the best ways. The crowds, the decor, and the staff are familiar, inviting, and inherently of a neighborhood. The best bars are like second homes—with draft beer.
With that in mind, we scoured Denver, Boulder, and the suburbs for neighborhood drinking institutions. (For our methodology, see page 71). Chances are, there's one a stone's throw from your house. Go there. Drink. Watch the game. Meet your neighbors. Be merry. And have another
Wazee Supper Club
1600 15th St., 303-623-9518
You're drinking: Myriad microbrews—and Pabst Blue Ribbon—on draft
You're listening to: The Kinks, AC/DC, Eagles
There are fancy local beers on tap at Wazee. Lots of them, actually, with names like Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter and Wynkoop's B3K Schwarz. Good to know, then, that the most popular beer at the LoDo institution is Pabst Blue Ribbon. And why not? If bars were like sweaters, Wazee would be your warm, fuzzy, stretched-at-the-neck-and-waist standby—a little worn but mostly because you pull the thing on, like, every day. Founded in 1974 and until recently owned by Mayor Hickenlooper, Wazee, with its checkerboard floor and vintage mahogany art deco back bar, serves up a quintessential Denver vibe: big drinkers and businessmen looking for some liquid solace after a long day. Pregame Nuggets and Avs fans are welcome, but so are families looking for a friendly neighborhood joint and a solid pizza. Big groups can reserve the upper loft and have their food and drinks delivered to them via a dumbwaiter made with a 1937 garage-door opener. If you're solo, nab a seat at the bar and people-watch while you sip, or slug, your PBR.—Geoff Van Dyke
The Corner Office
1401 Curtis St., 303-825-6500
You're drinking: A Dirty Shirley (3 Olives Cherry Vodka and lime juice)
You're listening to: Peppy urban jazz
Until last summer, Theater District denizens had no place to get a drink before a show or after 10 hours at work. The Corner Office, resplendent in its retro-mod, funky-yet-sophisticated decor, fills this niche nicely, whether you're hitting it in that workaholic, I'm-going-to-bill-100-hours-this-week kinda way, or just passing time before the curtain rises across the street.—Julie Dugdale
Cruise Room Bar
1600 17th St., 303-628-5400
You're drinking: A shaken martini
You're listening to: Vintage Benny Goodman
The Cruise Room has loads of history—it opened the day after Prohibition ended, was modeled after a bar on the 1930s cruise ship Queen Mary, and feels a bit like a speakeasy—but it's the martinis that keep bringing people back. Ten dollars buys you a shaker with 2.5 glasses worth of perfectly mixed vodka, vermouth, and olive juice. —Natasha Gardner
1808 Blake St., 303-292-2229
You're drinking: Sangria
You're listening to: Live flamenco guitar
Maybe it's the lusty red decor, the strong but sweet sangria, the community table made from 275-year-old Spanish doors, or (on most weeknights) the live, sultry flamenco guitar, but the 9th Door feels like it belongs in Barcelona, not LoDo. —Amanda Faison
1962 Market St., 303-295-9126
You're drinking: Tequila shots and a Budweiser longneck
You're listening to: Denver's best jazz
Having served up the same high-quality live jazz seven nights a week for more than 50 years, the Pec was downtown's coolest joint long before LoDo was hip and Todd Helton started smashing fastballs at high altitude. The experience is intimate: No matter where you're sitting or standing, you're practically on the stage. There's no cover, and while the bartender will let you nurse a drink without complaint, this little-dive-that-could deserves a little of your hard-earned cash, so order a couple Buds and a round of shots. The bathrooms look like they haven't been touched since the bar opened, and the burritos are only for the gastronomically adventurous, but trust us, this only adds to the charm. —NG
Falling Rock Tap House
1919 Blake St., 303-293-8338
You're drinking: Green Flash IPA or Chimay You're listening to: Buddy Guy, Louis Armstrong
Coors and Bud be damned: It's "no crap on tap" in this uncompromising LoDo bar, where artisanal beers are the only frills. The walls are raw brick, the floors bare wood, the booths uncushioned, the service sketchy. For art, there are the 75 tap handles behind the bar. A smudged chalk menu lists yesterday's selection of rare imports and limited-production domestics; for current choices, quiz the bartender, who—if he deems you worthy—will decipher the rare, one-off kegs just tapped. On the wall, a digital countdown ticks off the days till the next Great American Beer Festival, when the Falling Rock hosts the after-party for the beer world's Academy Awards. Think you know Black Butte Porter from Cutthroat Porter? Come back when the digits read straight zeroes to sample the special stuff owner Chris Black stashed away for GABF brewers and beer savants.—Kelly Bastone
2052 Stout St., 303-295-7974
You're drinking: Fuller's London Pride, on draft
You're listening to: The Killers, The Hives, Rage Against the Machine
Though it's only two years old, the British Bulldog oozes history—partly because it feels a bit like an old pub you might happen upon while wandering around London, and partly because the Bulldog's building has been home to one bar or another for more than 100 years. The worn tile floors, high, pressed-tin ceiling, and private booths painted with faded landscapes make for a cozy, welcome respite from the bleak stretch of Stout Street outside. Also welcome: two two-for-one happy hours, between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., and 10 p.m. and midnight, every day; soccer on the teley round the clock; and some killer Pakistani eats. If that weren't enough, the Bulldog opens at 7 on weekend mornings during the English Premiere League soccer season, and serves a true breakfast of champions: eggs, bacon, bangers, fried tomatoes, baked beans, and blood pudding—and, of course, two Imperial pints of your favorite English suds.—GVD
The Walnut Room
3131 Walnut St., 303-292-1700
You're drinking: Blue Moon on tap
You're listening to: Denver's indie band-of-the-moment
In the middle of the no-frills Ballpark neighborhood (across from a junk yard, no less), the two-year-old Walnut Room is fast becoming one of Denver's hippest small music venues. Grab a stool at the wooden bar for a draft beer and pizza before ducking into the back-room performance space for the tunes. The clientele is as varied as the music—biker, yuppie, emo, whatever—so go as you are, but be prepared to rock. —Cheryl Meyers
Nobody's Drunker in Denver
Debunking the alcohol at altitude myth.
In Colorado, as the story goes, booze gets you drunker. Has to do with the high altitude, people-in-the-wise claim to scare tourists and transplants from that fifth Coors Light. Even the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau advises tourists to "go easy on the alcohol in the mountains and in Denver, as its effects will feel stronger here."
However enjoyable it might be to believe this, it's a high-altitude myth.
The misperception started in 1936, when two Columbia University psychologists got drunk in the Andes. Using some old-school breathalyzers, they found that their blood-alcohol levels were higher at 12,200 feet and 17,500 feet than at sea level. A couple studies later, McFarland was ready to declare that, "The alcohol in two or three cocktails would have the physiological action of four or five drinks at altitudes of approximately 10,000 to 12,000 feet." More than 50 years later Denverites boast that two beers at altitude is equal to four at sea level.
However, researchers in the 1980s—primarily at the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aeromedical Institute—dispelled those findings. Using more sophisticated equipment and improved methods (placebo alcohol!), they found no altitude effect on blood-alcohol level and that impaired test subjects did no worse on cognitive tests. Reached by phone, Dr. William Collins—the FAA psychologist—reiterated his findings. "The [physiological] studies are absolutely clear that there is no effect of altitude when you're comparing ground level to 12,000 feet," he says. "The breathalyzer readings are not different; the blood-alcohol levels are not different."
Touché, Dr. Collins. Denver, you heard the doc: Drink up if you'd like, but stop lying about your studly tolerance.—PD