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Inside El Chapultepec. Photo by Lucy Beaugard

10 of Denver’s Best Dive Bars

Prime people watching, cheap drinks, a no-fuss ambiance—no matter what you’re looking for in an unpretentious Mile High City watering hole, these favorite spots are sure to quench your thirst.

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There’s no singular recipe for a great dive bar. It’s not just about cracked pleather booths. Or $2 PBRs. Or sticky floors. Or plainspoken barkeeps. It’s about all of that—and more—in one humble package that calls to us when we need a cold one poured without pretension. In Denver, scattered among the cocktail palaces serving $15 drinks made with 15 ingredients, there are plenty of holes-in-the-wall where you can belly up on a wobbly stool, order a Coors Banquet with no discernable eyeroll from the bartender, and drink until you no longer care that the jukebox only seems to play Johnny Cash. Here, in alphabetical order, are 10 of our staff’s go-to spots.

The Berkeley Inn

In the late 1930s, the Berkeley Inn was one of just a few businesses operating on Tennyson Street in northwest Denver. Today, it can be easy to miss amongst all of the trendy endeavors in one of the fastest gentrifying areas of the city. But despite all of its new neighbors, this legendary bar’s character hasn’t changed. It’s still the type of place where you can find a crew of longtime regulars enjoying too-good-to-be-true specials (see: $1 draft beers every Thursday night) while unabashedly cursing John Elway’s performance as general manager of the Denver Broncos. Add in a few pool tables and toe-tapping live music from local bands every Friday night and you’ve got an institution that’s survived for more than 80 years by being an example of a dive-bar truism: Simplicity is best. 3834 Tennyson St., 303-477-1834

Candlelight Tavern

Call it what you will—the Candlefight and the Mandlelight are two popular sobriquets—but we call it a divey Denver institution. Roughly a half block south of Alameda on Pearl Street in West Wash Park, the Candlelight, owned by Dave and Lisa Bryan since 1997, practically guarantees several things on every visit: people smoking on the sidewalk underneath the vintage neon sign; a young-ish, hard-drinking crowd; and quality ’80s hair metal on the jukebox. Grab a rum-and-Coke or the longneck of your choice (wells and domestic bottles are $3 at happy hour), play a game or two of pool, and then sit back to watch the nightly bacchanal unfurl around you. 383 S. Pearl St., 303-778-9530

Dive Inn

Dive Inn
Dive Inn

At only seven years old, this Broadway bar probably doesn’t have quite enough age on it to qualify as a true dive. Its mint-condition billiards tables, large HD flat-screens, cleverly rendered scuba decor, on-site food service (provided by chicken-finger-centric Cluck Chicken), and reliably clean restrooms also make the designation tenuous. But being a dive bar is mostly about attitude—and Dive Inn has nailed that comfortable-in-its-own-skin thing. Its expansive tequila selection pairs well with the space’s nautical motif, but if that’s not your jam, there are plenty of beers on tap, several in the bottle, and enough brown liquor to help you find your sea legs. If a game is on TV, grab a seat in the main room, especially if you can score a spot in the full-size motorboat (yep, really). If not, cold beer tastes just as good in the back rooms—equipped with pool and ping-pong tables—or on the spacious back patio replete with cornhole. 1380 S. Broadway, 720-242-6157

El Chapultepec

El Chapultepec
El Chapultepec. Photo by Lucy Beaugard

Few places in Denver can boast about their street cred, their places in musical lore, and their longevity in the way the ’Pec can. That said, this legendary jazz and blues venue at the corner of 20th and Market streets isn’t into boasting—it’s (rightfully) too self-assured for that. Since 1933, the roughly 20-barstool, five-booth, linoleum-floored hole-in-the-wall has been the one place in the Mile High City where you know you can find excellent live music (Count Basie, Doc Severinsen, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, and others have played there), a cold brew, a diverse crowd, and a decent plate of tamales to soak up the booze. Jack Kerouac knew it. Frank Sinatra reportedly had wild nights there. Even Bill Clinton did an impromptu gig at the ’Pec one evening back in the early 1990s. Make no mistake though, this place is still a dive—just a really, really cool dive. 1962 Market St., 303-295-9126

Lakeview Lounge

Open at 7 a.m. daily, the Lakeview Lounge caters to those seeking a different sort of sunrise service. It’s a tradition for regulars to gather on the patio to soak up killer views of Sloan’s Lake as the sun slides above the water (particularly on the first and last days of Daylight Savings Time in March and November). Inside, a sparsely stocked vending machine, year-round Christmas lights, and a vintage jukebox await. If the time-worn ambience doesn’t draw you in, surely the wildly cheap drinks will. During happy hour (Monday–Friday, 4–7 p.m. and 11 p.m.–2 a.m.), a mug of Coors will set you back $1.45 and a Guinness or Newcastle costs just $2.60, plus there are $2.50 brown-bag mystery shots all day long. Happy hour runs from 7–10 a.m. on Sunday, so early risers can enjoy the sunrise, bargain-priced beer in hand. 2375 Sheridan Blvd., Edgewater, 303-283-2149

Lincoln’s Roadhouse

You’re unlikely to find any hipsters at this Cajun biker bar. It’s not weird enough or scene-y enough to lure much of the skinny-jeaned, sub-30 set; biker boots and Broncos jerseys are more the norm here. While there’s nothing Michelin about the crawfish étouffée and po’ boys, there’s a heartiness and hominess to the spicy food that keeps the regulars coming back—as do the house-made hot sauces, which are best paired with an unfussy brew. (The taps pour standard Coors products, plus Stella, Fat Tire, and—usually—an IPA.) This quirky little spot books live acts four nights a week, with national blues bands and popular locals such as Michael Hornbuckle reigning the stage Thursday through Saturday. Our favorite night there, though, is Wednesday. That’s when Lincoln’s opens its mic up to aspiring singers, songwriters, and other musicians. Sure, the notes aren’t always perfect, but they are always authentic—and more often than not surprisingly good. Plus, there’s a selection of bourbons (including Laws Whiskey House) and two backroom pool tables to distract you from any temporary dissonance. 1201 South Pearl St., 303-777-3700

Lion’s Lair

Lion's Lair
Inside Lion’s Lair

On a recent late afternoon at Lion’s Lair, with a Bud longneck perched on the bar in front of us, Judge Judy on one TV and Jerry Springer on the other, the barkeep took a phone call. “No, no one fits that description here,” the bartender told whoever was on the other end of the line. (Did it matter who was on the other end of the line, really? No. But did we, for a moment, pause and take note of the folks sitting around us? Why, yes we did.) Adding to the, uh, ambience, the bartender then told a patron who’d ordered a Pabst draft, “So, the first PBR of the day always pours a little foamy.” Indeed it does at Lion’s Lair, a magnificently scummy joint on East Colfax between Race and Vine streets. Later at night, you’ll find indie acts or open mic nights on the tiny stage, but if you’re just there for the drinks, sip away and soak up the small room, replete with a handful of high-top tables, leopard-print curtains, and an instant photo booth with a sign on the outside that reads, “I want you inside me.” 2022 E. Colfax Ave., 303-320-9200

PS Lounge

PS Lounge
Free house shots and roses at PS Lounge

Although we’re not typically suckers for gimmicks, we have to admit that the artifices at this Colfax mainstay are charming: Ladies receive a free long-stem rose; everyone is treated to a complimentary house shot (it’s a play on an Alabama Slammer, so don’t get too excited); and the bar is cash-only. It’s the lesser-manufactured aspects of the PS Lounge, though, that make it most endearing. The hodge-podge interior design—NFL football plaques, photos of patrons from back when you actually got prints printed, Christmas decorations that have probably been there since December 1985—somehow just works. The tunes coming out of the jukebox always seem to set the right mood, whether they’re by the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Prince. The dim lighting, wood paneling, and tall-back leather bar stools make the place feel cozy and inviting. We may not be suckers for much, but we’re fools in love with the PS Lounge’s particular brand of divey-ness. 3416 E. Colfax Ave., 303-320-1200

Star Bar

Star Bar
Inside Star Bar. Photo by Lucy Beaugard

Star Bar’s genius lies in its mastery of the high-low dichotomy, which has evolved over the years—just as the stretch of Larimer Street it sits on has developed. High: an expertly curated selection of aged rums for sipping. Low: acoustical ceiling tiles and bad karaoke. High: a small, eclectic selection of draft microbrews from around the country. Low: restrooms that could use a good scrubbing, even though they smell like disinfectant. Whether you’re there after catching a few innings of the Rockies game or to swing your partner to live rockabilly on the diminutive dance floor, you should sidle up to the bar at this hospitality industry hangout, order a bourbon and a beer, and drink in the highs and lows of its history. 2137 Larimer St., 720-328-2420

Welcome Inn

Local is the flavor, and the ethos, at the Welcome Inn. Perched on a rise above the South Platte River, across the way from the very polished Blue Moon Brewery, the sketchy-looking red facade may be the bar’s best feature because it, ironically, doesn’t communicate “welcome in” at all. The uncongenial exterior, however, belies the friendly, we-take-all-comers vibe within. Mixed among the pool tables and sitting at the roughly 10-stool bar is a clientele that feels true to Denver. In fact, everyone there seems to be enjoying the camaraderie and unpretentiousness, celebrating with a cold Coors Banquet, a michelada, or a strong cocktail mixed up by the no-nonsense bar staff. 3759 Chestnut Place, 303-296-7229

Reporting by Kasey Cordell, Geoff Van Dyke, Patricia Kaowthumrong, Lindsey B. King, and Shane Monaghan

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