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 the Denver metro area, scattered among the cocktail palaces serving $17 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 17 of our staff’s go-to spots.

Editor’s Note: This is a living list of the best dive bars that was last updated on January 28, 2022. Did we miss your favorite? Email us at dining@5280.com

12 Volt Tavern

Don’t let the shiny new front patio (recently added, thanks to Olde Town Arvada’s pandemic-inspired street closures) or the facade’s trendy roll-up windows (which replaced opaque glass blocks in a 2017 face-lift) fool you. This longtime biker bar’s interior still looks like it hasn’t seen the light of day in decades. There’s a standard lineup of draft beer with which to chase 12 Volt’s must-order pickle shot: not liquor followed by a pickle juice back, but actual house-made, pickle-infused vodka from a dispenser behind the bar. Bring friends to play pool, darts, or Big Buck Hunter; quarters to fill the cozy joint with classic rock, punk, or early ’90s grunge tracks from the jukebox; and a tolerance for subpar bathrooms. As is appropriate for a true local dive, bartenders favor their regulars—so suck it up and wait or, better yet, go often enough to become one yourself. 7514 Grandview Ave., Arvada; 303-432-7463

The Berkeley Inn

When it opened in 1934, the Berkeley Inn became one of the 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 city’s fastest growing areas. But despite all of its new neighbors, this legendary bar’s character hasn’t changed. Thanks to owners Andrew Peterson and Sarah Kenney—who purchased the bar from longtime proprietress Lisa Sanchez in August 2021—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 jello shots and $3 pickle shots every day) while unabashedly cursing John Elway’s performance as president of the Denver Broncos. Add in a few pool tables, a new jukebox, toe-tapping live music from local bands every Sunday afternoon (starting this year after football season), 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 nicknames—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 $3.25 happy hour Monday–Friday), 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

The interior of Dive Inn features a full-size motorboat. Photo by Brittany Anas

At only nine 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

[Read 8 Front Range Bars Offering An Element of Escapism]

Doghouse Tavern

On your first visit to this unpretentious pub tucked behind a Goodwill and a Home Depot off South Sheridan Boulevard and Hampden Avenue, you’ll likely get a lingering up-down glance from the regulars if you’re new to the ’hood. But weather the stare and order a $3 domestic draft off the twice-daily happy hour menu (3–7 p.m. and 10 p.m.–2 a.m.) and you’ll be treated like family soon enough. Slide into a booth under the gallery wall of good boys and girls from eras past (dogs, not people), or stake your claim to a picnic table on the adjacent patio. After a pint or two, grab an order of the bar’s Bear Valley Hash—smashed tots smothered with cheddar cheese and green chile—which is perhaps the perfect dive food and one that all your new friends will be glad to share. 3100 S. Sheridan Blvd., 3030-936-1376

Carioca Cafe (Bar Bar)

Order a shot of Beam and a PBR at Carioca Cafe (aka Bar Bar) on Champa Street. Photo by Lindsey B. King

There are bars you go to celebrate momentous occasions, and there are bars where you go to watch the game with your closest friends. There are fancy bars with bespoke cocktails, and there are bars that are so painfully cool you can’t flick a quarter without it hitting a tattooed hipster’s waxed mustache. Carioca is none of those bars. Situated on a desolate stretch of Champa Street near 20th, Carioca, which is also known as Bar Bar, is the kind of place you go when you’ve had a really, really bad day at work. Once you’re seated at the bar, order a shot of Jim Beam and a can of PBR, and hand your cash over to the barkeep—credit cards aren’t accepted—and revel in the sublime diveyness that has been part of Denver’s bar scene for decades. 2060 Champa St., 303-993-2010

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 $0.50 pool tables and equally cheap drinks will. During happy hour (Monday–Friday, 4–7 p.m.), a mug of Coors will set you back $1.50, plus there are $2.50 rotating 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

Highland Tavern

Tucked away from the lights of LoHi’s many hip-and-trendy eateries sits the humble Highland Tavern, which has been slinging comforting suds and grub since 2006. The lengthy bar top and ample table seating invites hipsters and townies alike to come as they are, take a load off, and rediscover the joys of a simple well drink. Pull up knocked-about chairs until the whole gang’s bumping knees and order a basket (or two) of house tots for the table. The crispy, golf-ball-size morsels are fried to golden perfection—and Guy Fieri–approved, which you’ll be reminded of when passing by a poster of the star signed: “Highland Tavern, off da hook and real deal.” Return during daylight hours for the spot’s popular weekend brunch, but there’s no need to dress to impress. 3400 Navajo St., 303-433-1990

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 two nights a week, with national blues bands and popular locals such as the Closers reigning the stage on Fridays and Saturdays. 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
Lion’s Lair is tucked on East Colfax between Race and Vine streets. Photo by Geoff Van Dyke

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
Ladies receive a free rose with their drink purchase at PS Lounge. Photo by Lindsey B. King

Although we’re not typically suckers for gimmicks, we have to admit that the artifices at this more than 40-year-old Colfax mainstay are charming: With the purchase of a drink, ladies receive a free long-stem rose and everyone is treated to a complimentary house shot (it’s a play on an Alabama Slammer, so don’t get too excited). 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. (Note: Don’t call it a dive while you’re there, though; the staff prefers the title “neighborhood bar.”) 3416 E. Colfax Ave., 303-320-1200

The Old Man

As patrons pull into the Old Man’s parking lot, they’re greeted with the sound of cars streaming in and out of the Wal-Mart shopping center next door and the sight of a red-brick-hued roadhouse painted with a giant white arrow pointing to the entrance. When you step through the door, the smell of barbecue wafts through the air and the walls are decked out in kitschy, informal decor: Broomfield youth baseball team swag; crookedly hung beer and liquor signs; and framed time-worn images of men imbibing and booze-happy regulars, many of whom have engraved their names into the wood paneling. Pair a cold brewski of your choice with a set of dry-rubbed smoked wings and a platter of chile-cheese-loaded tots in a tan leather booth; or venture to the sprawling gravel back patio, an area furnished with a fire pit and volleyball courts. No matter where you sit, the scent of ’cue will stick to your clothing, a memento of time spent at the watering hole. 4381 W. 120th Ave. Broomfield, 720-536-4821

Olde Towne Tavern

This neighborhood watering hole has been serving Coors Banquet in Historic Downtown Littleton for more than 15 years. Within easy walking distance of the district’s various restaurants, bars, and a brewery, OTT is open until 2 a.m. daily (a wonder in the suburbs), beckoning imbibers to knock back just one more while jockeying for a TouchTunes position and noshing on late-night grub—which locals know a reason to visit on its own. The bar has 24 varieties of chicken wings, ranging in flavor from honey Sriracha to Peruvian chile lime, so we encourage you to order multiple baskets. But even on a full stomach,  the strong, reasonably priced pours; comfy and conversation-facilitating semi-circle booths; dim lighting; and pool hall in the back blissfully invite patrons to stay as long as they like. 2410 Main St., Littleton, 303-794-4329 

Wings at Olde Town Tavern
Olde Town Tavern has 24 varieties of wings. Photo by Riane Menardi Morrison

[Read A Local’s Guide to Eating and Drinking in Littleton]

Outback Saloon

People watching is the draw at the Outback Saloon, a 32-year-old institution tucked in a nondescript strip mall off 28th Street and Glenwood Drive called Tebo Plaza. With bartenders slinging shots and pints from 8 to 2 a.m., the Outback attracts a diverse crowd, including local overnight shift workers hankering for an early morning buzz and rowdy University of Colorado Boulder students after dark. While the saloon recently added a menu of heartier pub grub (think: burgers and Rocky Mountain oysters), it still serves a classic that will only satisfy patrons who’ve knocked back a few: fresh-baked Tombstone Pizzas. Pop in on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings for karaoke (9 p.m.–1:30 a.m.) to listen to Fireball- and tequila-swigging groups belting the likes of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts”—a mind-numbing yet entertaining soundtrack that’ll inspire anyone to order another round. 3141 28th St., Boulder, ​​303-444-0081

Star Bar

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

The Sundown Saloon

From “dark and dirty” to “don’t mess around and they’ll give you good service,” the Google Reviews of the Sundown Saloon speak volumes for its rough-around-the-edges ambiance, which isn’t for the faint-hearted. While the underground bar—also known as the “Scumdowner” and “Downer”—is situated amid the high-end boutiques of Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, revelers who descend its steps are transported worlds away from the Athleta and Billabong above ground. Cheap pool and beer ($8 PBR pitchers are a best-seller) attract droves of CU Boulder students, who line up to get into the joint on weekend nights. Except for in the adjacent smoking area in the alley, expect your shoes to stick to the floor, the air to smell like disinfectant and stale beer, and to cringe at the disheveled state of the bathrooms.. But what more could you ask for in a dive? 1136 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-449-4987

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 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 (Editor’s note: The Welcome Inn closed in early 2021 and was replaced by River bar and art gallery in September 2021; we apologize for the error.)

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Geoff Van Dyke
Geoff Van Dyke
Geoff Van Dyke is the editorial director of 5280 Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffVanDyke
Jessica LaRusso
Jessica LaRusso
Jessica LaRusso is 5280's managing editor.
Kasey Cordell
Kasey Cordell
Kasey Cordell is the former Editorial Projects Director for 5280.
Lindsey B. King
Lindsey B. King
Lindsey B. King is 5280's editor.
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to be overseeing all of 5280 Magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane is 5280's digital strategy editor and writes food and culture content. Follow her at @riane__eats.
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of 5280.com and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.