Take the Plunge: Colorado Digs Dives

Everybody has a story about that sloshy night in a shifty bar, where you started out afraid for your life and ended up making friends with the drunken regulars who’d worn the shape of their butts into their bar stools. In Colorado, dives are the places where the locals unwind over shots of Fernet Branca and cold beers, bitching about work and life, but never about the bar they’re sitting in. As much as we love our high-end cocktail culture, with all the meticulous muddling and locally sourced spirits, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your poison.

So it’s with some trepidation that I share this rundown of Colorado’s fave dives, curated and cultivated via recommendations from buddies, bartenders, and boozehounds.

Mountain Marvels

Venturing beyond Rocky Mountain’s high-end establishments, discover the local color in these hidden gems:

  • Gold Pan Saloon (Breckenridge): Home to Jamo shots and a rich history with the oldest continuous liquor license west of the Mississippi.
  • Moosejaw (Frisco): A former biker bar now famous for its massive Mother Lode burger and cheap beer, embodying an old west saloon vibe.
  • The George (Vail): A cozy basement spot where ski resort employees gather, offering good food and camaraderie.
  • Coyote Café (Beaver Creek): A no-fuss dive where you can down a shot and hit the slopes again in no time.
  • Woody Creek Tavern (Aspen): A kitschy, celebrity-friendly log cabin dive with a hearty menu and charming decor.
  • Victoria Tavern (Salida): A stop on a fall foliage road trip, offering cheap liquor and live music.
  • Bucksnort Saloon (Pine): Possibly the most beautiful dive bar with marked-up dollar bills and scenic outdoor space.
  • Crooked Creek Saloon (Fraser): A Winter Park essential, casual and lively with live music.
  • The Lariat (Grand Lake): A dog-friendly spot with late-night pub fare and frosty drinks.

Denver’s Dives

I’m going to let you in on a secret. And I’m counting on you not to get me in trouble when I share this. If you only go to one dive bar in Denver, go to Star Bar.

From the haphazard décor to the low ceilings and uneven floors, the loud music to the no-frills back patio, it’s everything a dive should be. But it’s also so much more. You can carry in food from any of the nearby restaurants, choose from an unparalleled craft beer selection, or drink distilled spirits that go from the cheapest rotgut vodka to the toppest shelf whiskey. And if you’re lucky, some beloved local booze slinger will be belting out 4 Non Blondes on karaoke as you walk in. It’s sticky, unruly, and authentic. It’s a magical place, so don’t ruin it.

Just about a dozen blocks north of Star Bar is another old-school dive that has quietly held its own amidst the onslaught of RiNo’s farm-to-glass cocktail bars and award-winning restaurants (see page 18 for more about RiNo food and drinks). Embassy Tavern (formerly the much-loved Phil’s Place) is a nondescript brick building on the north side of the neighborhood. But go inside, and… well… it’s just a dive: wood-paneled walls with TVs above the playing card-patterned bar, the cheapest of cheap drinks, mismatched plush furniture, and a truly relaxed vibe. What you’ll also find is some of the friendliest service in the neighborhood.

Sister spots like Horseshoe Lounge in Uptown, The Owl Saloon on Colfax, and longtime fave Crow Bar (say hi to Agata for me) offer up that same low-key charm and affordable drinks.

The strangest dive bar in Denver is all old school. You’ll feel like you stepped into your grandmother’s living room (or your parents’ basement) when you walk into PS Lounge on Colfax. Not only does every woman receive a flower and a sickly sweet signature shot upon arrival, but this cash-only stop is primarily run by female bartenders who show their love for the regular customers with good-natured insults.

Committed to the cause? Do a full-on dive bar crawl on South Broadway, starting with a corn dog and PBR at Sputnik before moseying to Three Kings Tavern for live punk rock and pinball. Catch a hockey game and a schnitzel at Sobo 151, the Czech bar down the street, or play arcade games at Players Pub. The best live music can often be found at the Skylark Lounge, and the diviest dive on the block (by far) is Brown Barrel Tavern, with a barely noticeable doorway that opens into a long, narrow bar where locals quietly drink neat whiskey and cold, cheap beers.

I don’t know if it’s fair to classify The Occidental in LoHi as a dive bar — with the same owners as the nationally recognized speakeasy Williams & Graham — it’s way too clean, the bartenders are way too talented, and the cocktails are way too delicious to really qualify. But the Ox does have a divey, neighborhood feel to it, with ‘80s punk décor, dudes playing Big Buck Hunter against one wall, graffiti in the restrooms, and cheap beers in the cooler.

Downtown, don’t wear expensive shoes into Herb’s Hideout (they’ll stick to the floor), but do settle in for killer jazz. And of course the legendary El Chapultepec has been hosting jazz legends for decades. The Ginn Mill, Giggling Grizzly, Retro Room (scorpion shot, anyone?), and Zanzibar all skew young, but the drinks are ridiculously cheap and they’re all within the same block.

If you’re catching a show at The Fillmore, you might get dragged into Sancho’s Broken Arrow, a Grateful Dead bar that smells of feet and patchouli (and is much-loved for that reason). And of course The OneUp Colfax is right there for all of your vintage arcade game needs. If you’re looking for a cocktail after a night of music at Cervantes, the 715 Club is the place to go — it’s dive-ish with local brews and all the cocktails, and the best part is easy access to big slabs of Famous J’s pizza.

The Outskirts

Just on the fringes of Denver, a healthy number of dive bars serve locals and hikers alike. Golden hosts notable faves like Rock Rest Lounge (try the bison burger) and Ace Hi Tavern, which has a happy hour from 7 to 11. In the morning.

Everybody raves about the melty cheeseburgers at Bud’s Café & Bar down in Sedalia. Those and booze are all they serve. No fries. No sides. No salads. The tiny spot seems to have always been there, a true cowboy bar strewn with memorabilia and western art. It’s a treasure.

Cactus Jack’s Saloon up in Evergreen is all about the live music, as is their neighbor, The Little Bear Saloon. Spend a long evening soaking up whiskey, tunes, and good times.

Finally, this wouldn’t be a proper rundown of Colorado dives without mentioning the fabled Don’s Club Tavern just south of downtown Denver, which has been on the same block since 1947. This treasured gem was remodeled a few years ago, but it still manages to be the first bar any local will mention if you ask about dives in Denver. If you’re in the neighborhood, it’s worth stopping in for a whiskey.

Ready to dive in? Remember to drink lots of water and don’t forget to eat something!

Final Words

Colorado’s dive bars are more than just watering holes; they’re a testament to the state’s rich history, vibrant culture, and the spirit of its people. From the mountain marvels to the heart of Denver, each dive has its own story, character, and charm. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, these dives offer an authentic taste of Colorado’s soul. So, raise a glass, make a toast, and dive deep into the essence of the Centennial State.