The cheap booze.
The sticky floors.
The odd smells.
The grizzled bartender.
By Eric Elkins
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.
Amongst the high-end hotels and award-winning dining establishments of Rocky Mountain resort towns, a short wander can bring you into the realm of what you might call “local color.”
At the Gold Pan Saloon in Breckenridge, the Jamo shots flow freely. Not strictly a dive anymore, with Carboy Winery making its home in the bar and tap vino at the ready, the Gold Pan claims the oldest continuous liquor license west of the Mississippi with its start back in 1879.
Just down the highway in Frisco is one of my childhood faves, the Moosejaw, which was once a rough and rowdy biker bar and is still known for its massive Mother Lode burger and cheap beer. It’s pretty much the closest thing you’ll find to an old west saloon in Summit County.
And in Vail, the ski resort employees congregate down in the family basement that is The George, which means you can buy a brew for your favorite lift operator or ski patrol savior. It’s a cozy place, with low ceilings and puffy furniture and surprisingly good food.
I don’t know if Coyote Café in Beaver Creek truly counts as a dive, considering you can bomb down the mountain, down a shot of tequila at the ‘Yote and be back on the lift before the snow melts off your goggles, but it falls in the sticky, not-fancy, no-fuss dive bar category for sure.
Just west of Aspen, Woody Creek Tavern — all kitschy décor, walls plastered with photos, and log cabin charm — rests comfortably amidst its hoity surroundings. Stop in on a regular night, and you’re likely to find celebrities, locals, and lookers-on drinking cheap beer and enjoying the meaty menu.
If you’re on a fall foliage road trip along Highway 285 and pass through Salida, you won’t want to miss Victoria Tavern. Pretty much the cheapest liquor you’ll find at 7,000 feet above sea level, with a constantly shifting assortment of beers on tap. If you’re lucky, some kick-ass band will be turning up the heat on the tiny stage.
Closer to Denver on that same leaf-peeping tour is the town of Pine, where you’ll find the legendary Bucksnort Saloon. With a massive array of marked-up dollar bills hanging from the ceiling, a photogenic outdoor space, and a back porch perched among the trees, it’s probably the most beautiful dive bar in the country.
Winter Park aficionados know that Crooked Creek Saloon in Fraser is an essential stop once they’ve successfully negotiated the drive over Berthoud Pass. This super-casual restaurant and bar is low-key approachable, hosting live local music. Be sure to order a tasty tower of onion rings.
And even the dogs love The Lariat in Grand Lake, with its late-night pub fare and frosty beverages.
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.
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!
Don’t Ruin It.
Just a few tips to help keep your local dive bar friendly.
Drink like the locals.
Your fancy cocktail order may not be your best bet.
You’re a guest, so be gracious, be patient, and say please.
Read the room.
Loud or quiet, mixing in with the mood will serve you well.
Many dive bars don’t take plastic.