“Is it too early for tequila?”, the man with a hangdog expression and large bags under his eyes said as he sat down next to Kelly and I at the end of the bar deep inside the Denver International Airport. His worn appearance wasn’t that surprising. It was only 7am.
“Depends where you’re coming from, I guess.” The bartender replied as he threw a coaster in front of him. “But in my experience, it’s never too early. Here and Vegas are the coolest places right now.”
I was skeptical. Concourse C of D.I.A. was one of the coolest places at the moment? I sipped my coffee, stayed out of the discussion, and mentally prepared myself for the flight ahead to San Francisco and exhibiting at the Alternative Press Expo that weekend.
“I think there’s something wrong with that man.”, Kelly mentioned to me hours later over our drinks as she nodded towards the couple at the far end of the bar at Vesuvio’s (255 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133) in North Beach, San Francisco. A middle age man had been loudly pontificating on a variety of subjects that no one, except his female friend, seemed anywhere interested in. All of his proclamations seemed to be very San Francisco-centric, which was interesting coming from a man who also claimed to be from New Jersey (“… but I’ve lived here for twenty years and never looked back!”)
“How about another drink?” she asked with a pleasant smile that quickly took my eyes off the yahoo in the corner and toward something much more important.
“Berlin is what San Francisco — USED to be!” the man loudly exclaimed starting on yet another topic. I was slightly surprised by that comment since he had been slagging every city on Earth that didn’t start with ‘San F…’. Seems to be a fairly normal perspective for San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a lovely city, but the best city in America?? I can make an argument that…
“I HATE Boston accents! Those are the worst in the world. They are just awful!”
Oh… fuck you. Now it’s on. I was about to give him the standard Boston hello (“Hey buddy! Go fuck yourself! Go Sox!”), deliberately dropping all my ‘r’s and sounding as annoying Matt-Damon-Good-Will-Hunting as possible, when Kelly saw me tense up and quickly intervened.
“How about another drink?” she asked with a pleasant smile that quickly took my eyes off the yahoo in the corner and toward something much more important. She ordered another whiskey for me and an Anchor Steam for herself. While both Kelly and I normally hate overly crowded bars, they are useful for drowning all the assholes out. Unfortunately for us, this afternoon Vesuvio’s was not crowded at all.
Though it can be a bit of a tourist-y, both of us enjoy Vesuvio’s for its character, its Beat/literary history, and its location in North Beach, close some of our favorite places that we frequent during our trips to the city. Sit anywhere in Vesuvio’s two floors and your eyes can’t help but wander over all the fantastic cultural and historical debris scattered over the walls. Old framed photos, art, poems, signatures. All brilliant.
Oddly enough, the complainer at the end of the bar was not the only thing that was annoying. For early October, San Francisco was surprisingly hot, over 90 degrees during a time that we should be pleasantly sliding into autumn.
“How are you enjoying the heat?” a big bearded man with a Spanish-accent seated on our other side asked Kelly before continuing. “I enjoy these Indian Summers, but they are coming later and later to the city. Everyone complains about the heat, and yet no one jumps for joy when it rains. I think you should just enjoy all of life and not worry about it.”
What a perfectly San Francisco-ish comment.
And it was still early, so we consulted our San Francisco booze map (yes, we have a booze map. No digital here. Going old school.)
The Alternative Press Expo did not start till the following morning, so we had all day to wander the city. And it was still early, so we consulted our San Francisco booze map (yes, we have a booze map. No digital here. Going old school.) However, neither of us knew the BART or the bus system very well. From North Beach, we decided to head out towards Toronado, a bar that we haven’t visited in quite some time. We walked through Chinatown, took the BART part of the way, and then walked the rest of the way… which was a bit of a mistake considering the heat and the cruel sun beating down on us. Plus San Francisco has a strange Escher-like way of placing large hills for pedestrians to scale no matter which direction you are walking in. The only thing that kept us trudging through the sweaty heat was the promise of beer at the end of it, when we finally staggered into into Toronado (547 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117) on the Lower Haight. Even in the early afternoon, the bar was crowded since the Giants/Nationals playoff game had just started. We got a pair of beers (a Peak ‘Organic Citrus Saison’ for Kelly and a Rodenbach ‘Grand Cru’ for myself) and found seats by the front window, away from the baseball-enthralled crowd.
The easiest way to describe Toronado is ‘a dive Belgian beer bar’. That’s not an elegant description, but it works. Old beer taps, band stickers, and other bumper stickers cover the walls seeming to keep all the paint up. The restrooms are a riot of graffiti. A massive draught beer menu listing 30 to 40 selections (divided by brewery) hangs from the ceiling at the far end of the place. Even without the playoff game, Toronado is generally always crowded. It’s one of those weird bars that I frequently find myself in (be it Boston, Denver, Philly, etc), that I always catch myself doing a double take, thinking I recognize an old friend among the crowd of patrons. The Toronado has that sort comfortable feeling that you are home and among friends.
…And the beer list is good, real good, and the bartenders know it. So along with navigating the ever-present crowds, you need to always know exactly what you want when bellying up to the bar. If you don’t, you may never get served. Yes, this can be a bit difficult with a Belgian beer bar (so many names… so many styles… would you even like a sour beer… what is an Allagash… ) but the bartender doesn’t have time for any sort of guessing games. Stand out, order your drink, don’t look back, don’t blink, and then get the hell out of the way.
“The punk rockers at Molotov are fucking broken!” is what Kelly and I thought we heard the woman say. A sweaty drunk woman stormed into the bar, cursed to herself, as she brought in a fan from the outside and plugged it in right in front of us. “Sorry, I’m PMSing. Hope the fan doesn’t bother you, but it’s fucking hot.”
“Not at all,” Kelly replied, always polite as her parents have raised her well. “We can use the breeze as well.”
The woman introduced herself as Madison, gesturing towards all the men sitting around the bar, backs to us as they gazed up towards the TVs. “I’m just trying to make everyone happy and trying not to get yelled at by these fucks ‘cause I’ll cry.” Madison was pretty brilliant. Kelly swore later that Madison may have been the best ‘I’m being drunk at you’ people she’s ever met.
I worked my way up to the bar and got us another round (same for Kelly and a Monk’s Flemish for myself) since neither of us wanted to wander out into the heat and march back to North Beach just quite yet. It was so hot that the bartender motioned to several people to keep the main half door of the bar fully open to let in a breeze. Several regulars were mystified. “That never happens.”
A bit later, halfway through our second beer, Steve the bartender walked and sat down next to us. He was on his break and we were in the quietest corner, away from the playoff game. After chatting and mentioning that we were visiting from Colorado, Steve looked a bit wistful. “Yeah, I’ve been bartending here for a long time. I remember a time that people use to tip me in weed, but those days are gone.”
“Yeah, we normally enjoy coming to San Francisco, but why is it so damn hot in October?”
“Yeah, this is odd,” Steve nodded, “Quite hot. No wind. I’ve been here long enough to know that this is earthquake weather.”
… what? Earthquake weather? Kelly and I just looked at him.
“But, I wouldn’t worry about it. Hardly ever happens.”
After finishing our drinks and saying goodbye to Steve, Kelly and I headed back into the heat. We were able to catch a bus that dropped us much closer to North Beach and crashed at our hotel (Hotel Boheme, 444 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133) for a while, before heading back out to meet with some new folks. We were meeting them at Spec’s (or Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, 12 Williams Place, San Francisco, CA 94133) about some possible comic work.
Spec’s is one of our favorite places in San Francisco – it’s dark and cool (which we desperately needed after the heat of the day.) The clientele is generally older, scruffier and more bohemian than other places in the area, and the walls are covered with random weird oddities and artifacts. Part bar, part museum, part artistic community, part your crazy bohemian uncle’s back room. This is a beer and shot bar that I find hard to picture in any other city than San Francisco. It’s Vesuvio’s younger brother (or sister) that never got as famous, yet far more authentic. This is the ‘deep cut.’ … And, you have to be in the know to find the place – it’s quietly marked door in an alcove right off Columbus can easily be missed next to the more garish signs and doorways of the rest of the North Beach area. And they pour a nice Guinness.
Just as I was ordering our first round, Jami and Randy walked in. As we had never met before, they told us that they were just across the street at Vesuvio, saw Kelly and I walking down the street through the window. “That has to be them. Such a hip cool couple. If they turn into Specs, that has to be them!” This nice comment was followed by a couple drinks as we discussed the project. After a little while, Jami and Randy asked if we’d like to see the Beat Museum around the corner. They wanted to talk to their friend, Jerry, who just happened to be the curator.
So, off to the Beat Museum (540 Broadway St, San Francisco, CA 94133). Jerry gave all of us a private tour, pointing out and telling interesting bits about some of the items. Kelly had that bright glow in her eyes. She was enraptured.
All of us, including Jerry, then walked up the street for drinks and dinner at Naked Lunch (504 Broadway St, San Francisco, CA 94133). Nice place. Great mural. We talked about the Beats, some of their history, watched people pass down Broadway, and had a couple drinks (‘Old Fashioned’ and a ‘Jerry B’: bacon bourbon with cinnamon sweet tea. However… couldn’t really taste the bacon… or the bourbon).
Afterwards, Jerry headed back to the museum while the rest of us wandered, looking for a quiet place for a nightcap. Randy pointed out various places, sites, and cool hidden corners as we walked through North Beach. It was a Friday night and the whole area was jumping. People crowded the streets, heading to bars, clubs, restaurants, or cafes. I loved it as it seemed a beautiful mix of old neighborhood with new life, though I could have done without some of the excited screeching.
We settled on an Irish pub called Maggie McGarry’s (1353 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133) simply because it didn’t seem very crowded and Jami wanted to check out the mural in the back room, said to be full of some of the North Beach locals to see if she recognized any. Though there were few people in the bar, the stereo was still turned up quite loud with an 80’s New Wave mix that a few young women at the end of the bar shouted along with desperate to be heard over the music.
We ordered a couple Guinnesses and went to check out the mural. Sure, there seemed to be a couple of locals painted in, but most of the mural was of musicians (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Miles Davis, Bono… ) none of whom I think were ever North Beach regulars. The best/worst thing I saw as we left was a small printed out sign tacked to the wall: “For your safety – Please do not stand on tables or chairs.” That left me thinking… “So, this is the kind of bar that you have to warn the clientele about that? Those kind of people are your regulars?”….
We quickly finished our pints and left. Back at Hotel Boheme… a bottle of sherry was placed out in the hotel’s common area for guests to enjoy in the evening. Classy.
“I think we should drink through Union Station today,” Kelly mentioned to me that morning over toast.
I nodded in agreement. It was an excellent idea since the historic Denver station and landmark had recently reopened. Union Station has been serving the city since 1881. Of course, it’s also been on the decline for many years as newer and faster methods of transportation became more readily available. With the renovation of the Lower Downtown area over the last 20 years (and the current weed boom also certainly helps), though, Union Station has gotten a facelift and a new lease as it recently reopened as a hotel, a few restaurants and bars, a small shopping area, and the continuation of Amtrak train service (if you still find yourself interested in that).
Of course, Kelly and I were more interested in the beer and cocktail service. So off we went…
First Stop: Kitchen Next Door (1701 Wynkoop St, Denver, CO 80202)
Our first stop was a seat at the bar of the ‘Kitchen Next Door’, an overly cute name for the restaurant at the western end of the Union Station complex. Just at a glance, the place seemed to be part diner, part high end restaurant. There was a small patio outside and long community tables inside for sharing. A blackboard on the far wall proclaimed the establishment a ‘community pub!’, so, instead of happy hour, there was ‘community hour’. Nice touch, I guess. Kelly was more impressed with the old Union Station Restaurant neon sign that was lit up behind the bar, giving the place a nice touch of historic class.
It was still early, so we ordered a couple beers and lunch. As it was right in front of us, my eyes were drawn to the series of blank taps along the bar. Obviously for beer, but how did the bartender know which was which?
“Oh, it’s pretty easy,” the bartender mentioned to me. “The last couple on the far left are our beers, then the ones on the right are for wine and cocktails.”
“Wait… you have cocktails on tap?” I asked, slightly surprised, feeling a worrisome itching of trepidation starting down the back of my neck.
“Sure. All the house cocktails are pre-mixed to save time. We have a Margarita, a Moscow Mule, A Manhattan, and a Negroni. All on tap.”
Kelly blinked at me, and I then made a mental note to avoid the house cocktails in the future. Sure, it may save time, but where was the love and care? The craftsmanship? Such is the easy way of the world. Kelly and I finished our lunch and ordered another beer.
Second Stop: The Terminal Bar (1701 Wynkoop St, Denver, CO 80202)
Our next stop was the Terminal Bar in the main hall of the renovated Union Station. One of the glorious things about being a bar in a train station is that you are almost like a hotel bar: the clientele is transitory and always different, and quickly moving through. You sit down, have a drink, meet people, swap stories, and then move on, rarely meeting again.
Now, I have been told many times by Denver locals (often with a wistful gleam in their eyes) of the great old Terminal Bar that had been about a block away from the station, which had once served the railroad workers back when Lower Downtown was a much different and sketchier place. That location is now a sushi/oyster restaurant, which only serves as an example on how much the area has changed. It was only fitting, however, that (with the new revamped Union Station) the main bar in the complex would take the old Terminal Bar name.
Although I never knew the old Terminal Bar, I can safely say that this new bar is nothing like the old one. The place is pretty classy, with dark wood, tile, and an overwhelming ‘railroad’ theme (for obvious reasons). I’m sure that some of the old workers, derelicts, and passersby from the old Terminal Bar would not even be able to afford a drink in this place. The décor did cause Kelly and me a few raised eyebrows – we’re not slaves to the past and are always in the mood for a good cocktail lounge – it was just slightly head-scratching that they took that name.
Of course, we didn’t do that (what’s the point of going to a bar if you aren’t going to drink in the bar?)…
Once inside, there was a small television at either end of the bar, which was nice and discreet since nothing ruins a bar faster than people gaping at the images on the TV and ignoring each other. However, both tvs that afternoon were turned to NASCAR (so knock a couple points off for that.) The one other thing that caught our eye was how the Terminal Bar used their old ticket window. The main area of the bar is not that large, so you are welcome to take your drinks and enjoy them in the main hall of the station. So, the old ticket window is used pretty much as a ‘To Go’ window. Customers line up, order their drinks, and move on through the station after receiving them.
Of course, we didn’t do that (what’s the point of going to a bar if you aren’t going to drink in the bar?) and were able to find a couple seats at the far end of the bar. Flipping through the menu, there were lists of beers, beer cocktails, low alcohol cocktails, and your standard cocktail fare. There were up to five people working behind the bar, all seemed franticly busy… busier than it seemed necessary for a half empty bar with plenty of room at the tables. It was slightly difficult to get anyone’s attention to place our first round of drinks. Kelly got a Telluride ‘Face Down Brown’ while I went for their ‘Timeless’ Old Fashioned (as I have always said that an Old Fashioned is an excellent test of the quality of a bar). This house version of the cocktail was done pretty well, but I was confused on what made it ‘Timeless’ compared to the original cocktail. It seemed in the end that the bartender simply didn’t muddle anything and added a lemon instead of an orange.
After a little while (and on our second round as I downshifted to Crazy Mountain ‘Horseshoes & Handgrenades’, an American ESB – I’ll admit that I was at first curious about the name, but it was a very good pint), the bar slowly filled up with a lot of people in Rockies jerseys. Must have been game day. The place was also filling up with several wedding and birthday parties and started feeling uncomfortably crowded. So after finishing up our second round, we decided to move on. We had planned on hitting the Cooper Lounge next, but were told that it did not open for another hour or two, so we left Union Station for the moment and find our next destination out in Lower Downtown.
After visiting it… it’s more like PeeWee’s Playhouse… with booze.
Third Stop: Squeaky Bean (1500 Wynkoop St #101, Denver, CO 80202)
When I first heard about Squeaky Bean some time ago, I had thought it was some sort of new coffeehouse. After visiting it… it’s more like PeeWee’s Playhouse… with booze. I don’t mean that as any sort of slight, since the cocktails have always been excellent (and have them listed as one of the top cocktail lounges in the city). It’s more about the pop culture references around the lounge (there were small Farah Fawcett and Robin Williams shrines at either end of the bar) and in some of the house cocktail names (which change regularly).
Most times we’ve tried to visit Squeaky Bean in the past, the place was always way too crowded. However, as it was still quite early (and the bar had recently opened for the day), we were able to easily get in and find a pair of seats at the bar. Kelly went for a Bull & Bush ‘Allgood Amber’, while I had one of their house cocktails: A Tombstone (Old Grandad bourbon 114, Lime, Angostura bitters, & ginger beer.) Looking around, aside from the open kitchen, what caught my eye were the two huge flatscreen tvs hanging on either side of the bar. Sure they were turned to sports (aren’t they all?), but were gratefully muted and oddly in black and white, so neither were too distracting which allowed us to enjoy the music over the stereo (a fantastic mix of Bowie and Velvet Underground).
Kelly was busy talking to the bartenders about the film ‘Romancing the Stone’ as I looked over the current house cocktail menu. My PeeWee’s Playhouse analogy was even more apt as there were six drinks named after aspects of the show on the menu, among other pop-culture references. A friend of ours ordered the ‘Tom Servo’, which was made with some dry ice that left the glass smoking. It was a tequila drink that was made so cold, it left all the ingredients gelatinized, almost like a booze gelato. For my second drink, I went with the ‘Nanu Nanu Fizz’: a very good gin drink with lemon, sugar, egg whites, and soda that tasted pretty much like a dessert cocktail. Kellyy also felt that a snack was in order, and opted for the Charcuterie Board – an ever-changing combination of local cheeses and meats, served with warm slices of chewy rich bread, housemade mustards and jams, and small perfect pickles. A good choice, and one we will go back for.
After our second round, we left the Squeaky Bean and crawled back to Union Station to visit the elusive Cooper Lounge.
Fourth Stop: The Cooper Lounge (1701 Wynkoop St, Denver, CO 80202)
We had never been to the Cooper, but had been told that it was a ‘must visit’ on the second floor of Union Station. Kelly and I wandered the hall, knowing it was upstairs and wondering how the hell we got there. The elevators would not work unless you had a hotel key, while all the stairwells were roped off. After several minutes of confused gazing around the hall, we asked the concierge (located at a small table in the back left of the hall by the Amtrak ticket window) about how the hell we find the Cooper Lounge.
“Oh.” the concierge replied smiling. “You have to talk to me. I have to check if there is room in the lounge first, then I’ll let you up.” Ah… the concierge is the door man. She looked over her map of the lounge, filled with wipe away blue marker notes, and let us know that while the bar was currently full; we could easily have couch seating instead. After agreeing, the concierge called up to the lounge, let them know we would be coming up in a moment, and directed us past the roped off stairwell and up into the bar.
At first, this seemed a hell of a lot of hoops to jump through just to get a cocktail at what seemed like a hidden bar. The Cooper Lounge was actually situated right above the Terminal Bar, allowing an incredible view down over the entire hall. The Lounge was hidden in plain sight as not many people wandering through the station, busy about their daily lives, ever think about looking up to see who is looking down upon them.
Light jazz played over the speakers. A gentleman with a wheeled oyster cart stood under one of the great windows that streamed light through the lounge, working at shucking through a large pile of bivalves. The waitress handed us iPad menus as we sit down, commenting that oysters would be available if we’d like some. Kelly and I both scrolled through the digital menu. I was quickly impressed with their whiskey and scotch collection: single malt, blended, American, Irish, Japanese, and the list just went on. Kelly settled on a Guinness while I went with the Coloradier (Breckenridge Bourbon, bitters, sweet vermouth, and an orange twist) that I had seen earlier on the Terminal Bar menu below. Both bars share a lot of the same menu as well as staff, though the cocktail seemed slightly more expensive here. However that seemed only natural as you are paying for the incredible view.
That seemed pretty incredible … but hey… science!
Our cocktails arrived soon after upon silver trays with a small dish of nuts and pecans. Yep, this was pretty classy, alright, and that left us thinking that this place was going to give the close by Cruise Room a run for the money. We looked over the hall at the insanely high vaulted ceilings, wondering if anyone was currently looking down upon us. The acoustics were amazing – we could easily have a conversation without the intense noise that you would have expected from such a vaulted ceiling in such a big space. A friend mentioned that it was due to some weird new material the architects placed under the plaster. That seemed pretty incredible … but hey… science!
Fifth Stop: Green Russell/Russell Smokehouse (1422 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80202)
After a fantastic time at the Cooper Lounge, we left Union Station and started back up the 16th Mall towards Capitol Hill. After some discussion, we decided to stop for a cocktail at the Green Russell first. The bar was one of the first speakeasies (i.e.: hidden) bars that popped up in Denver as the craze took off several years ago. Back then, the Green Russell was a decent bar with great cocktails. However, they played up the speakeasy theme to an almost Disney level of kitsch. Still, always a nice time going there until the last few times we’ve visited. The classy (though faux) atmosphere had given way to patrons in muscle shirts and Broncos jerseys. There is nothing to remove you from a nice time out on the town then a meathead in a cap and Rockies jersey yelling about how his team is doing. That exemplified our last several visits to the Green Russell: a once classy bar that had fallen victim to the club-going LoDo crowd.
But on this day, we were willing to give them another chance. However this turned out was not the time for that since, as we walked up to the host stand, we were told that there was no room at that bar. The host pleasantly commented that there was plenty of room at the Russell Smokehouse in the room next door. Now, the Smokehouse was pretty much opened to serve the clientele over spill from the Green Russell. They share the same menu, but as the Russell tries to be classy, the Smokehouse tries to be down home neighborhood bbq place… with expensive cocktails. It’s a conflict that I have always tried to resolve in my head with little success.
Kelly and I sat down, ordered a beer and an Old Fashioned. Once finished, we left. Looking back at my notes on this experience, the only thing I wrote about the Russell Smokehouse that evening was ‘meh.’
“Remember that bad Swayze film ‘Roadhouse’?” Kelly said to me. “I think we just walked into it.”
Sixth Stop: Dolce Vida (1201 Cherokee St, Denver, CO 80204)
When Kelly and I decide to spend a day on the town, that is exactly what we do. Russell Smokehouse had left a bad taste in our mouths that we didn’t want to end the day with. So, after a shuttle ride up the 16th Street Mall, we walked over to our sixth stop for the day: Dolce Vida. Now, this is a bar that neither of us have ever been to, and as a neighborhood sports bar (leaning more on ‘sports’), it is not normally a place we would even walk into. However, our buddy bartends there on Saturday nights, we had promised to come visit him in the past, and it seemed like an excellent time to finally take him up on it.
“Remember that bad Swayze film ‘Roadhouse’?” Kelly said to me. “I think we just walked into it.”
“Seems like an odd mix with a name like ‘Dolce Vida’.” I replied. “I was kind of expecting a neighborhood Italian bar.”
That is exactly what it wasn’t. Dolce Vida is a neighborhood sports bar that is a block or two away from the city jail and a large collection of bail bond businesses as well. While not exactly crowded on a Saturday night, there was a mixture of old neighborhood guys huddled over their beers at the bar and a chorus of young women out on the town, laughing a bit too loudly over their margaritas. The whole place is very industrial looking: steel and wood. Large wooden beer barrels are scattered all over the area for some obscure reason. TVs and neon beer lights were placed all over the walls and hanging from ceilings that sharpened the need for a cocktail just to dull the overwhelming visual information we were getting.
Bridger (our buddy and bartender) set us up for drinks. Kelly wandered out onto the back patio to smoke and poke at one of the huge bricked Jenga sets that sat on one of the upturned barrels. It had been years (and while the bar was not so busy), so Bridger and I started playing a couple games of Joust on the video machine in one of the corners of the bar. Happy to say that I’m still not very good at the game.
After a couple more rounds and a full day, Kelly and I were ready for the long walk home.