“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!
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.