It was early evening when Kelly and I walked up the large hill of Tejon Street, through the LoHi neighborhood, and towards the small bookstore that stands as the entrance to Williams & Graham. As a couple always looking around for fine cocktails, we have been to Williams & Graham many times. However this was the first time we ever encountered a queue of about ten people, all garishly attired in Hawaiian shirts (the best kind), who stood in front of the bookstore entrance. I generally hate standing in lines for just about anything (damn, my impatience!), but thankfully the wait was not that long. Several new tiki torches flanked the bookstore door to let people know that this was not your standard night at Williams & Graham. No, this was ‘Take Over Night.’ For one evening only, Williams & Graham was now Smuggler’s Cove (of San Francisco.)
Over the last several years, Williams & Graham has become one of our favorite bars in Denver. From the cunningly disguised bookstore entrance, filled with a variety of alcohol-themed books and a framed portrait of Esquire’s booze writer David Wondrich (full disclosure: I did the portrait of Mr Wondrich that hangs in the foyer – an old commission from a past issue of Modern Drunkard Magazine), the swinging bookcase doorway that allows you in the bar proper, to the excellent craft cocktails served; I have always enjoy my time here. Sean Kenyon has made his own small corner of the rapidly gentrifying LoHi neighborhood. Not only is this a great bar, but also an incredible tribute to his father and grandfather (both bartenders).
The interior of Williams & Graham is dimly lit with an impressive bar that reminds you of something out of the Prohibition-era… and that’s the point. Unlike many other speakeasy bars around the country, Sean knows that less is more. This is a place to get great cocktails, not a ‘booze theme park’ where you spend more time looking at the scenery around you then focusing on the glass in front of you.
However this particular night belonged to Smuggler’s Cove, who took over Williams & Graham and brought out the tikis. Kelly and I are both quite familiar with the San Francisco bar. Several years ago, friends of ours in that city lead us through the dark non-descript doorway on Gough Street into the colorful lights and drinks of the Cove. While small (a relator may describe the bar as ‘cozy’) and generally crowded, Smuggler’s Cove has become a must stop for us every visit back to SF (they hate it when you call it that) and also considered (by us, included) to be one of the best tiki bars in the country.
“There are certainly a lot of tikis,” Kelly said as we passed a massive wooden head greeting us as the bookshelf swung open. Over in the corner, a large group from the Fraternal Order of Moai (who I recognized a few from past events) were decked in Hawaiian shirts as well as a few fezzes and set up in one of the booths. Sean K motioned us towards the few seats thankfully vacant at the bar where our buddy, Eric, was already waiting. Kelly and I have mentioned many times about our love of bar seating for getting the feel of a place, so we were thankful to get a seat there, as all the booths were already filled up. Around us, there were even more Hawaiian garbed patrons (as was I), which was fully apt as the bar itself had tikis and leis scattered around it. Even the bartenders came out from San Francisco with the tikis. Smuggler’s Cove’s owner, Martin Cate, came over and placed a garland around Kelly’s neck as I looked over to the most important item: that night’s cocktail list. It was a small menu of about six drinks. Kelly, of course, asked the bartender in a low voice if she could actually get a beer (they happily obliged, passing over a Great Divide Hoss Rye Lager – a favorite). I ordered a ‘Dead Reckoning’, which the menu tells me was created by Martin C in 2009. Eric decided on the more classic ‘Saturn’ (‘Popp’ Galsini, 1967).
Once we had our cocktails, a cheer went up behind us as Vivienne VaVoom swayed out in full tiki dress carrying a volcano bowl toward one of the tables. Martin C came up behind her, ringing a small gong as the drink flamed up. He shook cinnamon over the flame, causing the flames to spark and fly even higher to the crowd’s delight.
“Well, that’s impressive,” Eric said as he finished his drink.
“Wonderful! She looks like Chiquita Banana! You know! With the fruit hat!” Kelly enthused.
“I think you mean ‘Carmen Miranda’, right?” Eric said over his glass.
“You say ‘Miranda’, I say ‘Banana’,” she replied, sagely sipping her beer, and mumbling, “Fruit hat.”
I continued to study the cocktail menu, planning my next avenue of attack.
I did enjoy the ‘Dead Reckoning’, but wanted to get the full scope of the menu. After some time, I decided on the classic ‘Pupule’ (Don the Beachcomber, 1930s… very good.) Eric ordered another ‘Dead Reckoning’ for himself, while Kelly ordered another beer (she is consistent). I keep thinking that Frank R from Modern Drunkard should be here to witness all of this, but when I spoke to him a day or two before letting him know about the event, he told me that he was being a responsible father that night. I decided to reward him for his good diligent work with texted photos of the bar, the tikis, and the cocktails he was missing.
“God Dammit!!! That looks incredible!” replied the text in return a few minutes later. In response, he also started texting me photos of the current cocktail he was enjoying: an Evan Williams and Pepsi (with real limes!) that he was serving up in his kitchen.
“Well… That’s a craft cocktail in some places in Mississippi,” our bartender, Marcovaldo Dionysos (yes… his real name) commented.
While Kelly continued to stick to beer (she has her reasons), we decided to skip over the Volcano Bowl. Eric and I ordered the final two cocktails on the menu that we hadn’t tried as yet: A ‘Tradewinds’ (Jamaican Classic from the 70s) for me and the unpronounceable ‘Lauwiliwilinukunuku’oi’oi (The bartender, Marco’s, custom drink, 2010) for Eric. We got a bit of schadenfreude delight watching people from around the bar try to order that one. It got to the point where people just mentioned the “La La La drink…” while waving their hands.
“My booze has an odd drink to it,” I mention half way through my Tradewinds. The warm fuzzy feeling was settling quite comfortably at the back of my skull.
“So, it has an odd taste?” Kelly laughs. Smirking, I nod in reply. “I think it’s the orange.” Each of my three cocktails were fantastic, but I leaned towards the’ Pupule’ as my favorite. Eric settled on the ‘Dead Reckoning’ as his top cocktail.
“The place is filling up pretty quickly,” Eric mentioned as he looked around. “We may want to think about wrapping this up.”
We nodded in agreement. While it’s a great bar, Williams & Graham is no where near where any of us live, and there’s that hill down Tejon that we have to scale back down. So, we settled up and said our good-byes to Williams & Graham. It was a brief farewell as we will be back again soon.
“Hey Karl and Kelly!! What are you up too?” came a voice from a high balcony in one of the newer apartment buildings as we walked up 16th Street in recently renovated LoHi neighborhood. While still certainly odd to get yelled at while walking up a street, it took us both a moment to recognize our friends waving at us high above.
“Heading to Linger for a drink. Wanna come?”, I yelled back up. They again waved, saying they had plenty of beer at their place. So we continued on, moving further up the hill, past the massive Coney Island-inspired cream can of Little Man Ice Cream, and up to the former funeral home – now restaurant, Linger.
“It certainly is bright.” I said as we came up the staircase and high on the roof deck of Linger in the early evening. This was the part that Kelly wanted to see and the real reason we came here. Though Linger has been open for several years, neither of us have ever been here before, but have heard about the deck and view from many others. Growing up in Denver, Kelly was quite familiar with the large iconic ‘Olinger’ sign always looming over Interstate 25. Once the historic mortuary closed and turned into a restaurant in 2011… which still seems like an odd idea to me… thankfully the iconic sign was kept, though only ‘O’ is no longer lit up at night, leaving it as ‘linger’ (the smaller ‘mortuaries’ is also now lit up as ‘eatuaries.’)
Even before we looked around for the rooftop bar, we quickly realized that the crowd up on the deck was not really our normal crowd. There was a vibe around us of Saturday nights in LoDo, Coors Lights and Margaritas, and club kids having their first drink. We also noticed, after some frantic searching, there there was no bar on the roof deck either. A gutted RV, kitted out with bottles and taps, was sitting in the center and served as a self-service bar. Neat idea, but getting beers from the window of the RV was way to similar to ordering from a food truck.
I walked over and got Kelly a Dry Dock Apricot Blonde Beer and a Hall Farmhouse Red Amber Ale for myself. Once we had our drinks, we moved to the ‘self service’ area underneath the massive Olinger sign. Both of us would have preferred to sit at a bar, but here there was no other option.
“I think we got in here right on time”, I said as I motioning with my beer towards the growing crowd coming up the staircase and looking around confused, searching for either friends or a seat. Kelly didn’t notice as her eyes were closed, enjoying the breeze and cool evening air. I looked over towards the city. As I mentioned, many have told us that the view from Linger’s roof was one of the best in the city. I’m sure that was once the case. Now however, with the growing real estate in the rapidly gentrifying LoHi (stands for Lower Highlands) neighborhood, several new apartment buildings (including one being built right then next to the restaurant) blocked much of what should have been an otherwise brilliant view of Denver. So instead of looking at a partially completed sky rise, I looked down towards at Tejon & 16th Street and the growing queue around the massive milk can building of Little Man Ice Cream.
We were not impressed. The RV was a neat idea, but I missed sitting at a bar. The piped in music was kind of middle-of-the-road salsa dance mix that I found safe and inoffensive. There was also a greasy smell coming off the small kitchen, behind the RV and towards the back of the roof, that reminded me way too much of the Boardwalk and my youth on the Jersey shore. Kelly and I finished our beers and briefly thought about getting another, but decided against it. We saw the historic Olinger sign, checked out the view, and were done. We were a bit dissapointed. No need to come back. Besides, Williams and Graham is right up the street.
However, sitting up on the roof, I really missed the feel of a bar. That is where you really get a good judge of a place.
However, sitting up on the roof, I really missed the feel of a bar. That is where you really get a good judge of a place. As we defended the stairs, I suggested we give Linger another chance and have one more drink at Linger’s actual bar. So, we moved downstairs, through the main dining area, and up a small staircase to the cocktail lounge. I would have called it ‘the bar’, but no, it was a cocktail lounge and I was delighted. Aside from the series of thrown open windows that gave a much better view of the city (in my opinion), the lounge was a dark 70’s inspired bar. There were mirrors, a sort of tacky wallpaper, velvet art, Christmas lights under the bar top that gave a sort of classy, yet seedy kind of vibe. I loved it.
We sat down and Kelly ordered another Apricot Beer, but I wanted a cocktail. It’s easy to pull on a tap, but how about mixing a drink? After a quick scan of the menu, I decided on the ‘French Quarter’ (cognac, rye, green chartreuse, lillet rose, bitters.) However, it was hard to pin down on who was our actual bartender as it seemed there was a rotating collective behind the bar. The several times we had a question about the menu, a different bartender would answer it. So, who was our bartender? Apparently, all of them.
Aside from that, we enjoyed the bar a hell of a lot better than the roof deck. Better drinks, better music, better setting, and a much better view… though there was still that strong wafting smell of marajuana (or ‘Colorado Cigarettes’ as we’ve taken to calling them) that seems to be ever present in Denver nowadays. Also, the mortuary restaurant theme was more present here. I enjoyed that they went a bit classier rather then out of some sad goth’s wet dream. Sure, there were some odd pictures and paintings around the place.. a skull here, a casket shaped tray there… a collection of billiard balls over there (yeah, I didn’t get that one either), but the bar tables were far more subtler as sections of rollers for moving coffins around under glass. I wondered if people even knew what they were.
“What do you think?” Kelly asked. “Should we come back?”
“I don’t know.” I replied. “But it is growing on me.”
“I’ve only had a few sips and I’m already feeling it”, Kelly said as took another sip of her Belgium Saison. “This is delightful.”
I set my Old Fashioned back upon the dark wood bar of Colt & Gray. It was still early. The bar had only opened 20 or so minutes before and was slowly filling up with people finally getting off work. The glass was slightly sticky in my hand from the sugar of the cocktail. Normally, I may make a mental ‘tut tut’ over this small fact, but it didn’t matter at all since the cocktail was so very good. This was my first time at Colt & Gray, which has been one of those bars that have always been high on the best cocktails in Denver lists since they opened a several years ago. Kelly, knowing where to go, has already been here several times before; but I have been shamefully lax on making it over to this neighborhood for a drink.
Looking around, the bar’s dark wood gives the entire area a classic feel. Several bow ties decorate some of the bottles along the right side of the bar. There was a growing blend of businessmen and locals are on the other side of the room enjoying their cocktails or beers while a mix of Jazz, Soul, and Blues (Fred Astaire, Aretha Franklin, Junior Kimbrough, Otis Redding, etc…) plays over the stereo. Kelly has always been delighted by the space. It’s on the same lines of recent cocktail lounges like Williams & Graham or Green Russell, without the kitsch factor of the latter (which always kind of reminded me of some sort of a booze theme park… wait a moment… new idea: ‘Whiskey Land!” ) This can be a problem in the new era of spreading speakeasy cocktail lounges culture (which I do enjoy.) Because of the kitsch factor of some of these new places, you often get overwhelmed by the sights and lose a lot of the elegance and crafted cocktails. Happily, this is not a problem here. Colt & Gray is elegant and understated.
Happily, this is not a problem here. Colt & Gray is elegant and understated.
I started with an Old Fashioned (which I always a reliable drink test for the quality of the place), while Kelly sips at her Lost Abbey Saison.
“As I was walking over here through Commons Park West, some kid yelled at me ‘Hey Swing Kid! Wanna buy a pair of sunglasses as sharp as that suit?’ ”, I mentioned as I was taking another sip. “Sure I was in my suit and hat, but…”
“Swing Kid?”, Kelly asked confused. “How do they even know what that is?”
“No clue.”, I replied as I finished my Old Fashioned and contemplated my next cocktail. I wanted something new. The chalkboard high up next to me listed several drink specials, including the ’50/50’ (which is an old pre-prohibition martini, where the gin and vermouth are mixed in an equal ratio, unlike the scant whisper of vermouth in the modern version.) I was stuck between ordering that and the ‘Bennet’ (which I’ve seen several recipes for and always sounded just like a Gimlet with bitters… which I’d thought was called a ‘Marlowe’ after they cocktail he and Terry Lennox drink in the ‘The Long Goodbye.’) I asked Dwight, our bartender, about the differences between the two drinks.
“Well…”, Dwight replied. “It depends on what’s going on.”
Kelly laughed, ordered an Upslope Belguim Pale Ale, and continued to look over the menu. I fell back to the 50/50, since I’m not afraid and do enjoy some good vermouth in my martini (and still thought a ‘Marlowe’ was a better name for the Bennet.)
I fell back to the 50/50, since I’m not afraid and do enjoy some good vermouth in my martini (and still thought a ‘Marlowe’ was a better name for the Bennet.)
Once our new drinks were placed in front of us, Kelly still looking at the menu, insisted that we get snacks. Colt & Gray has a limited, but precise and selective menu; and quite a few things caught her eye. “I want oysters! No, fritters! No meat and cheese plate! No, marrow bones! No, sweetbreads! They are quite tasty here. When I was last here having drinks with Meaux, she got me to try them once…”
“Aren’t those like gizzards and whatnot?”
“Thymus glands, I think. Of baby cows.”
In the end, we settled on a Charcuterie & Cheese plate (we picked Proscuitto Cotto, Pea-Meal Bacon, with a Vermont Farmstead Windsordale) along with an order of the Sweet Corn & Crab Fritters. They were all quickly demolished.
I finished my gin cocktail as Kelly got that gleam in her eyes again.
“Along with a good beer, I can just eat meat and cheese all the time. This is perfect!”