Williams & Graham
3160 Tejon Street
Denver, CO 80211
“I think this is the line.”
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.
“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.