A Dive By Any Other Name Would Smell As…

Here’s to the American Dive Bar.
To two choices of beer, cheap shots, pickled eggs and bartenders with one bottle and a soda-gun.
To the regulars who come and go like clockwork, and to a quiet hiding place to spend an afternoon.
To the faint smell of urinal cakes and to the single eye-hook that locks the door of the one-can john.

The American Dive is a dinosaur. It’s where you went to fetch your uncle when it was time for dinner. It’s where Pops ran the football pool and there were all-you-can-eat pretzels. I encourage you to find one, a place you’ve passed a hundred times and have never gone in.  I dare you: stop in and get a drink. Don’t try order a mojito or a sazerac, otherwise you’ll be on the receiving end of a dubious look. Enjoy your drink and take in the surroundings. If you feel that another drink is in order, you may have just found your dive bar. Go in and visit it often.

Over the coming months, I’d like to share with you a selection of some of my favorite Denver Dives and to discover some I’ve yet to smell. I love a good dive named for its address and housing a great, old school juke-box.

The first I’d like to take you to is South Broadway’s Club 404, a home for blue collars since 1951. That’s when Jerry Feld, a DU law student too young to even own a bar, maneuvered how to beat the system.  Instead of passing the bar he bought one instead–at least, that’s how the story goes.   Jerry, his wife Harriet, and the rest of the clan have been doing it ever since.

I talked to the tall scary bald guy behind the bar. He’s got a name. His name is Phil and, as it turns out, he’s not really that scary. He is, however, a great guy to chat sports or just about anything else coupled with his frank, and sometime harsh, opinion.  One example was the maroon “leather” canopy above the bar. “Depending on who you ask, it used to be beige or white. That’s 55 years of tar and nicotine, my friend,” he nodded and grinned. “Nonny, one of the waitresses, she’s been here for 30 years. She’s awesome. Everybody loves her. There is even a song in the juke-box that mentions both her and the Four.”

When you sit at the bar at Club 404, the guy sitting next to you is likely to have been sitting there for 30+ years. This adds to the comfy feel of being in your friend’s grandfather’s living room, couch cushions and all.  “Comfy without pretense” is one of the key things I look for in a good dive. It’s the kind of place you want to meet up with your friends and get started for the night and a place you try to make it back to for last call. The kind of place you can strike up a pleasant conversation with a perfect stranger drinking alone and, by the end of it, you’re laughing it up with four new-found bar friends.  Dinner is served atop the large board covering the pool table.  And when dinner is done, the pool table is always free of charge.

If you are looking for something from the kitchen, the Prime Rib is “pretty damn good” (thanks, Phil) and the burgers come highly recommended. The most popular bar order at the 404 is the Happy Meal: PBR and a shot of well whiskey. Or maybe some days it’s Coors.
“What if I want a blender drink, like a pina colada?” I asked, taunting a little.
“I can do it, but I won’t smile while I do it,” returned Phil.  I half expected him to point to the door.

I asked how he felt about the occasional, transient patrons that occasionally walk in from South Broadway and he told me “no shopping carts.” Juju, one of the night bartenders, sets up live music from all over and sometimes performs with his band, Shanty Vamps. The old juke box standards like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra are joined in chorus with the Stooges, the Dead Milkmen, KISS and Sonic Youth.

How may patio seats? “Depends on when they get stolen or broken.”

Club 404 has been in the press a bit lately as being up for sale, but the doors are still open and the lights are still on. Support a local icon of hooch houses and make a trip to Club 404 while it’s still the real deal. You may fall in love with it, want to buy, and keep it going for the next 60 years. It could happen.

About Don Ryan

Don Ryan cares about booze. He's made it, bottled it, mixed it, drank it, sniffed it, slept with it, spilled it, slept in it, cooked with it, sipped it, shot it, lit it on fire, whispered sweet nothings to it, listened to it and sold it. Now he's writing about it.