I can't say the Brown Barrel was the reason I decided to move to Denver five years ago. But I can still remember what I hoped to find there when I walked inside on my first night in town. In a way, it's the same thing I hoped to find in Denver as a whole.
My history with the Brown Barrel stretches back to 2005, when I was a New Jersey kid fighting through homesickness at CU Boulder. That October, I borrowed my friend’s Chevy Blazer and drove down to Denver to see my favorite band, The Appleseed Cast, play the Hi-Dive. The South Broadway I came across was a far cry from today’s booming neighborhood of craft beers, dispensaries and brunch spots.
Fluorescent lights illuminated the Big Lots where the Punch Bowl now resides. Kitty’s South was still serving up adult pleasures down the street. And on the other side of Broadway, tucked somewhere in the shadows between Three Kings and Famous Pizza, a tiny bar called Brown Barrel sat inconspicuously, quietly minding its own business.
Altogether, Denver felt lonely, isolated and empty, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Growing up 30 minutes from New York City had given me a certain idea of what a city should be—big, fast, crowded and cosmopolitan—and Denver didn’t compare.
Other outsiders shared my dim view of the city. While people back home always had something enthusiastic to say about Boulder—“I’ve heard that’s such an amazing town!”—no one was gushing about Denver. One friend told me she’d visited once and it was all “gray and dumpy.” My college girlfriend called it a “desolate ghost town with mediocre restaurants and bars.”
Despite my immediate lukewarm impression of the city, I spent many college nights making the trek down US-36 for shows at the Hi Dive, Bluebird and Ogden. By the time I graduated in 2009, the idea of moving to Denver had grown on me. Boulder had never felt like home—more like a cartoon village trapped in a snow globe—and I couldn’t get into bluegrass enough to stick around Durango. But I wanted to stay out West, and everything I initially thought Denver had lacked in comparison to New York—its sleepiness, anonymity to outsiders and wide-open feel—had suddenly become appealing.
Aside from the practical benefits, like cheap rent in a neighborhood that felt simultaneously quiet yet close to everything, I idealized Denver as real, unpretentious and unspoiled. I imagined destination cities like Portland and Austin as being so inundated by the hallmarks of a hip city—$5 “street” tacos and craft cocktails—that their old identity had been buried. Compared to those places, Denver felt off the map. That’s not to say backwards or lifeless or devoid of culture—it just didn’t seem like the kind of place that really cared whether or not I was impressed by it.
In January 2011, I loaded up my car and drove to my friend’s house on 2nd and Delaware, setting up camp on his living room couch. Ready to explore my new home, we set out through the sleepy streets of Baker toward the bars and restaurants on South Broadway. If the neighborhood had begun to change, I couldn’t tell: the strip felt as quiet as it did during my first Hi-Dive night five years earlier. Still, I felt a wiry charge of excitement. After years of experiencing Denver as a visitor, barely scratching the city’s surface, I was ready to dig deep. When we hit Ellsworth, my gaze drifted, as it had so many times in years past, to that green awning adorned simply with the word “TAVERN.”
As an underage college kid staring down Broadway beside the cigarette smokers outside Hi-Dive, the Brown Barrel had beckoned from across the street, promising an unknown adult world that I was forbidden to enter. I fantasized that the bar was aged, rough and full of personality; dark but warm, full of wooden booths and photos of regulars on the wall, like a cross between Taxi Driver and “Cheers.”
I was finally an adult in the city, and I urged my friends to check it out with me.
When they shrugged in agreement and we walked inside, I was served one of those recurring life lessons in the difference between expectation and reality. The room was nearly empty except for a few die-hards quietly putting in time at the bar. The fluorescent lighting and stained, sagging ceiling tiles brought to mind an IRS office circa 1983. There was some kind of nautical theme going on with the decor—I vaguely remember anchors and buoys on the walls, with some plastic fish and a mermaid thrown in for good measure—but it wasn’t really endearing, even in a tacky way. The place just felt dead.
Although I’m a sentimental guy with a penchant for romanticizing the past, it’s hard for me to look back and see the Brown Barrel as much more than a lonely and forgotten bar.
But at the time I tried to. Five years of idealizing the bar from across the street led me to interpret its lack of personality as a lack of pretense. Nothing about the place tried to suggest it was more than what it was—a quiet neighborhood bar minding its own business while the rest of the neighborhood moved steadily along—and I championed that as honest, righteous and admirable.
Somehow, I convinced my friends to hang out with me there a few times, and I have good memories of those nights. The bright lighting and lack of crowds made it feel like we were drinking beers in someone’s basement, and I was still close enough to my high-school years to see that as a fun way to spend the night.
After a few months, the novelty of pretending we were regulars in a bar that no one else hung out at had begun to wear off. When the bar closed for good later that summer, Westword announced that its replacement would cater to more than just “fans of cheap beer and drunken bar talk.” But I still was, and still am, a fan of domestic brews and dumb conversations. I was sad to see it go.
I still miss the Brown Barrel. Not in the sense that it was truly a special place, or that I wish I could hang out there all the time, but in the way that I miss all old things. The Brown Barrel was a passageway into a different world, one that vanishes a little bit more every day, and one that will not, and cannot, ever be recreated. I feel fortunate that some of Denver’s fellow time-fortresses are still kicking— Pete’s Kitchen, My Brother’s Bar, Lion’s Lair and Breakfast King immediately come to mind. And while I wouldn’t want to live in a city where time stands still, I hope that some of these salty vets can outlast the tidal wave of change that is washing away much of old Denver, along with so many other American cities.
I doubt there are many people moving to Denver in 2016 for the dive bars and diners that were built 60 years ago. But these aging stalwarts comprise a big part of the city I imagined I was moving to five years ago. Brown Barrel or not, that’s still the version of Denver I’m living in today.