Holy diver

Regulars, atmosphere create different type of bar experience

Joe Sanders of the Sundown Saloon
Photo by Susan France

The doors open at 3 p.m. and the regulars start coming in, some with paperbacks to read at the bar. Many are there five, six, seven days a week. They know each other’s names, the regulars, the bartenders, the doorman — he’s not really a bouncer until the night crowd appears.

And by the time the night crowd does start queuing on the stairs of the Sundown Saloon, around 8 p.m., the regulars are mostly gone, in what an ecologist might call the life cycle of the dive bar.

Though few and far between, Boulder’s “dive” bars have established themselves in the community as places for those interested in a different kind of bar experience. Whether shooting pool at the Sundown Saloon or trike-racing for shots at the Dark Horse, it’s safe to say these places aren’t your conventional watering holes.

Dive bars are nothing new to the Boulder community. The Dark Horse, for instance, has been open for 38 years and has seen its fair share of Boulderites from every walk of life. These bars hold Boulder’s history, both written and unwritten.

Dives tend to be overshadowed by Boulder’s wide selection of specialty bars and restaurants, but for those like Mary McDonough, who drinks at the Sundown Saloon every month, the combination of cheap booze and good friends provides a different experience.

“The dive bars in Boulder are like neighborhood bars that also get crazy,” McDonough says. “The Downer is not the kind of place you go to sit down and have a conversation. You go to have fun and dance.”

Dark Horse bartender and manager Ben Blair defines a dive bar as a place to relax and let loose.

“Dive bars in general are places where you can have a good time in a safe environment,” he says. “You don’t have to pay a cover or wear anything fancy. … You can grab a beer, watch a game or hang out with your friends.”

At the Sundown Saloon, lines of pool tables and lots of standing room cast a different vibe on the basement bar compared to other bars where one might sit under romantic light and enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine. At the Downer, more often than not you find yourself enjoying a beer and singing along to Black Sabbath (or Mariah Carey, the jukebox tends to be sporadic). In contrast to Pearl Street’s red-bricked road, the two rabbit-hole entrances to the Downer (one off of Pearl and one from the alley) are easily missed by the nonregular. The neon sign blends in with Pearl Street’s other various advertisements, hiding in plain sight.

Joe Sanders, who has been working at the Sundown Saloon for three years, attributes the bar’s success to the connection it has with its customers.

“Over 50 percent of our customers are regulars,” Sanders says. “I know their names, what they do and where they work. … It’s like Cheers on steroids. People can come down here and feel like they know everybody and that our staff appreciates their business, unlike other bars where someone just blazes through to get you your drink.”

On the other side of town, the Dark Horse offers a similar dive bar atmosphere, but with walls adorned with decommissioned movie props and tarnished beer ads. The bar’s location makes it a go-to for the Pearl Street avoiders and those who would rather walk home than pay for a cab. As the name suggests, the interior is dark and musky. If there isn’t a game on, you can usually hear some classic rock or karaoke attempts.

According to manager Chris Verrips, the Dark Horse originally opened in March 1975 as the “Grand American Fare,” a national chain with a similar theme. The original owner bought the campy props that fill the walls of the bar from movie studios in Hollywood, Calif. Current owner Dave Tobin has been at the location from the beginning, and worked his way up to manager and onward. In 1993, Tobin bought the bar and changed the name to the “Dark Horse,” keeping the same old movie props. To this day, the Dark Horse prides itself on being locally owned and operated.

Known for its cheap drinks and food and its famous “Tuesday night trike nights,” the Dark Horse serves as Boulder’s “working class bar,” bartender Nate McCoy says. Though students make up a large portion of its clientele, the Dark Horse also caters heavily to construction workers, professionals and the occasional motorcycle crew. Regular Kat Brown, who met her fiancé there, says that she goes nearly seven days a week because of the staff and the bar’s laid-back nature.

“It’s my local bar,” Brown says. “I’ve gotten to know the staff really well. When I walk in, they know my name, my drink order, my birthday and what’s going on in my life. I know that they’ve got my back. … I’m not afraid to go there in my chef pants and be myself.”

Brown adds that the bar fits her lifestyle — which, living in Boulder, means getting away from college students for a while.

“I like it there because there aren’t a lot of college-y people,” says Brown. “I can afford to have a few drinks and relax with my friends and coworkers.” Of course, at certain times during the week, college students do flock to the Dark Horse.

What sets Boulder dive bars apart from others throughout the country is the featured craft beers. Both the Sundown Saloon and the Dark Horse offer a variety of local craft beers from breweries like Avery, Oskar Blues, Boulder Beer, Upslope and more.

“Having craft beer in your bar is a part of being in Boulder,“ McCoy says. “Boulder is the Mecca of micro-brewing and craft brews in general. I think it’s definitely a cool part of keeping it local.”

The Sundown Saloon usually keeps 10 to 15 rotating craft beers based on popularity, with what’s new and what’s popular sharing fridge space with dive staples like Miller High Life, Lost Lake, Coors, Budweiser and the most popular, Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Sundown Saloon boasts that it is the number one PBR seller in the world two years running. The bar offers $6 pitchers and $2.50 pints of the broke-college-student staple and considers it its top-selling beer.

“When it comes down to it, we’re a beer and bourbon bar,” Sanders says. “I think that makes it a very conducive atmosphere for having a good time.”

Steve Weishampel contributed to the reporting of this story.

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