Denver has a weird, wild history. During the Gold Rush, Denver’s promise of riches beguiled starry-eyed ‘59ers from all over the world. It turned into a transportation hub, a crossroads. It was immortalized in feverish odes by writers such as Jack Kerouac. One of the few cities in a stretch of large rural states, the Mile High City was and still remains a cosmopolitan sanctuary for those who don’t fit into conventional small town American life.
While Denver has experienced revolutionary, sometimes turbulent changes—from early colonization to the recent legalization of cannabis, the recent skyrocketing growth leading to both a housing crisis and cool new eateries, taverns, and blossoming artist communities—it’s the artistic traveler’s heart of old Denver that beckoned Meow Wolf to plant our newest immersive art experience, a quantum transit station, just off the “longest, wickedest street in America” of Colfax Avenue.
We’ve collected longtime Denverites’ favorite bars and clubs, cafes and restaurants, venues and theaters, shops, museums, and art spaces to help you navigate the stranger side of Denver. Whether it’s the hottest new horror bar or the oldest dive, these spaces are where the misfits fit in.
In 1987, Pam and Paul Italiano opened up a clothing shop for punks, goths, rockabillies, and other countercultural misfits. What began with a $1,000 investment and 40 pieces of clothing became so much more than a clothing store. FashioNation promoted concerts and hosted bands like Lemmy, Green Day, Ministry, and The Cramps. They developed a reputation as the place to go for Doc Marten, Demonias, Tuks, bondage belts, a rainbow spectrum of rave gear, and more. They took in young punks who didn’t have anywhere to go. Their “store kids,” or employees, are like family.
Visit FashioNation on South Broadway in Denver, and follow them on Instagram and TikTok (@FashionNation613).
For more vintage and countercultural clothing shops that put Hot Topic to shame, check out “weird stuff for weird people” at Revolte Goods; the Santa Fe arts district used clothing shop, Strawberry Mountain; the S. Broadway classic, Regal Vintage; the hot girl vintage heaven that is Goldmine Vintage; The Ten Penny Vintage Store, which sells vintage clothing, records, tapes, jewelry, antiques, collectibles, photos; and Hope Tank, a gift shop that sold gifts while also highlighting nonprofits.
In each town, there must be a community hub where poets, artists, and musicians congregate for coffee, drinks, organic food, open mic nights, poetry slams, dance classes, and other soul enriching gatherings. With its romantic rose hues, living exterior walls of cascading greenery, solar and wind power, mural art, and golden twinkly lights, The Mercury Cafe sets the scene beautifully. Their food is locally sourced, organic, and fair trade, with options for vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free patrons. Their calendar is packed with the type of programming so effortlessly offbeat (think “Psychedelic Professionals meetup”) that it could be fodder for a Portlandia episode. They’ve filled Denver’s need for a witchy, goddessy community hub with a graceful zeal that attracts die-hard devotion.
Following the onset of the pandemic, Mercury Cafe’s 70-year-old matriarch, Marilyn Megenity, was looking to sell it. For a scary moment, the community was worried their cultural hub would be overtaken. Thankfully, Megenity was able to sell the cafe to some business owners (Danny Newman, Christy Kruzick, and Austin Gayer) who cared as much about carrying the tradition forward as she did, and Mercury Cafe remains the bohemian meetup of choice in Five Points.
Check out their calendar of events at mercurycafe.com or follow them on Instagram @mercurycafe_denver.
For more cool coffee shops, check out TheBardo for an open-late option, Gypsy House Cafefor chill Eastern ambience and hookahs, Hooked on Colfax for its lovely back patio and cool, dark basement filled with books, St. Mark’s for its sunlight-filled city cafe atmosphere, Dandy Lion because you can drink coffee while sitting on a swing, and Pablo’s for really good coffee.
For more vegan and vegetarian food, try the beloved City O City or Watercourse Foods, both started by Dan Landes and known as much for their incredible vegetarian takes on typically carnivorous foods, from burger to poutine, as they are for their cool atmosphere and culture. Sputnik, the cute diner adjoined to Hi-Dive, is as much fun for a brunch spot as it is a late night joint to squeeze into a booth and share sweet potato fries and vegan corn dogs after a few too many drinks. So Radishis a totally ‘80s bar in Arvada that serves 100% vegan fare, cocktails, and beer.
Maybe it’s the sinking wave of darkness that’s taken hold of our society, but these days Denver embraces its shadow self. This can be reflected in our favorite new bars. First, TRVE Brewing crashed onto the scene during the Summer Solstice of 2012 in a haze of atmospheric Black Metal glory. Since then, the dark contents of hell have opened up and spilled into our club scene, and Denverites are eager to bathe in the flames.
Priscilla Jerez, co-owner of The Crypt, recently told horror zine What Evil Lurks that she doesn’t like The Crypt being called a horror bar. It’s a nerdy collection…if your topic of nerdery just so happens to be photos of dead people, horror film memorabilia, skulls and crossbones, and a steady immersion of red light that nurtures a simmering hunch that misbehavior is about to unfold. Other bars share similar concepts. Slashers is a craft cocktail bar that boasts dive bar prices where you can watch horror movies with immersive, state-of-the-art sound and lighting. Maybe it’s the built-in scene—many of its regulars coming from Tooey’s off Colfax—but The Crypt has that certain je ne sais quoi that goes beyond kitsch. Memories are made there.
Honorable mentions in the dark, countercultural, goth, or punk bar and club category: The Electric Cure, an authentically weird little rum bar; Brutal Poodle, a bar and restaurant that loves heavy music as much as man’s best friend; The Church nightclub, which hosts club nights and DJs amidst the high-beamed Gothic architecture and stained glass windows of an 1889 Episcopal church; Ratio Beerworks, a brewery started by touring punk bands in the ‘90s scene; Black Sky Brewing, a spot on Santa Fe that espouses the merits of beer, pizza, and metal; Scorpio Palace, a new underground warehouse space taken over by Denver DJs that was formerly the DIY art space, Occidental, a countercultural cocktail bar; Milk, an almost never-ending collection of different rooms featuring different DJs spinning different genres; and goth nights in the basement of Vinyl, where you can dance freely to DJ Slave1 amidst vampires and creatures of the night.
Venues and Theaters
7 S Broadway, Denver, CO 80223 • (303) 733-0230 • hi-dive.com
There’s no repeatable recipe to create a scene. Scenes are formed when like-minded artists and musicians combine energy, challenge each other, and create space for the underground, the baby bands, the locals, the experimental, and the edgy. Sometimes these scenes bubble up for a moment, but it’s hard to maintain this feat of magic for years. Hi-Dive has been an indie venue for nearly two decades now. There are other, smaller punk venues in Denver, like the great bands that come through Larimer Lounge, Meadowlark, Black Box, HQ(formerly 3 Kings), or Herman’s Hideaway. Many of them are indistinguishable in their sticky floors, dark den ambience, wildly fun shows, and horror scene bathrooms. But…Hi-Dive has always felt like a venue for musicians, owned by musicians. It opened at the precipice of a musical Renaissance in Denver that launched the careers of Nathaniel Rateliff, Esme Patterson, Joe Sampson, Bright Channel, and more. During the first night it opened, Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs came to spin records. And most importantly, it’s the type of place that will receive a Yelp review that says: “Shit bar. Shit people.”...and it will turn that review into T-shirts.
Shit Bar. Shit people. Check out their concert calendar at hi-dive.com and follow them @hidive_denver.
Other venues of note: check out Levitt Pavilion for a mostly-free summer concert series! Bring picnic blankets and snacks, or just hit up their food and drink trucks. For more small rooms, visit The Skylark Lounge, a South Broadway staple with rockabilly greaser vibes that was bought by Nathaniel Rateliff, and its reopened small room, Bobcat Club; Seventh Circle Music Collective, “One of Denver’s best all-ages spaces, is dedicated to cultivating genre-boundary-free DIY/underground art, music, and community.”
A Denver guide to the underground would be incomplete without some mention of cannabis, which was legalized in Colorado early on in the national movement. This just scratches the surface, but two “Mile High” establishments worthy of devotion are the International Church of Cannabis and the Marijuana Mansion. The International Church of Cannabis was a Lutheran Church renovated in wild technicolor to become a place of worship for “Elevationists,” or those who believe in the power of weed. The Marijuana Mansion is “a unique immersive experience and private events venue located within a historic (not to mention haunted) mansion in downtown Denver.” They offer events such as drag shows, private rental of their facilities for photo shoots, and tours.
It’s not every day one gets the chance to watch a film in one of just three theaters left in the country that boast the Art Deco Mayan Revival style of the 1930s. The Mayan Theater had its heyday long ago, and it even hosted grocery nights during the Great Depression. It temporarily closed in the ‘80s only to reopen as an art house theater. It’s not the movie experience you seek if you’re looking for air conditioning and seats that recline; it’s where you go when the theater itself is as much a part of the experience as the movie itself. With placement on South Broadway, watching a movie at The Mayan is stepping into a real part of Denver’s history.
Speaking of historic theaters, it’s a Denver rite of passage to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Landmark’s Esquire Theatreon Downing. Other movie theaters of note include the deservedly popular chain, Alamo Drafthouse, where the cookies are bomb, the movies are high quality, the beer is cold, and cell phones must be kept in pockets; plus, Sie Film Center, which is known for its vibrant art house programming—think Scream Screen, the beloved quarterly horror flick series.
Museums and Art Spaces
Due to recent hype of unveilings, such as the new wing of the Denver Art Museum and the opening of our very own Convergence Station, Denver is becoming a nationally-recognized arts destination. But where else can art enthusiasts and curious travelers go to find great art in Denver?
Redline Contemporary Art Galleryis a nonprofit arts organization that creates positive social change by connecting artists with resources and fostering education in the community. They have artist grants and residency programs to help artists thrive.
Dateline Contemporary Art Gallery just celebrated their tenth anniversary with THE YELLOW SHOW, a bright ray of sunshine of an exhibition featuring Denver artists like Josh Aiman and Shadows Gather. LEON Gallery intentionally challenges limitations and nurtures emerging artists. Their parties often marry art with music, and have been compared to “those of NYC’s SoHo of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the salons of Montmartre during the days of early Modernism, Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich during the formative days of Dada, or the groundbreaking Ferris gallery in LA during the ‘60s,” according to their website. IRL Art Gallery is a speakeasy and gallery specializing in digital and NFT exhibits that was started by former Meow Wolf employee Annie Phillips. The Denver Zine Library houses one of the largest collections of zines in North America, and now has two locations. Dikeou Collection is a downtown contemporary art gallery that is an extension of the New York publication, zingmagazine, and it’s free to the public!
Rest in Peace
Let’s pour one out for beloved Denver institutions that are either temporarily or permanently closed: Breakfast King, the bright orange vinyl-adorned diner of Pulp Fiction fever dreams; Domo, which served incredibly exotic Japanese country food in what looked like the magical setting of a Miyazaki film (imagine sitting on tree stumps); Beatrice and Woodsley, which was a magical way to eat brunch amidst sunkissed aspen trees, lanterns, and an Alice in Wonderland-style bathroom; the Old Spaghetti Factory, where you could eat browned butter and mizithra spaghetti in an old train car; El Chapultapec, the 1930s Mexican restaurant turned influential jazz club where everyone from Mick Jagger to Ella Fitzgerald to President Bill Clinton played; and Mario’s Double Daughters Salotto, a whimsical club downtown that served a special red-colored shot that bubbled through pipes in the walls.
These institutions might have closed, but they’ve made an irrevocable mark on Denver culture and its inhabitants.