Finding comfort at the last dive bar on South Broadway

Karl Gehring/The Denver Post

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“I need a shot. I got bit by a wolf.”

It was a half-wolf, half-German Shepherd, Derick Courtney later admitted. He was trying to get intimate with its owner, and the mutt objected. He has the scar between his fingers to prove it.

It’s Wednesday night at Badger’s Pub, the last dive bar on South Broadway.

Principal bar owner Kyle Gaines does not look down at Courtney’s hand — he merely pours him a shot of whiskey alongside one for himself. The two clink cheers. Down.

For locals, the accelerated gentrification of South Broadway between Sixth and Alameda avenues over the past 18 months has elicited both pride and disappointment. The area is arguably seeing more foot traffic than ever, and with it, higher rent, higher bar tabs — a new status quo.

But not at Badger’s.

For $10, from 9 p.m. until midnight on Wednesdays, you can drink as much well liquor and domestic draft beer as your liver will take. On Thursdays, everyone drinks free for an hour — or until someone “sneaks a leak” (slips away to the bathroom).

An hour before Courtney showed up, no more than three men sat scattered among the 12 stools that line the main bar, watching the Rockies lose to the Oakland A’s in the top of the ninth. Six screens showed the game, all on mute.

Two Wisconsin baseball hats sat next to the register — the school’s mascot is the bar’s namesake. Fourteen Budweiser pitchers rested upside down in a line behind the bar, bone dry. A duet of ceiling fans revolved at a speed too slow to make any sort of difference. No one spoke.

But now, at 9:16 p.m., as more regulars filter in and as “1969” by the Stooges plays over the speakers and as Jermaine Smith, the bartender from Wichita, Kan., taps the flickering Pabst Blue Ribbon sign, now is when the portly blonde walks through the door. Everyone turns at the shrill of her voice.

“Hi, we’re here to drink,” she says.

Just a plain old dive

While Smith and the rest of the Badger’s staff would most readily identify the room as a sports bar, it is a dive.

The pigment of the walls falls somewhere between a deep navy blue and a drab gray. Likewise for the carpeted floors. A red clock behind the bar ticks anywhere from six to 15 minutes fast. There’s a framed picture of downtown Milwaukee and a poster advertising Wisconsin cheese. A used car lot-ribbon of PBR flags dangles from the ceiling between the end of the bar and the toilets. For entertainment, there’s a dollar-fed jukebox, a quarter-fed pool table and two glowing video games — Silver Strike Bowling and Big Buck Hunter (Open Season). The vending machine by the door is stocked with, among other things, Jack Links Beef Jerky, Funyons, Parliament cigarettes and Pop Tarts.

For the past nine years, Smith has tended bar and checked IDs up and down the South Broadway corridor. On a recent Wednesday, he nursed a glass of Jameson and 7Up at the end of the bar in the hour before his shift.

“A lot of bars are pushing out a certain type of people,” he said. “You come here and you don’t have to feel like that.”

Brian Trembath, a 43-year-old reference librarian (and former Denver Post employee), remembers when the trendy Hornet restaurant on First Avenue and Broadway used to be Mary and Lou’s — the all-night diner with smoke-stained windows and pay television in the booths. Trembath would see rock shows with friends at the Hi-Dive across the street back when it was known as 7 South, and he’d drink at Badger’s back when it was the Brown Barrel Tavern.

It was then, in January of ’94 or ’95, when a guy at the bar taunted Trembath for ordering a boilermaker, then removed his baseball hat to show bloody head wounds from a stabbing incident the night before. This was years before rising rent drove the nearby Denver Book Fair to its slow death; before the vintage boutique Lee Alex sold “Mad Men”-styled furniture in a display juxtaposed to an empty glass storefront.

“Still, it wasn’t violent haywire like Colfax,” Trembath recalls. “It was more skeezy, kind of more like West Hollywood. Dumpier, sure, but not as explosive as what was happening on Colfax. Broadway was different.”

Much of the Badger’s clientele holds firm to that nostalgia, sipping whiskey and Bud Light as hipster couples saunter past the entrance licking gourmet Sweet Action ice cream from up the street.

Within the past 12 months, the core stretch of South Broadway has seen more than a dozen businesses come and go. Of the ones that have stayed, many have changed.

There’s new caffeine (Happy Coffee), new spicy fare (Thai Monkey Club), new Italian fare (Crimson Canary), new hipster retail (Buffalo Exchange), a new bike shop (Salvagetti), a new bike bar (Denver Wheel Club 404), a new tiki bar (Adrift), a new gastropub (Gary Lee’s Motor Club and Grub), a new sidewalk patio (the Walnut Room), a new rooftop patio (the Irish Rover). There’s new items on the menu at Sputnik, a new policy at its nextdoor neighbor, Hi-Dive, to open its door for drinking even on nights without live music.

Scott Clark, a hunched-over 36-year-old with heavy tattoos and rockabilly hair, said he goes to Badger’s in search of conversation.

“I want to hold onto somethin’,” Clark said on a recent Thursday. “I want to go in and smell (expletive). I want to smell 50 years of (similar expletive). I know what I’m walking into. Life isn’t wine and roses.”

Badger’s opened in the shell of the Brown Barrel on Oct. 22, 2011. There was little fanfare. It’s an easy bar to miss in a stretch dominated by 3 Kings Tavern, the newly expanded Irish Rover and the massive Skylark Lounge — which abandoned its dive bar identity after relocating a few blocks down to 140 S. Broadway in 2003.

Tom Baker, who tends bar at the Pair-O-Dice pool room upstairs at the Skylark, has watched his patrons skew younger and trendier over the past few years.

“The neighborhood’s changing, but I don’t have any doubt we’ll still be around in a few years,” he said.

Allison Housley, who co-owns the Hi-Dive and Sputnik with Matt LaBarge, believes the catalyst for Broadway’s change was the opening of the Goodwill store on Archer Place in 2007.

“Nine years ago when we opened, it seemed that half of the storefronts were vacant,” Housley said. “I don’t long for those days.”

As new destination bars like Gary Lee’s and Adrift attract deeper pockets with their fried zucchini and “Polynesian Paralysis,” respectively, Broadway bars are becoming more niche.

Yet Badger’s, with its overtly Wisconsin ties, remains perhaps the least self-aware bar on the block. Skinny jeans and flat brims share drinks with studded belts and greaser shirts. The digital jukebox ranges from Bon Iver to Black Sabbath. There’s no bingo, no brunch. No movies on the patio — no patio at all. There’s strong pours and lively conversation. And it’s enough.

On a recent Monday, three young men sat in the corner of the bar watching the “Jewbacabra” episode of “South Park.” Bartender Smith thumbed through his phone and gnawed at a 3 Musketeers. Two nights later, a crowd of strangers gathered as an unnamed male celebrating his 21st birthday stared down a “pipeline” (six shots — three vodka, three water). He winced as he swallowed; everyone howled. A stranger patted his back as he chugged water shortly after.

Derick Courtney was back again that night — this time with the wolf-dog’s owner saddled up next to him at the bar. The scar on his hand was slightly better. Besides that, nothing about this scene was particularly unusual. In fact, there was comfort in its constancy.