A night and a morning at Nob Hill Inn, the oldest dive bar on Colfax

A man walks through the door with a long, gray beard and a book. He wants to know if there are any reading glasses he can borrow out of the lost and found.

Michael X and bartender Bart hang out at Nob Hill on a Tuesday evening after work. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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A Tuesday night at Nob Hill on East Colfax Avenue. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
A Tuesday night at Nob Hill on East Colfax Avenue. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

There are two kinds of stories born at Nob Hill Inn, bartender Nancy Barnes explains. There are daytime stories and nighttime stories, and they’re completely different. But if you think one genre is less incredible than the other, you’re wrong.

Nancy normally doesn’t take time for phone calls during her shift, but she made an exception when her 92-year-old mother called with a problem one morning. The bartender headed to a backroom for the call at 10:30 a.m., all the while monitoring the cameras up front.

As she watched from afar, a guy walked in and stopped halfway down the bar.

“He starts taking all his clothes off. And I’m… ‘What the hell? Is he really doing that?’” she says.

“And so I said to my mom, I said, ‘Naked guy in the bar. Gotta go.’”

Up front at the bar, she informed the nudist that it was against the law to be naked in her bar. “So he starts putting his clothes back on,” Nancy concludes.

If you know anything about Nob Hill, this story might sound a little on-the-nose — just the kind of thing you’d expect here.

If you don’t know anything about Nob Hill, here’s the deal: It’s among the oldest bars in town — a staple of Denver and of Colfax, where it sits just two blocks from the Capitol, between Logan and Pennsylvania. It’s a dive bar in a stretch of the “longest, wickedest street in America” known for being particularly “wicked.” As such, it’s both beloved and feared, and that makes it the perfect place to look for the heart and soul of Colfax Avenue.

Looking through the windows at Nob Hill Inn. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Looking through the windows at Nob Hill Inn. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Now, the nighttime stories out of Nob Hill get just weird as a mid-morning naked man, but sometimes more violent. 

“A month ago I had a guy come in and come after me with a bat because I wouldn’t serve him, because he was drunk,” bartender Bart Case recalls. 

That’s hardly his scariest story, though. His worst one made the news.

“I’d just got on shift, I was out back smoking, I heard a commotion, I didn’t think anything of it — it’s Colfax,” he says.

“So I came back in, I just glance out the front door, and there’s a guy who got stabbed in the neck. He’s got blood squirting out of his neck. It was, like, 5 o’clock. So I went over and put a bar rag on him and called an ambulance.”

Bartender Bart on a Tuesday night at Nob Hill on East Colfax Avenue. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
Bartender Bart Case on a Tuesday night at Nob Hill on East Colfax Avenue. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

It’s 7:40 p.m. on a Tuesday and Bart is recounting that harrowing shift from behind the bar. A man walks through the door with a long, gray beard and a book. He knows Bart and Bart knows him. He wants to know if there are any reading glasses he can borrow out of the lost and found.

Bart pulls out a box from under the bar and rummages around for a minute, but doesn’t come up with any glasses. He asks the man if he checked around his room at the YMCA. The man says he hasn’t, thanks Bart and steps back out onto Colfax Avenue.

It’s bartenders like Bart — friendly but no-nonsense –that keep people coming to Nob Hill. In chin-length hair and an old hoodie, he’s amiably chatting with the three men in the stools on this particular evening, all of whom say he’s the reason they drink here.

Juan Miner from Aurura has a beer at the bar on a Tuesday night at Nob Hill, East Colfax Avenue. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
Juan Miner from Aurora has a beer at the bar on a Tuesday night at Nob Hill. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

“It’s like one big family to me, you know what I’m saying? Just come here and have fun,” says Juan Miner.

Juan has lived in Colorado for 16 years and in the Denver area for 10. A Tennessee native who spent 12 years in the Army, he’s now a sous chef at the Pepsi Center and living in Aurora. He’s been coming to Nob Hill a few times a month for two years now.

On the other side of the bar, in the seat nearest the juke box, sits Michael. “My last name is X, like Malcolm,” he says.

Michael X and bartender Bart hang out at Nob Hill on a Tuesday evening after work. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
Michael X and bartender Bart Case hang out at Nob Hill on a Tuesday evening. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Michael has lived in Denver for 15 years but, like Juan, just started coming here a few years ago. He was living nearby on Pearl Street and found Nob Hill to be the perfect dive bar.

Plus, “Bart,” he says, laughing. “Simple as that. Bart. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy, fair kind of guy. He’s what you want in a bartender — takes care of you, knows what he’s doing. So here I am.”

Nob Hill on a Thursday morning. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill; capitol building; gold dome; skyline; cityscape;
Outside Nob Hill on a Thursday morning. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Two days later, the assembled regulars have the same to say of Nancy, who’s behind the bar this morning in a comfortable-looking flannel, at 10 a.m., two hours after opening.

Absent on this late-September morning are the people known as the “four-day millionaires,” who only show up after paychecks. Still, with 10 people today, it’s livelier than it was two nights earlier.

Asked why he comes to Nob Hill in the morning, Paul Sjoberg says, “Well, ‘cause I wake up in the morning and I wanna have a drink. So we’re kinda a bunch of drunks around here. Kind of. But we’re kind and caring people. And I love Nancy.”

“I wanna come see you,” he adds, turning to Nancy. “I do, actually. I really like that.”

Paul Sjoberg sits at the bar inside Nob Hill on a Thursday morning. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
Paul Sjoberg sits at the bar inside Nob Hill on a Thursday morning. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

“And then, you know what’s crazy?” he continues. “I love to come here and get a little drunk, and then I go across the street to the church. I go sit in the cathedral and meditate. Not daily, but I love going over there.”

A painting by the owner of Nob Hill from when he was a young man. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
A painting by the owner of Nob Hill from when he was a young man. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Paul only became a regular a couple years ago, though he’s lived just down the block for 27 years. It’s hard to say for sure, but you might attribute this trend of longtime locals only recently becoming Nob Hill regulars to the fact that it’s actually gotten a lot safer over the past decade.

“You didn’t want to come in here 10 years ago,” Bart says. “That’s why the furniture’s bolted to the wall.”

Back then, the neighborhood had more bars like Nob Hill. Things aren’t as rowdy now.

“I used to drink. I’ve been sober about four and half years,” Bart says. “And when I used to come in here 10 or 15 years ago, there were fights every night. There was a lot of bars in this area. Prohibition used to be the Roslyn Grill. The city made them close at midnight. They used to have Harry’s where the X Bar is. City made them close at 10. So everybody would come here.”

Of course, Nob Hill’s history goes back much further. Though it wasn’t known as Nob Hill Inn until 1954, the bar first opened at 420 Colfax Avenue in 1937. It’s hard to tell when it was last renovated, but the small space with its little stained glass windows and maroon leather booths looks practically untouched in all that time.

There are some relics that can be easily dated though: the paintings on the walls.

“What I’ve been told was, when the owner did all these paintings in the early ‘70s, he was in art school,” Bart said. “He turned 21 in the early ‘70s and his father gave him the bar. So these are all his original works.”

The paintings are Denver-centric and somewhat fascinating for their origin story, but there’s one that stands out.

It’s on the lefthand wall as you enter the bar — a scene of a clown surrounded by men in suits. Bart was told it’s supposed to be one of the original bartenders with men from the Capitol, though he’s not sure if that’s true. (The owner didn’t take us up on our invitation to chat.) 

A painting by the owner of Nob Hill from when he was a young man. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
A painting by the owner of Nob Hill from when he was a young man. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

“I had somebody come through the door, stop, look at that and say, ‘I was gonna have a drink but I don’t think I can anymore,’ Nancy says. “And he left.”

Then again, she says there are always people trying to buy the “weird and wonderful” work. Bart was once offered $2,500 for it.

Asked if people who make those offers want a piece of Nob Hill history or genuinely love the painting, he replies, “I think they’re just drunk.”

Michael X works the jukebox at Nob Hill on a Tuesday evening after work. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
Michael X works the jukebox at Nob Hill on a Tuesday evening after work. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Despite years of softening to its reputation, Nob Hill still holds its own. And though the regulars will hit you with a sly grin when you ask about its reputation, they’re not going to be the ones to tell its stories — at least not publicly.

Standing at the modern juke box that finally replaced an old one for which Nob Hill could no longer find parts, Michael, in between little outbursts of joy at each song he selected, talks about his passion for photography, books, horses and the West. What he doesn’t want to talk about are wild nights at Nob Hill.

“I can’t remember them, and plus I wouldn’t repeat them,” he says. “I don’t kiss and tell. Somebody would tell you. But not me.”

Juan isn’t telling, either.

“I’m not gonna be the one to say, but I done seen some crazy things. I seen some fights and pushing. I seen some busted noses when I go smoke … There’s some good and bad, you know? The infamous Colfax.”

Michael X and bartender Bart hang out at Nob Hill on a Tuesday evening after work. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; bars; nightlife; east colfax; capitol hill;
Michael X and bartender Bart Case hang out at Nob Hill on a Tuesday evening after work. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Ashley Dean

Author: Ashley Dean

Ashley Dean covers culture and other odds and ends. She previously covered music and did some copy editing for the Denver Post, the Colorado Daily and the Daily Camera. She's from New York, likes her bourbon straight and has strong opinions about Kanye West. She can be reached at adean@denverite.com, 303-502-2804 or @AshleyDean.