Burgers, grilled cheeses and a side of nostalgia is being served up at My Brother’s Bar
Denverite reader Julie Robbins says she’s glad the old school tavern in Highlands is still around.
Denver is constantly changing. Colorado is the sixth fastest growing state and many of those new residents come to Denver, bringing new buildings, new restaurants and a lot of change.
That’s according to Julie Robbins, a fourth generation Denverite who spent about four years of her 59 years of life away from Denver. She’s lived at her house in the San Rafael Historic District in southeast Five Points for 15 years.
“Denver used to have a small town feel to it,” Robbins said. “It was all jeans and cowboy boots everywhere. It’s gotten kind of fancy, and I don’t like the cleaned up, sanitized version of everything. I know that Denver is pretty transient, but it’s not for me. I’m a very nostalgic person.”
A few native and long-term residents might feel the same way. When a city or a neighborhood grows and old haunts close, nostalgia is the only thing left.
The pandemic has exacerbated the closure of local favorites like Racine’s and, one of Robbins’ favorite spots, El Chapultepc in LoDo.
“There’s a loss of nostalgia,” Robbins said. “And then places try to make nods back to the nostalgic things, when I rather just have the thing itself. I had a vision of a really fancy hamburger place [where El Chapultepc was] that charges $20 a hamburger and they name the burgers after jazz musicians. It horrifies me.”
So, when we asked readers to tell us what local business they’re glad is still around after the mandatory shutdowns of the pandemic, Robbins named a Denver staple that’s been around since 1873, My Brother’s Bar.
“I’ve been going there with my friends for probably more than 35 years,” Robbins said. “My friends had a surprise 34th birthday party for me there. It holds a lot of fond memories. We liked that you could just go, sit there and order a beer. You always know what it was going to be when you walked in.”
On the corner of Platte and 15th street in the Highlands, My Brother’s brick facade is old school in comparison to the glass buildings across the street. You have to follow the smell of steaming burgers to know the bar is there, considering there’s no sign outside. Inside, you’re greeted to the stronger scent of tavern food, dim lighting and the wall of liquor above the heavy wooden bar.
It’s a saloon for Denverites of all ages, and that’s how owner Danny Newman likes it. He and his family took over the business from brother’s Jim and Angelo Karagas in 2017 and haven’t changed a thing.
“We don’t touch things,” Newman said. “My Brother’s Bar is a place that connects the present to the long past. We’re not trying to modernize, not trying to stay with the food or drink trends. We’re just staying extremely authentic”
Like Robbins, Newman has plenty of fond memories of My Brother’s Bar. His mother, Paula, started working there in 1985, almost around the time Robbins started patronizing the joint. And, of course, Newman’s mom brought him to work frequently.
“Danny basically grew up here,” laughed Newman’s father, David. “Climbing all over the place and drinking a Coke.”
Danny Newman drinks Diet Coke now, for the record, but when the owners were thinking of selling the place, Newman knew he wanted to preserve his second home. His father agreed.
“People come in and they take over a spot and put their own thoughts to it,” David Newman said. “But if something is working, there’s no reason to change it.
Danny Newman continued, “If you’re bulldozing places to build new or buying something and gutting it, that’s where you lose any kind of character or history and that’s the kind of stuff that really sucks.”
The history of My Brother’s Bar was almost lost at the height of the pandemic.
The bar is mainly a dine-in eatery, according to Newman, so transitioning to carry out wouldn’t be sustainable.
“It was scary,” Danny Newman said. “Before programs like PPP or any of the city or grant programs, we really didn’t know what we were going to do or how to survive. When we reopened for take-out only… That’s not what this place is. There’s plenty of people who will come, grab food and leave but if that’s all of our business, that’s just not enough.”
Danny Newman believes the shutdown and the move to carry-out was about a six to eight week period but it’s all blurry and felt like an eternity.
It wasn’t until the bar was able to seat people outdoors, did Danny Newman feel somewhat out of the woods.
There was also some help from Raising Cane’s founder Todd Graves. With the pandemic causing a decline in restaurants sales, Graves launched a show called Restaurant Recovery, streamed exclusively on Discovery+, where he went to several restaurants and businesses across the country to help out in any way.
That included My Brother’s Bar.
Graves helped the Newmans set up more outdoor seating with heated tents and igloos. The Newmans were grateful and the new features stabilized the finances.
“I thought this was too good to be true,” Danny Newman said. “When we were able to get really safe outdoor dining, it felt like we had weathered the worst. We thought, ‘OK we’re stable again.’ ”
But the Delta variant of COVID-19 is bringing a large cloud of uncertainty to the ongoing pandemic. Mask mandates are returning and vaccine requirements are becoming more frequent.
Danny Newman said he felt good about the business for a short two to three weeks but now he’s almost doomsday prepping.
“We’re keeping everything up and ready to go in case there’s another shutdown in winter,” Danny Newman said. “That’s the best we can do at this point. It definitely doesn’t feel like we’re in the clear. We’re in another unknown era but we’re going to be positive and make it all work.”
Loyal customers like Robbins and all the other Denverites that smile when the name My Brother’s Bar comes up are also thinking positively.
Robbins said she showed her “loyalty” when she waited outside in 23 degree temperatures for her favorite dish, a grilled cheese sandwich.
There’s also Mrs. Cabela, first name unknown, who is part of the Cabela family that owns a chain of sporting good stores. She has an apartment nearby and is an occasional patron of My Brother’s Bar. She always asks for the Dom Perignon.
“Mrs. Cabela frequents this place enough that we keep cold bottles of Dom,” Danny Newman laughed. “So the only time I’ve tasted it is when she orders it and shares a bit. There’s so many stories like that and that’s why the history is so cool. Everyone has their own little versions of this place.”
Last Friday, Robbins ordered her favorite dish and Danny Newman ordered a fancier version, the Nina, a sandwich with American, Swiss, jalapeño cream cheese, onion, peppers and tomato paste.
The place was packed inside and out. There’s no televisions in My Brother’s Bar. There’s never been a television in the bar and there will never be one, David Newman said adamantly.
Sometimes the bar plays classical music, another ode to the past that the Newmans intend to keep in the present. But the only noise that afternoon was the clanging of dishes and a high din of customer conversation. The way Robbins likes it.
It’s a regular joint, selling regular food but with a side of rich history. The bar faced prohibition, hosted beat poets like Jack Kerouac, changed owners and now faces a pandemic and an ever-changing Denver.
Robbins said that’s what many folks have been missing, especially during the pandemic. Consistency and knowing that when you want a grilled cheese you know where to go, where to sit and you might even run into a few familiar faces.
“There’s something comforting about that in a time of so much change,” Robbins said. “You need certain things you can count on and you need to feel a part of your own city. It means a lot to me and I’m glad that someone is picking up on it, on this idea of consistency and nostalgia and favorite places that you can count on.”