Denver is a drinking city. Part of that is thanks to its well-earned reputation for craft beer—there are more than 100 breweries in the metro area alone. Yet over the past decade or so, the Mile High City has also started to make its name with distilleries and world-class bars. Few know that better than those who are the face of the city’s cocktail bars, late-night spots and live music clubs.
Today, it’s just as easy to stumble upon a bar with a multipage cocktail menu in Denver as it is a craft brewery. The masses of people who’ve moved to the city in recent years have led to a surge in new bars as well as a renewed appreciation for the standby dives and cocktail spots, such as My Brother’s Bar and The Cruise Room, that have been open for decades. Outposts from New York like the pioneering Death & Co. and agave bar Ghost Donkey now join Denver originals, making more options than ever for going out.
For this installment of Punch’s “A Night at the Door,” we spoke with three people who are the face of Denver establishments, each delivering a very different type of night out.
At Lady Jane, a craft cocktail bar and Tales of the Cocktail award nominee in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood, Scott Gaines both works the door and serves as the bar’s resident drag queen, a title earned after first dressing in drag for some levity during the height of pandemic restrictions.
Meanwhile, Occidental, a punk rock bar, caters to a wide range of people in the heart of LoHi—and the bouncers need to have the patience for them all. Depending on the time of day or night, guests might comprise groups with bottles of craft beer and classic cocktails, fans cheering on their favorite team or people getting one last drink before ending the night.
Finally there’s Nocturne, the premiere jazz bar in the city. Nocturne draws music lovers and musicians alike to a part of town near what was once known as the Harlem of the West, where performers like Duke Ellington once played.
What’s immediately clear on a night out is that there’s a bar for whatever type of night that you’re looking to get into. From rowdy dives to music lounges, here’s what that night might look like, from those who know it best.
Workplace: Lady Jane
How long have you been at Lady Jane and what’s your role?
I’ve been here about three years; I started a couple months before the pandemic. When I first started, I was just checking IDs at the door, but once the pandemic hit we had really strict COVID regulations and my role moved more into a leadership position.
Now it’s kind of grown to floor support, host [and] I call myself a resident drag queen. We throw monthly theme parties and I get to do the floor show.
What’s the crowd like here?
We’re a destination for date nights, bachelorette parties, drinks before dinner. There’s a lot of young energy [in this part of Denver], but still people who grew up here and [have] been in the city for decades are still going out and exploring the nightlife.
There’s so much creativity here in the city, and places like Lady Jane, Death & Co., Yacht Club—lots of places get overshadowed by the beer scene.
What’s the hardest part about working the door?
You’re essentially the face of the bar, so you’ve got to maintain the stamina. That’s the biggest challenge, because it’s high volume, person after person, party after party. Keeping your energy up through the five to six hours during the rush up here is the biggest challenge.
What’s it been like working the door here over the past couple of years?
Me doing drag here actually evolved from [working the door during] the pandemic. We had stricter mask policies here than other places in town. We were one of the first to have guests wear their masks when the server was at the table, and we were getting pushback from that at the door. So I started dressing in drag while I was working. Ain’t nobody talking back to a drag queen, so I started doing that and [it was] smooth sailing from there.
What’s a typical night out in Denver like?
Neighborhoods here have very specific crowds. The sports bar crowd in LoDo, rowdy nightlife in RiNo. Here, it’s more of a date night, anniversary party, birthday party, people casually going out for drinks. Low-key, but still a solid night.
Do you ever have to kick anyone out?
Oh, sure. It’s always younger people—22, 23. We want [to be] a place of comfort for everyone. If you choose to hunt or accost or hurt another person, you are not welcome here.
What’s your ideal night out?
I always enjoy doing cocktail-dinner-cocktail and try to squeeze in as many places as possible. There are so many restaurants and places to grab a drink before and after. There’s so much going on in the city; I’m still exploring spots.
What do you drink when you’re done with your shift?
Negroni all the way. I am what I drink, and it’s the perfect blend of bitter and sweet.
How long have you been at Occidental?
I moved out from New Jersey, coming up on five years in December. My family has been running bars in New Jersey for about three generations. I chose to go into sports management and went to college to make my mom happy. I spent a year in that industry, hated it, came out to Denver to visit these bars and immediately fell in love.
My brother Sean offered me the opportunity to move out with him and learn how to work in the industry. During the pandemic, there was a lack of staff, so I started working the door more.
Did you have a culture shock coming from the East Coast?
I was very confused at how nice people are here. Random people saying hi on the streets—it is not like that on the East Coast. People here were holding doors for me, and I was like, “No, sorry, I don’t have any money.”
How would you describe the nightlife at Occidental and around LoHi?
It’s become a little bit rowdier of a crowd, which has to do with how the demographic of this neighborhood has changed over the past couple of years. It’s a lot younger of a crowd, and I feel like a lot of people who turned of drinking age during the pandemic were ready to go out and drink. It’s almost night and day from before the pandemic to [the] current day.
Does that make it all the more important to have someone good at the door?
The first thing people have is an interaction with somebody at the door when they walk in. You can’t have someone who is just like, “Let me see your ID,” and is aggressive with it. It takes a lot of energy to do that hospitality—greet them, check IDs and tell them how our service works. Just trying to be that first interaction with people that puts them at ease, not puts them on edge.
What’s the hardest part about working the door here?
Trying to keep that positive mentality. Occidental is one of the [places that stay open latest] in the Lower Highlands area, so we deal with a lot of people who’ve been drinking all day and then coming to drink afterward, so they’re already a little intoxicated. Being positive and judging if they can have another drink or not is important, because we’re responsible for our guests and we’re here to take care of them. And that isn’t always easy when someone is drunk.
Every interaction is new and you can’t let the last interaction affect your next interaction.
What’s the most annoying part about the job?
Vaping is one of my biggest pet peeves. Everyone does it—I do it occasionally, too—but I’m constantly reminding people that they can’t vape indoors, especially after they’ve had a few drinks. I still try to be hospitable with a three-strike method where it’s like, please don’t do this, please don’t do this, and then, one more time and you’re out.
What’s your go-to drink after a shift?
Depends on the shift. I love a good gin and soda. Fords is one of my favorite gins, but I’m nostalgic for Beefeater because that’s what my dad drank after his night working at the bar, just Beefeater on the rocks. If it was a really rough shift, I’d go with some barrel-proof Elijah Craig or some OGD [Old Grand-Dad]. I also love mezcal, especially tobala.
What’s your role at Nocturne?
I’m the co-owner and wearer of many hats, as all small-business owners are. On any given night if I’m asked to help, it’s usually [at] the host stand, and I love being up there and seeing people in. The host position is one of the key positions that we have, and it’s so essential to how we greet people and have them seated at the best spot for the best experience. It’s like a puzzle piece every day when you’re mixing food and music and drinking—you get a variety of people.
How long have you been in Denver?
I’m a native. I’ve been here for over 40 years, except for a short stint in Florida.
That’s kind of uncommon in Denver. How would you say the city’s nightlife has changed?
Yeah, it is. Growing up in Denver, this side of downtown was considered dangerous and people wouldn’t go here. When we were opening up Nocturne, we had family think that we were crazy for putting a high-end venue in the RiNo area. But it worked.
How would you describe Denver nightlife today?
I think the pandemic changed a lot. Places are not open as late as they used to be, and I get comments from people visiting that Denver is an earlier town than some of the other major cities. It’s not less-thriving, but if you’re waiting until 11 to go to the club, then you’re missing out on a lot of what’s going on earlier.
What’s the No. 1 thing that’s important for someone working the door at Nocturne?
Emotional intelligence and being able to read the guest when they’re coming in.
Have you ever had to kick someone out?
We’ve certainly had the occasional over-imbibement that we have to deal with.
I think that we had our own set of challenges during COVID when we were operating at capacity and had to be very strict about how many people we let in. That was hard. If someone was going to stay late to watch the second show or show up early, we had to ask people to wait outside, and [the weather in] Denver is not always sunshine. It speaks to our guests and their support of us that they were willing to wait outside before they could be let in.
Any interesting people or stories who have come through while you’re working the door?
If we have a jazz musician who decides to stop by, you can tell, because they have their trumpet or saxophone case with them. If we can get them in, sometimes you’ll see the musicians onstage recognize that person, and they get to join them onstage for a tune. Those things are just magic, when the jazz community supports one another and improves together.
What’s your preferred after-shift drink?
I’m going to go with Napoleon on this one: Champagne. You deserve it in victory and you need it in defeat, and depending on how the shift was, sometimes it’s victory, and sometimes it’s defeat.