Shelby’s Bar & Grill an endangered species in time of urban renewal
Happy hour at Shelby’s Bar and Grill on Friday.
On a quiet stretch of 18th Street, a nub of a building sits beached at the edge of a vast parking lot and dwarfed by the glimmering glass towers nearby.
At night, the neon “Grill” and “Bar” brightly beckon to passers-by and guests of the Grand Hyatt across the way.
Inside Shelby’s Bar & Grill, cold beer flows, shots are chased, an eclectic jukebox rattles and rolls, sets of forgotten keys dangle hopelessly awaiting their owners, chalkboards of trivia questions beg consideration, TVs air Carolina Panthers football on game days, and a clock ticks ahead in “bar time.”
This unassuming watering hole — recently hailed by Esquire magazine as one of the “18 Best Bars in America” — is living on borrowed time.
Shelby’s, in a way, represents an endangered species. Dive bars and neighborhood pubs have pulled disappearing acts during times of urban renewal.
“We don’t own the property,” said Howard Nelson, who with his wife, Nanette, paid $125,000 for Shelby’s in 1991. “If we’d own this building, you and I would be on a rooftop patio by now.”
Development is becoming far too powerful an adversary of the neighborhood bar, said David Wondrich, cocktail aficionado and author who penned the “Best Bars” list. Unless the proprietors own their buildings, not even a loyal following — or an homage in Esquire — is enough to keep the bars from toppling.
“It’s sad. It’s everywhere. They’re closing left and right, mostly in cities undergoing a commercial revival,” he said. “Ironically, that’s killing the liveliest thing downtown.”
Shelby’s, at 519 18th St., is technically owned by Antelope Real Estate — an entity actually owned by the Anschutz family — which tested the real estate waters last year for the free-standing building and surrounding triangular property. But the right buyer didn’t bite, and the “For sale” signs came down by the start of the year.
Robert Rich, director of the Anschutz Family Foundation, said the company is “happily holding” the property and at the moment has no plans to sell.
“That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the back of the room,” Nelson said. “Because any day could be the last day, theoretically. If they wanted to sell the whole piece of property, well … it’d be time for us to go.”
There’s history aplenty amid the walls of 519 18th St. — from its early days as a mortuary to its infamous years as a “clip joint” under the Pink Lady Bar and Grill banner. Converted to Shelby’s in 1979, the bar originally was envisioned as an English pub, but “everybody thought it was an Irish bar.” It’s been a family affair since Oct. 1, 1991.
The Nelsons’ grown children work behind the bar, wait tables and help cook the pub grub in the back kitchen.
Son Ben helped to wash dishes at the age of 14. Daughter Wendy, now 33, started working at Shelby’s at age 8.
“At 8, we turned the tables over and gave her a knife and said, ‘Get the gum off the bottom of the tables,’ ” Howard Nelson said. “And now, she does everything.”
The Shelby’s kin extend beyond the Nelson cohort. Another family helps run the kitchen during the day, and the patrons are practically relatives.
“Some come every day, some for 20 years, some come every other day,” Nanette Nelson said. “You just know what they’re going to drink; and if they change it, everybody goes, ‘What?’ ”
In times when the bar is packed — during a Panthers game or, most notably, the weekend after the Esquire piece published — several regulars pitch in and clear glasses from the tables, Nanette Nelson said. And if someone doesn’t have a home for the holidays, the Nelsons open theirs.
There is no shortage of great yarns at neighborhood bars, and Shelby’s has its share: The time when a frantic fiance called in search of his bride’s dress the day before a wedding; the time when a spirited ghost named John Paul Potter knocked over ketchup bottles; the many times when people celebrated promotions or tied one on after losing a job.
It took six years after the venerable Duffy’s Shamrock Bar, a few blocks away, closed for Shelby’s to become Duffy’s-esque, Howard Nelson said. And it took 20 years for the Nelsons to make their money back.
Shelby’s has resulted in six weddings and eight Shelbys (six girls and two boys), and the bar has hosted two wakes, Howard Nelson said.
“This has stayed a constant, an oasis in the otherwise changing landscape of Denver,” he said. “Unless you’re on the mall, this is the only place around. So everybody knows Shelby’s, and we’re grateful for it.”
‘A human experience’
A bar crawl four years ago served as the impetus for the five-dozen words penned in Esquire magazine about Shelby’s Bar & Grill.
Wondrich was in town for a bartender’s conference and had ventured out for some drinks with Sean Kenyon, the owner ofWilliams & Graham and fellow “18 Best Bars” entrant Occidental. The two started at Shelby’s and finished the night there, earning a fair bit of gleeful and friendly teasing during their more inebriated return trip, Kenyon said.
“The bartender, she continued to berate us in a way that I enjoy,” Kenyon said. “Being from New Jersey, a fair amount of ballbusting back and forth is my style.”
Nanette Nelson was behind the bar that night, unknowingly providing some fodder for the colorful anecdote relayed by Wondrich.
While out on the patio with other Shelby’s regulars that night, Matt Rolland poked his head in the door and hollered over the lively jukebox at Nanette for another round.
“And as soon as I said it, the music cut off, and it’s just me yelling,” Rolland said.
In return, Nanette playfully scolded: “Wait your damn turn!”
Nearly four years later, the exchange landed in Esquire and Rolland earned himself a few free rounds from his mates at a bar he considers to be the “Cheers of Denver.”
“I think that’s my Andy Warhol ’15 minutes,’ right there,” said Rolland, 38.
The whole night made a lasting imprint in the memory of Wondrich, who tries to strike a balance in his annual “best bars” lists and highlight not just the slick new cocktail bars, but also the neighborhood watering holes.
“The dives I like to put on there are usually very divey, … (places) where you won’t get knifed, but (where) you’ll have a real, authentic experience — a human experience,” he said.
Kenyon, whose father ran a bar and father’s father ran a bar, said he was drawn to Shelby’s for the better part of a decade because of the pub’s casual, neighborhood vibe.
Kenyon is not at Shelby’s enough to earn the status of “regular.”
“I’m there enough that I can feel the buzz and the energy,” he said. “It goes back to a time when bars were places where all kinds of people come together — especially in the downtown area — it allows people in different professions that don’t really mix all that often.
“That’s like a lifeblood of the cities — is the great neighborhood bar,” he said. “Bars were the original social media.”
Places such as Shelby’s inspired Occidental, Kenyon said, adding he wanted his second bar to not only serve the surrounding neighborhood but also to provide more opportunities for Williams & Graham’s workers — the employees who became like family.
“Hopefully there’s enough like-minded people that want to open bars that fit their neighborhood rather than open a monstrosity that doesn’t fit the people who live around it,” he said.
Sam Fairbanks, a Five Points resident since 1982, laments the changes that have occurred in his neighborhood and elsewhere throughout Denver.
“We just lost our last black bar in Five Points,” said Fairbanks, 61. “Before, we had 15.”
Fairbanks has been a regular at Shelby’s for a while. He was responsible for fashioning part of the bar out of the former mahogany bleachers from the University of Northern Colorado.
When he’s here, he orders a Bud.
As the world continues to evolve, seemingly faster each day, Fairbanks takes delight in what a place such as Shelby’s and other local, neighborhood establishments mean to Denver.
“It’s a pretty vast group of people that come in and out of here in spite of all the things that have changed,” he said. “So that makes it fun. The person you sit down next to may have nothing to do with anything you’ve experienced.”