DENVER • One recent Saturday night at My Brother’s Bar, Paula Newman flipped on a little-used light. Then she heard a complaint.
“Someone was going, ‘This is a bar! Why is it so bright?” says Newman, the bar’s owner. “People are so funny. It’s things like that. They don’t want it to change.”
Things like the perfect burgers and the paper in which they’re wrapped, no plate required. Things like the accompanying caddies, storing personal tomatoes, onions and pickles. Things like the brick exterior here at 15th and Platte streets, starkly contrasting the surrounding, hip development and marking its proud reputation as Denver’s longest-going bar, largely unchanged since 1873.
And yes, there’s the dim interior. Turn off that needless light, a regular might say. And don’t dare add any blue glare of any TV.
Newman knows better, of course. With the rush of sports fans — the bar is in easy, pre-gaming range of the Broncos, Rockies, Nuggets and Avalanche venues — she admits it’s tempting.
Bestselling essayist David Sedaris to read new, old work in Colorado Springs
“Maybe someday, out in the parking lot or the tent,” Newman says. “But I don’t think we’d ever put a TV inside the building. I think Jim would frown upon that.”
That’s Newman’s former boss, the late Jim Karagas. He, alongside his brother, Angelo, is credited with the current, burger-slinging iteration of the bar with many iterations.
The Karagas brothers bought the place in 1970. When vendors came to collect payment, one Karagas or the other would say something along the lines of, “Don’t look at me. It’s my brother’s bar.” The name stuck.
Early bartenders spun classical music records, explaining the melodies often heard today. Newman joined the staff later, starting as a young mother in 1984.
“I remember her talking about an ad for My Brother’s Bar and me telling her, ‘Don’t go there,’” says her husband, Dave. “In 1984, (the area) was pretty sketchy.”
UCCS students to stage 'Amélie' musical based on hit French romantic comedy
But inside, Jim Karagas fostered a family-friendly environment. It was so friendly that Paula brought her little boy along, Danny. So friendly that she worked as a server and manager for the decades through 2017.
That’s when Jim, nearing the end of his life, said he would be selling the old building. Paula envisioned a demolition, another high-rise apartment building.
“I remember (Jim) telling me this, and my eyes widened and my mouth just dropped,” she says. “I said, ‘Can I call Danny?’”
Danny had grown into a highly successful tech entrepreneur and investor. His gains have been the city’s gains as of late; his reputation is that of cultural preservationist. Said an admirer in a Gazette interview last year, on the heels of him buying the iconic Mercury Cafe: “I want to make ‘Danny saves Denver’ T-shirts.”
Having held his mother’s admiration for My Brother’s Bar, Danny got to work on a deal right after that call.
The bar, the family knew, had to be saved.
“We came to the realization that we’re just kind of the caretakers,” says Dave, who retired as an optometrist to run the place with Paula. “We’re just keeping up the tradition.”
The tradition goes back to an Italian immigrant named Maria Anna Capelli. She saw this building built close to Denver’s founding site, near today’s Confluence Park.
Capelli opened a boarding house to care for her railroading and mining countrymen. She and her husband apparently completed the Highland House with a saloon, restaurant and meat market. (The record isn’t entirely clear; the bar does not find itself on the National Register of Historic Places, unlike the Buckhorn Exchange, which is known as Denver’s oldest restaurant.)
Dining review: Rookie errors at Colorado Springs-area taphouse
Revelry continued through various ownerships over the years, including Schlitz Brewing Co. in the early 1900s. Later, the bar was Paul’s Place, famously frequented by Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
It was still an artists’ hub when Reza Dargahi started working for the Karagas brothers in 1978. Dargahi is a manager today.
“It’s changed a lot,” he says. “You can see people changed a lot, too.”
Now the bar is a tourist destination, but not the kind that has run off the regulars. They’re still here, no matter the price changes.
It wasn’t long ago that they could get away with a burger and beer for $10. The burger costs more than that now.
“It’s hard for (Paula) to realize this is what we have to charge to pay the staff and keep things going,” Dave says.
The pandemic changed a lot of things, Paula says. “We’re hanging in there,” she says.
Hanging in there, keeping the lights on.
Though, not too many lights.
On the menu
My Brother’s Bar burgers are cooked in beloved fashion, with beef from local provider Castle Rock Meats and buns from Bluepoint Bakery. Singles and doubles range between $9.50 and $22, with sides extra, such as the beloved onion rings.
The JCB is the popular one topped with jalapeno cream cheese. Named for a former cook, the Johnny Burger combines that topping with American and Swiss cheeses and grilled onions. Also a leaner, sweeter bison burger.
Several hot and cold sandwiches ($10-$14) marry rye with turkey, ham, salami and/or pastrami. Three of those complete the Hot Bum Steer, along with cheese, onions and peppers. With sausage, cheese, onion, peppers and marinara, the Sweet Italian Swiss aims to honor an item believed to be born early in the bar’s long history. The peppersteak sandwich is another hearty option.
Also named for a former worker, the Ticky Turkey is popular, another creation of the jalapeno cream cheese plus Catalina dressing. The Ragin’ Tuna is a favorite of owner Paula Newman, with a Cajun aioli. Also a Ragin’ Chicken.
Non-meat choices are the Nina (American and Swiss cheeses, jalapeno cream cheese, onion, peppers and marinara) and the Hooper, a veggie burger topped with kraut, Swiss and Catalina.
Appetizers ($5-$10) include chicken tenders, jalapeno poppers, mini-corn dogs and nachos smothered in red chili.