They call it Denver’s oldest bar – and the best burger around | Desire for Colorado | Subscriber Content

DENVER • On a Saturday night at My Brother’s Bar, Paula Newman turned on a little-used light. Then she heard a lament.

“Someone said, ‘This is a bar! Why is it so bright?” says Newman, the bar’s owner. “People are so fun. It’s things like that. They don’t want that to change.”

Things like the perfect burgers and the paper they’re wrapped in, no plate required. Things like the accompanying caddies, storing personal tomatoes, onions and pickles. Things like the brick facade here on 15th Street and Platte Street stand in stark contrast to the surrounding hip development and reinforce its proud reputation as Denver’s longest-established bar, which has remained largely unchanged since 1873.

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A pedestrian carries a pair of skis as he walks past Denver’s oldest bar, My Brother’s Bar, last month.

And yes, there is the dark interior. Turn off the unnecessary light, a regular might say. And don’t you dare add a blue glow of a TV.

Newman, of course, knows better. Given the rush of sports fans — the bar is close to the Broncos, Rockies, Nuggets, and Avalanche venues — the bar is enticing, she admits.

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“Maybe one day out in the parking lot or in the tent,” says Newman. “But I don’t think we would ever put a TV in the building. I think Jim would frown at that.”

This is Newman’s former boss, the late Jim Karagas. He is credited with running the current, burger-slinging iteration of the many-iteration bar along with his brother Angelo.

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Current co-owner Dave Newman displays a folder full of old memories of My Brother’s Bar, including a photo taken outside the bar years ago. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

In 1970 the Karagas brothers bought the house. When sellers came to collect the payment, one or two of the Karagas would say something like, “Don’t look at me. It’s my brother’s bar.” The name stuck.

Early bartenders turned classical music records and explained the tunes that are often heard today. Newman later joined the team, starting in 1984 as a young mother.

“I remember she was talking about an ad for My Brother’s Bar and I said, ‘Don’t go there,'” says her husband Dave. “In 1984 (the area) was pretty sketchy.”

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But inside, Jim Karagas fostered a family-friendly environment. It was kind enough that Paula brought her little boy Danny with her. So friendly that she worked as a waitress and manager for decades until 2017.

That’s when Jim said, near the end of his life, that he was going to sell the old building. Paula imagined a demolition, another high-rise apartment building.

“I remember[Jim]telling me that, and my eyes widened and my mouth just dropped,” she says. “I said, ‘Can I call Danny?'”

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A staircase leads to nowhere at My Brother’s Bar Thursday, October 6, 2022. When Denver’s oldest bar opened in 1873, there was a boarding house upstairs. The second floor was later demolished after being old and unsafe. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Danny had grown into a hugely successful tech entrepreneur and investor. Its achievements have recently become the city’s achievements; his reputation is that of a cultural protector. One admirer said in a Gazette interview last year after buying the legendary Mercury Cafe, “I want to make ‘Danny saves Denver’ t-shirts.”

Having upheld his mother’s admiration for My Brother’s Bar, Danny struck a deal right after that call.

The bar, the family knew, had to be saved.

“We realized that we’re just kind of a caretaker,” says Dave, who retired as an optometrist to run the house with Paula. “We’re just carrying on the tradition.”

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A jalapeño and cream cheese burger, left, and a sweet Italian Swiss sandwich with onion rings and condiments at My Brother’s Bar in Denver.

The tradition dates back to an Italian immigrant named Maria Anna Capelli. She saw this building near where Denver was founded, near what is now Confluence Park.

Capelli opened a boarding house to look after her fellow railroad and mining compatriots. She and her husband apparently completed Highland House with a drawing room, restaurant and meat market. (The records aren’t entirely clear; the bar isn’t on the National Register of Historic Places, unlike the Buckhorn Exchange, which is known to be Denver’s oldest restaurant.)

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Revelry continued through various holdings over the years, including the Schlitz Brewing Co. in the early 1900s. Later, the bar Paul’s Place, famously visited by Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

It was still an artist center when Reza Dargahi started working for the Karagas brothers in 1978. Dargahi is now manager.

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Longtime collaborator Reza Dargahi (right) teases co-owner Dave Newman outside of My Brother’s Bar in Denver.

“It’s changed a lot,” he says. “You can also see that people have changed a lot.”

Now the bar is a tourist destination, but not the kind that has eclipsed the regulars. You’re still here no matter how the price changes.

It wasn’t long ago that they could get away with a $10 burger and beer. The burger now costs more than that.

“It’s hard for (Paula) to see that we have to charge that to pay the staff and keep things going,” says Dave.

The pandemic has changed a lot, says Paula. “We’re going to persevere,” she says.

Hang in there, leave the light on.

Not too many lights though.

On the menu

My Brother’s Bar burgers are prepared in popular ways, with beef from local supplier Castle Rock Meats and buns from Bluepoint Bakery. Single and double rooms range from $9.50 to $22, with side dishes like the popular onion rings.

The JCB is the most popular with jalapeno cream cheese. Named after a former chef, the Johnny Burger combines this topping with American and Swiss cheese 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 these complete the Hot Bum Steer along with cheese, onions and peppers. With sausage, cheese, onions, peppers and marinara, Sweet Italian Swiss wants to honor an element believed to have been born early in the bar’s long history. The peppersteak sandwich is another hearty option.

Also named after a former worker, Ticky Turkey, another creation made with jalapeno cream cheese and Catalina dressing, is popular. Ragin’ Tuna is a favorite of owner Paula Newman, with a Cajun aioli. Also a ragin’ chicken.

Meatless options include Nina (American and Swiss cheeses, jalapeno cream cheese, onions, peppers, and marinara) and Hooper, a veggie burger with kraut, Swiss, and Catalina.

Appetizers ($5 to $10) include chicken tenders, jalapeno poppers, mini corn dogs, and nachos smothered in red chili.