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Boulder's Quintessential Dive Bar On PBR, Kicking Out Customers, and More Than 30 Years In Business

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The Downer owners Tony Milazzo and Jon Tuschman
The Downer owners Tony Milazzo and Jon Tuschman
Photo: The Downer

The Sundown Saloon served its first mug of Pabst Blue Ribbon on April 6th 1982, when the original owners, Dave and Mary Lou Weygant, opened the doors to the basement bar on 1136 Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado. The space, a former steakhouse, continues to thrive as an institution of daytime pool playing and late-night partying to a diverse crowd of drinkers.

But what stands out most about the Downer is the staff. They are some of the kindest and hardest working professionals in town. Many bartenders have been there for more than ten years; they remember your name and what you always order.

College kids, old-timers that have been regulars since the beginning, cooks and waitress after their shift, out-of-towners, sober folks playing pool and drinking free soda— they all share the air at the Downer. Yes, this is a dive bar. Where you can get pitchers of cheap beer and one dollar drink specials. Even though smoking was banned in 2006, you'll still leave smelling like Marlboro Reds. This is a place where you'll have to yell over the loud music blasting from the Jukebox- which plays classics like Aretha Franklin along with bands like The Chromatics and Nacho Picasso in it's rotation.

Beyond its dive bar-status, the Sundown Saloon offers one of the best selections of bourbon in town including Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton's, and George T. Stagg. In the last few years, the bar has added an extensive lineup of craft beers to their roster, and on Sundays all craft beers are $1 off their already low prices. There is still plenty of Pabst to be had, too. For the past two years this bar has been the number one seller of PBR in the world.

In 2003 the bar was sold to long-time employees Tony Milazzo and Jon Tuschman. Tony started as the first and only male cocktail waitress in the bar's history. Jon had been a regular since 1989 and started as a doorman in 1999. Over glasses of tap beer, the duo talked about the past and present of the Sundown Saloon.

What's one of your craziest memories of a night at the Sundown Saloon? Jon Tuschman: Tony and I were escorting a gentleman out to the top of Pearl street for grabbing one of our waitresses. He decided to run back and dive, thinking he would tackle both of us at the bottom of the stairs. He went all the way down, it was the funniest and most horrifying thing I've ever seen in my life.
Tony Milazzo: He just laid down there and cried and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," while we waited for the police.
JT: I think some of the best stories are when people come back and tell us they met their wife or husband down here.
TM: We have Bryan Dayton's son up on the wall. He met his wife here.

I've heard stories that the Sundown used to be a tougher bar. That the staff would get more physical. TM: It used to be kind of like a biker bar. When I started coming here it was a mix of bikers, college kids, and older, working-class people. There were a lot more fights. It was just the way that it had always been— rough and tumble. If the customers were in a fight, we had to get involved. At some point we started to change that attitude. Understanding that the people that are down here are drinking and sometimes they're going to make mistakes. We have to be the smarter minds and cooler heads.
JT: That mindset helped us become better at our jobs by doing a lot of preventative stuff; noticing things before they escalate. It makes us a better, safer bar.
TM: Once we bought the bar, we got rid of a lot of the homeless people who would come in here and hang out all day.
JT: Literally, the homeless population would camp out in our old smoking room, it was not a very friendly place. That was our first order of business, other than taking credit cards.
TM: But still keeping it what it was. We try not to do anything too quick down here. We try not to fix anything or replace anything too quickly. It needs to still be what it is.
JT: We still get some character's, the good character's that have been down here since Tony was a waitress. These guys will come in every day and they're great assets to this bar.
TM: Champagne Eddie has probably been sitting at his bar stool right where the door flips up every day for the last sixteen years. He gets done with work, and he comes down here, orders a pitcher of PBR, reads the newspaper, and goes home. People have lived and died down here, and the only way they got found is because a bartender noticed that they weren't coming in.

I was here one night when you got on the loud speaker and said to a guy, every time you're here you make women feel uncomfortable, you can never come back. JT: That's one thing we take to an extreme. If you or anyone ever says this guy is making me feel uncomfortable, then we don't ask questions at that point. That person has to leave.

What is something about Sundown Saloon that most people don't know? TM: A lot of people don't know what we all have done outside of here. Like that Jon and I were teachers.

Really? You were teachers? JT: I was a behavior specialist for bi-polar and autistic children. It was a full-time job, we would literally get finished at school and turn around and get here at 8 p.m.
TM: I was teaching middle school in Fort Collins. I had gone through grad school while I was bartending here and got my masters in deaf education. We'd sleep in two shifts. It allowed us to have money to put away to buy this place.
JT: I think sometimes people just think we're a dirty dive bar. We are that and more. We have such an eclectic crowd.
TM: I still don't consider that I own this place, I feel like I'm lucky enough to be the caretaker here for right now because I love this place. The first day I was in Boulder I came here and I never left. This is where the United States of America was born, in a tavern.

The Sundown Saloon has been the top seller of PBR in the world for the past two years. Was there always PBR here? TM: At one point there was only PBR. Then the microbrew thing happened and they put in more tap handles.
JT: In the last couple of years we've added craft beers to our lineup. We are changing the culture of what a dive bar is. You can get a six-dollar pitcher of PBR here or you can get an amazing craft beer for four or five dollars, which would be double or triple the price somewhere else. We are trying to make it accessible.
TM: The industry is a big part of our business. When I go out of town I ask the people who are working where the staff goes after work. That's where I want to go after dinner. I want to find that bar.

On the Downer:

Matthew Clark, longest standing bartender at the Sundown Saloon— "We've been very lucky for years to appeal to the bar and restaurant employee crowd. In my opinion, they're the best kind of regular bar patrons. They are generally empathetic to your job, they know how to tip, they tend to drink with their co-workers and police themselves, and they appreciate the fact that when our bar is really busy, we can really crank out the cocktails and beers faster than anyone in town. I've worked at the Sundown forever, and I still love it. It really is the best eclectic melting pot for meeting new people or drinking with old friends that Boulder has to offer."

Brittany Henze, former bartender at Mateo, now at Alembic in San Francisco— "One of the greatest things about the Sundown is the jukebox curated by Matthew Clark. He does an amazing job of consistently bringing new and eclectic things in for people to choose from, rather than let the jukebox stagnate so everyone has to listen to the same thing every night, over and over. That sort of thing can drive a person to homicide. I miss the Sundown all the time— will never find a bar quite like it. Je t'aime Sundown Saloon."

Laura Shunk, former Westword food-critic — "If you went to the Downer on the weekend nights, you'd get drunken college students flirting with each other over a game of pool. The place would be crowded then, and around midnight or one, somebody would inevitably break something and get hustled up the stairs by the bouncer. Late on the weekdays, though, it was almost all restaurant industry types off their shifts; sometimes they'd barely made it through the door for a nightcap when the bartender would call last call. You'd always see someone you knew— anonymity did not exist at that bar— and then you'd laugh with them when whoever you came in with got picked off by an out-of-town visitor for a one night stand."

Eckhard Knoepke, former Sundown Saloon bartender— "I met a guy in a hostel in Greece who I recognized immediately. I never knew his name so I just pointed at him and said, 'double beam and ginger, short, right?'"

Matthew Jansen, chef/owner of Mateo & Radda— "Jon, Tony, and the crew have always kept an eye on friends and colleagues. I've received a few calls over the years and had the opportunity to give a ride to a patron that might of had an extra sip or two. The Downer is an all time classic."

Bryan Dayton, owner of Oak and Acorn— "I've been going to the Sundowner since 1996. I've spent time in that room back when there was a smoking lounge, and I've seen the whole evolution of it. Honestly it's one of the best whiskey selections in the whole city, the best selection at the best price. It's just the bar I spend more time in than any other bar. The Sundowner has a lot of meaning to me. Just don't publicize my behavior after I go down there for a couple hours."

Kate Lacroix, of Dish PR— "I've been going to The Downer for years. The only real difference is now I can afford the more expensive beer and I don't drink too much of it. Last year I dressed up as a "Boulder mom" for a friends going away party and I brought my yoga mat into the joint and did downward dogs to greet everyone who came in. I have to say, it was a hit."

· Holy Diver [Boulder Weekly]
· Cocktail Week 2013: Lifers, City by City [-E-]
· Boulder's Best Dive Bars [EDen]
· Shanna Henkel: Waitress Turned Owner of The Village Coffee Shop [EDen]
· Denver's Iconic Dive Bars [EDen]
· All Cocktail Week 2013 Coverage [EDen]

Sundown Saloon

1136 Pearl Street, Boulder, CO 80302