On a recent Sunday trip to Boulder’s iconic dive bar Sundown Saloon in the heart of the Pearl Street Mall, serving staff gathered in clumps laughing and talking over each other while pool balls clacked in the background.
Lights strung across the basement bar’s low ceilings glowed in rows of green, red and blue, and a strong smell wafted about — somewhere between a nineties bowling alley and roller rink permeated the space. The bar, at 1136 Pearl Street, first opened its doors on April 6, 1982, and has built up a stable of loyal patrons with a family dive atmosphere, a great five-table pool hall, and a last-dive-standing presence.
Need its dive credentials? It has been the nation’s annual top seller of Pabst Blue Ribbon for most of the last 20 years!
Tony Milazzo, who has co-owned the dive with Jon Tuschman since 2003 when they purchased it from original owners Dave and Mary Lou Weygant, attributes its longtime success as Boulder’s oldest continuously operating bar.
“I consider myself a caretaker more than an owner,” says Tony, who’s called the dive home as a regular since his first day in Boulder back in 1993. “The vision has always been to be a community meeting place for everyone, and that’s never changed.”
Jon first began frequenting the bar as a regular in 1989, eventually becoming a doorman 10 years later before working his way in and up.
Since inception, the Sundown Saloon has welcomed people of all types — initially mostly bikers and college kids with a grungy punk and skater vibe while also welcoming the daily 70-year-old chess players. As the photo walls suggest, the Downer, as its patrons lovingly call it, developed its character in the 90s and has cultivated it since.
In Boulder’s changing bar landscape, with rents rising and other downtown dives such as The Walrus Saloon disappearing, the Downer remains a underground dive stalwart, giving Boulderites a place to dive down and get cozy. When the city enacted a 11 p.m. close time for bars on the Hill a few years ago, the Downer became a mashup of the crowds that flocked to other dives: a cozy spot to sip PBR and socialize until its 2 a.m. close time.
Today, you find everyone from students to celebrities slamming down PBRs or one of the Downer’s many craft beers or bourbon. Whether from the nightly pool regulars or those who come infrequently Tony hears a simple praise: “it’s so great, nothing’s changed.”
“People think that all this stuff is old,” said our Sunday night bartender Andrew Van Meter. “It’s new, we just don’t replace the bones. We want it to look like a dirty bar but it’s not a dirty bar.”
The bar has been around for nearly 40 years, and many of its employees also stand the test of time. Some of the Downer’s “newest” employees have worked there for years, some as long as 24 years.
The Sundown Saloon’s operates a family dynamic, buoyed by the fact that many employees, and the owners themselves, started at the Downer as patrons.
“It’s just honest to how it’s always been,” says Tony. “It’s just good people. This place is really where my group of friends from all around the country for my entire life has started,” says Tony. “I see it with the younger staff. It truly is a family.”
With dating apps replacing the old ways of meeting people and streaming making TV shows accessible all times of day, bars like the Downer have increasing competition. Tony acknowledges that there’s lots of competition for people’s times. However, people still pour in every week and its retains the championship PBR belt.
“The best part of working here is definitely how close-knit of a family it is,” says our bartender Andrew Van Meter. “I remember one time my dog got really sick. I wiped my bank and all my savings on tests trying to figure out what was wrong, and completely forgot about rent. Jon lent me enough money for rent and more, without even me asking him.”
That comraderie has kept employees and customers loyal for decades and grown its acclaim nationally and internationally, with Sundown T-shirts recognized across the country and even across the world.
Header Image: Tony Milazzo with a few of the bar’s many plaques claiming its top PBR distribution! Image: Tatyana Sharpton.