Monkey Barrel: Creating A Legacy In Sunnyside with Drinks, Food, Music, Comedy & Community

By Krysti Joméi
Published Issue 127, July 2024

Cooling by Chaffee Park and getting kinda funky, Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood bar, restaurant, live music/comedy venue and arcade, Monkey Barrel, has been named a Denver Legacy Business, the City’s new program to recognize and support longstanding, independent brick-and-mortars that have contributed to community character. Recognizing the challenges faced by Legacy Businesses and the ripple effect their closures can have on neighborhoods, the program works to unlock and accelerate support and anti-displacement strategies for these establishments.

Originally a wildly successful punk bar on Platte Street donning a mural of Sex Pistol’s Sid Vicious and serving only Colorado craft beers, Denver born-and-raised owner of Monkey Barrel, Jimmy Nigg, was forced out after two years by a massive corporate Seattle-based developer when they bought the building. In an act of survival, and some luck, he found a weed-ridden, run-down former deli market on the corner of 44th and Tejon on Craigslist. They caught the listing just in time as their current landlord was considering an offer to tear down the building to create upscale condos/apartments like the ones that had been built behind the property. The building’s bones were good and it had a kitchen, so Jimmy and his partner went for it, fully realizing they had their work cut out for them if they wanted to bring their former patrons and new guests in for drinks and to ultimately create a space that could put on live events.

Monkey Barrel under construction of the new build-out.
Monkey Barrel’s Donkey Kong themed bar.
Beastie Boys Mural Inside Monkey Barrel
Monkey Barrel’s door featuring the classic Barrel of Monkeys as handles.
Pinball arcade inside Monkey Barrel.


With the bar in the original restored building and restaurant seating with an arcade in the new Beastie Boys muraled build-out (an ode to one of Jimmy’s favorite groups and Monkey Barrel’s name inspo, “Brass Monkey”), he finally opened his barrel of monkeys handled doors in 2015. They started serving local and affordable drinks, and offered guests N64’s in every booth, a collection of pinball machines, and a music, film and pop culture mini museum with guitars, photos, records, artwork and memorabilia signed by the greats like Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Shepard Fairey and even the cast of The Lost Boys.

Signed Sublime memorabilia and more inside Monkey Barrel
Signed Beastie Boys memorabilia inside Monkey Barrel
Signed Nirvana memorabilia inside Monkey Barrel
Signed Lost Boys movie poster inside Monkey Barrel

“I continue to build on our memorabilia collection even though my wife [Cindy] tells me to stop spending money. I’m running out of room on the walls. But the way I look at it is I’m investing in something that gives back because people really appreciate it. I want people in here to be like, I remember that album. I remember this movie, and it brings them back to a happy place in their lives.” Jimmy says. 

Jimmy Nigg and his wife at Red Rocks.
Jimmy Nigg and his children ice skating in Colorado Avalanche jerseys.

Even though the aim of Monkey Barrel was to serve as a sort of nostalgic oasis in the city, creating community was always at the forefront of Jimmy’s vision. He wanted to preserve and respect the historical cultural neighborhood and create a safe, welcoming space for its current residents of all ages by putting on community oriented events like live music, comedy, open mic nights and sport watch parties. Even more, he wanted to champions artists of all walks, specifically paying musicians who performed no matter how well-known they might be. Because music has always been at the heart of Jimmy’s life. He was the kid in high school who brought his CD case to every house party and immediately looked for the stereo to jam Wu-Tang, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Eminem, De La Soul. After finally securing a live music license in 2017, his dream of making Monkey Barrel a venue became a reality. 

Comedy at Monkey Barrel
Live music outside on Monkey Barrel’s patio

“We’ve really made it a place where different people from all different places in Colorado come that maybe would have never come to this neighborhood. People of different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, ages. There’s Gen-Xers hanging out, 13-year-old girls speaking poetry on open mic events, 18 year olds getting up on the mic and doing their first ever hip hop show or comedy, and people visiting that used to live in this neighborhood or who still do coming in and talking about the memories we have back in old North Denver. So many things have changed here, but those are the types of community things and events that really hit home for me.” Jimmy reflects.

Monkey Barrel

Now known for their music/comedy events and stellar nostalgia inspired drinks like Wheezin’ The Juice and Donkey Kong, Monkey Barrel’s food is finally becoming a star of the bar too. Prior to the pandemic, they only served drinks, though they did have a short-lived partnership with Carbone’s Italian Sausage Deli who provided sandwiches when they first opened. But when lockdown hit, bars that only served drinks would not be allowed to open to the public for in-person service for over a year. So once again, Jimmy had to get creative or lose his business. He partnered with Denver’s Filipino & New Mexican Fusion Food Truck Adobo as well as the beloved slice of the Bronx pizza shop, Benny Blanco’s, who leased out his kitchen. But he knew he ultimately needed to create an in-house menu to keep his doors open for the long haul. 

Monkey Barrel Owner Jimmy Nigg in the kitchen cooking his signature smashburger during the pandemic.
Monkey Barrel’s signature smashburger & chips born out of the pandemic.

“I made a burger in my in-laws kitchen — five or six of them, actually and said to my wife and her family and my kids, ‘Hey, I want you to try these and tell me which one’s your favorite.’ And they go, ‘That’s the best one.’ Everybody just kind of unanimously agreed. So we came back with what little money we had left to buy kitchen equipment. Because I didn’t own anything and I don’t have a culinary background. But I took to [Monkey Barrel’s] kitchen and was cooking the menu that I could make. My wife’s bartending. My kids are in here doing their homework on laptops, and people started coming back for the burger and buying drinks to go, and then they kept coming back for the burger, so I’m like, well, I got something good going here. And it was all born out of the pandemic. And we’ve been able to keep our prices low, and all of it had to do with us building the patios out.” he says.

Monkey Barrel’s parking lot converted to their third outdoor patio
Monkey Barrel’s 2nd patio
Couches on Monkey Barrel’s 2nd Patio

That’s how their patron favorite homemade smash burger and fries was born. And it’s under $10. With food now on the table and the conversion of their parking lot to another massive patio in addition to their other two — all dog-friendly complete with games and outdoor TVs — Monkey Barrel not only made it to the other side of the pandemic, but is thriving. 

Despite occupying the space for over 10 years, pouring 100s of thousands of dollars into the building’s restoration and activation of the neighborhood, and even championing the City to finally invest in the neglected park across the street to create a green space for families and residents, the threat of the land Monkey Barrel sits on being replaced with condos has never left. Jimmy and his partner’s requests over the decade to purchase the property continues to be denied, and time is ticking with only three years left on their current lease. They’re hoping their recent Legacy Business award will offer some sort of protection for Sunnyside’s beloved neighborhood bar.

Monkey Barrel’s sign with a glimpse of the restored Chaffee Park in the background in Sunnyside Denver.

“Really the big thing is now that we’re in the Denver Legacy Program, the City of Denver has recognized us as a business that helps contribute to the community. They don’t want us to go away. So the next step is we got to try to get this land, and my landlord has never been open to the idea of selling it to me, even though I bring it up every year. But I have a feeling that if we’re not here, the next tenant or the next owner of the property isn’t going to want to keep it as a restaurant or a venue, or they’re going to want to turn it into condos. That’s where the neighborhood loses — the neighborhood loses a stage, and musicians lose the stage. That’s another stage that’s not monopolized, that’s independent and local,  that’s going to be gone for those comedians who have five minutes of stage time. We’re a space where people come for birthdays and celebrations and memorials. It’s really important to have it in the neighborhood.” Jimmy concludes.

Jimmy Nigg in Washington, DC.

Despite living in a day and age ruled by big box conglomerates, global banks and large supply chains, the bread and butter of our shared economy and the heartbeat of every city is and will always be local business. Monkey Barrel is a crucial part of what makes Denver vibrant and we need them for their parties and reelin’ and rockin.’ But most importantly, we need them for all they do to champion artists, fellow small businesses and the legacy they’re making in Sunnyside.

Support this Denver Legacy Business by swinging by for drinks, food & events: Monkey Barrel is open daily at 11AM | 4401 Tejon St, Denver, CO 

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Check out our current issue and issues of Birdy’s past for stellar designs of Monkey Barrel. Special thank you to your years of support and friendship.

Krysti Joméi is the co-owner and co-founder of Birdy Magazine. Creating in Colorado for the past decade plus, she’s lived all around San Francisco, by Houston’s NASA, on an island across from Seattle, near the WA/Canadian border, and under the Nandi Hills in Kenya. She loves outer space, the ocean, running in nature, anything written by Trent Reznor, and adventuring with her partner, Jonny, husky and black cat.