Bar Scout: School House
Story by Carla Carlton
There’s no smokin’ in the boys’ room, but you can drink whiskey in the library at School House Kitchen & Libations.
The restaurant and bar in Arvada, Colorado, about 12 miles west of Denver, opened in 2015 in the town’s first schoolhouse, which was built in 1882, and owner Scott Spears, an Arvada native, gets a gold star for maintaining the scholastic vibe.
The list of available spirits is organized like a syllabus. Cocktail options are listed on a Scantron sheet—remember coloring in the bubbles on standardized tests?—and the drinks are served in beakers. The food menu is divided into periods like a school day, from Period 1, Appetizers, to Period 6, Dessert. And Happy Hour, from 3 to 6 p.m. daily, is known as Recess.
The historic school building was connected to a 1920s-era building next door to create the 6,000-square-foot restaurant and bar, and each area has a school-related name. The main dining room, located in the newer section, is called Home Room, and light fixtures made from upcycled world globes hang above the tables and booths. Upstairs, what used to be an apartment has been opened up into a Teachers’ Lounge, where apple-themed art covers the walls. The rooftop patio is known as The Observatory.
The Library Bar takes up the entirety of the original school. Shelves behind the bar that once held books now display bottles, and bartenders use a sliding library ladder to reach selections up high.
When School House opened, the bar had 476 whiskey brands on the menu. “We currently have 1,882,” General Manager Jason Stuckey said. “That’s actually the year the building was built, so we are taking a pause there.”
The square tables in the bar are decorated with blocks from the Periodic Table, and portraits of US presidents line one wall.
A lot of the décor at School House came from another local school that closed. “We bought up a lot of their stuff,” Stuckey said. “Teacher mailboxes, school desks—our host stand is an old card catalog. Some of the tables are made from the old gym floor, and the walls are made from the bleachers.”
The theme continues with the names of the specialty cocktails, which include the Buffalo Juice Box (Buffalo Trace, Maraska Maraschino liqueur, orgeat liqueur, pomegranate liqueur, and lemon juice), the barrel-aged Mathematics Manhattan (Maker’s Mark Whisky, house vermouth, Angostura bitters, and Amarena cherry liqueur), the Olde Fashioned Field Day (School House’s Elijah Craig Single Barrel pick, lavender-infused simple syrup, and Angostura bitters), and the Bulleit’in Board (Bulleit Bourbon, ginger beer, lemon, and bitters).
School House also has a rotating list of 50 beer varieties.
The restaurant features soups and salads, a variety of sandwiches, pizzas, and entrees that lean toward comfort food: meatloaf, fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and, in a nod to the number of Kentucky bourbons on offer, a Kentucky Hot Brown.
The food is fine, but let’s be honest: The reason to come here is the bar—and the huge whiskey list. That list is dominated by American whiskeys and Scotches, but there is also a healthy selection of Canadian, Japanese, and Irish whisky. A good way to try several is to order one or two of School House’s Master Flights. Each consists of three related -ounce pours. There are flights of Colorado whiskeys; Kentucky whiskeys; barrel-proof whiskeys; Canadian, Japanese, and Irish whiskies; and Scotch.
Or ask a server for recommendations. We found they had done their homework. They were especially helpful with Colorado brands with which we Kentuckians weren’t as familiar.
For several months, a yellow school bus was parked at the curb outside School House. To accommodate COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining and drinking, the restaurant removed the seats from the bus and replaced them with three appropriately distanced tables. Stuckey said the future of the bus depended on when the city reopened streets following the pandemic, so it may have moved on by the time you read this.
But even if you miss the bus, trust me: Visiting this Colorado establishment will be the most fun you’ve ever had in school.