Sure, Denver's traditional cowtown image hardly seems appropriate in these modern, boomtown days. But a trip to the Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant offers a unique sense of the city's past and insight into the origin of its bovine brand.
This month marks the 105th year since Henry H. "Shorty Scout" Zeitz opened the venerable restaurant/history museum's doors in 1893. It's a feat that would surely please Zeitz and the parade of Western legends and bygone characters who've broken bread here over the past century. Holder of Colorado Liquor License #1 and one of the oldest bars in the state, the Buckhorn has served as a favorite watering hole for Buffalo Bill Cody, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and countless other American icons.
Along the way, it has withstood two World Wars, Prohibition and the Depression. In more recent times, urban renewal, the oil bust of the 1980s and the current restaurant wars haven't closed the place, either. Its biggest threat to existence may have been the arrival of light rail just across the street, which nearly brought down the house in a literal sense. "We had bricks and glasses falling off the walls during the construction," says Buckhorn general manager Bill Dutton. "This is an old building here." These days a proposed high-rise on an adjacent lot is fueling renewed fears for the building's fragile foundation, as well as some discontent among neighbors who are girding for a fight against the project's developers.
But it's not slowing the flood of patrons to this Denver landmark.
"What brings people here is the historical factor, with the romance of the Old West," says manager Debra Longuski, "but it's also the food." Nearly every inch of the Buckhorn's walls is covered with a vintage menagerie of stuffed wildlife, whose next of kin also appear on the house's Old West-style menu. Buffalo, elk and deer are just a few of the dusty creatures that stare down Buckhorn dinner patrons; their presence makes for a surreal experience, with diners savoring finely prepared portions of the taxidermied ancestors just overhead.
According to Longuski, this only adds to the clientele's desire to consume wilder protein. A big-game combination plate is the restaurant's most popular entree, followed closely by the Buckhorn's version of Rocky Mountain oysters, a perennial favorite for the house's many out-of-town visitors. Many of these more ballsy international eaters are unaware of just what they're nibbling on, Longuski says: After enjoying an order of the house's landlocked mollusks, a waitress was once forced to bridge the language barrier with some internationally understood hand signals. "Finally, the waitress just pointed to the gentleman's crotch to let him know what he was eating," Longuski recalls.
Shorty Scout Zeitz would have had no qualms with such dining choices. After being kicked out of home at age ten, he found work as a child marksman with wagon trains heading west. He caught Cody's eye on the way, and by the age of twelve, he was serving as one of the Colonel's scouts and was given his nickname by none other than Sitting Bull, who took note of Zeitz's slight stature. Zeitz and the chief became lifelong friends; Sitting Bull even willed to Zeitz General George Custer's sword, which the chief had removed from the dead general at Little Big Horn. (The sword is one of the few of Zeitz's souvenirs not among the wealth of historic and oddball memorabilia on display at the Buckhorn; there is, however, a small lock of Cody's hair, along with various photos, historical documents and vintage guns.)
Following Zeitz's own death in 1949, a string of his heirs continued to run the establishment. In 1978 they sold their operation to Buckhorn Associates, a group of local investors headed up by Roi Davis and the late Steve Knowlton. The new owners renovated the building, moving the downstairs bar to the second floor, which originally served as the Zeitz family's living quarters.
David Wendelin, 58, is Zeitz's great-grandson and knows much of the building's history firsthand. Several of his elders were born on the pool table that once graced the Buckhorn's first floor, and he remembers waking up his grandfather for morning work shifts. For him, the Buckhorn's historic attributes have deeply personal significance. "Most of the animals up on the walls--I was out on the hunts with my father and my grandfather when we killed them," says Wendelin, who lives in Henry Zeitz's last home near Sloan's Lake. "I spent my youth here, and it was a great place to be around as a kid."
Wendelin worked at the Buckhorn as a child, starting out as a busboy at age five and finishing his career as a bartender at eighteen. Today he's a frequent customer on the other side of the bar, offering occasional corrections to visitors who may be twisting the details on the Buckhorn's history. "I sort of keep 'em in line, and if the stories get a little off, I give them the facts," he says, before clarifying a few points. "This never was a bordello, and that stuff about the speakeasy, well, that's not true--my grandparents and my family all lived and worked here. We ought to know. And that Coors sign behind the bar--that was given to my great grandfather by Adolph Coors."