In the Bonnie Brae neighborhood, the more some things change, the more others stay the same.
When Carl and Sue Dire opened the Bonnie Brae Tavern in 1934, South University Boulevard was a dirt road running through the sticks. That year, tens of thousands of people left the Dust Bowl of the Midwest headed for California, Pan Am Clipper flights started offering hot meals in the air, and Babe Ruth became the first player to hit 700 homers.
The space where Yankees fan Carl Dire built his roadhouse had never been anything but a weed-filled lot, sitting right next to the gas station he also owned. Carl had thought about putting a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership there, but since Prohibition had just ended on December 5, 1933, the time seemed right for a friendly joint where folks could stop by for a beer and a sandwich and could bring their families, too. The Dires took their own family there: Too poor to afford a babysitter, they ripped the back seat out of their Model A and replaced it with a mattress; every night, they put their sons Michael and Henry (later called Hank) to bed just outside the tavern's back door. Once the place took off, and take off it did, they were able to build a small apartment above the restaurant.
The Dires served good, cheap fare -- beer was a dime a pint, and a plate of spaghetti, complete with homemade Italian bread and two meatballs, cost 50 cents -- and served it with a sense of humor. They told customers that naming their place after the neighborhood's empty housing development of Bonnie Brae, Gaelic for "pleasant hill," was ironic for an Italian gal from Pueblo and the orphaned son of immigrants from Napoli.
A photograph of the neighborhood taken back in 1938 still hangs at Bonnie Brae, askew and surrounded by beer signs; on the wall above the always-crowded bar are pastel portraits of the Dire family: Carl, who passed away in 1982; Sue, now 98 and still a twice-a-day regular, often found sitting in the same booth keeping an eye on things; Mike and Hank, who in 1994 passed the restaurant on to their sons but who still show up daily to help out; and the sons themselves, Michael II and Rick. Michael II's oldest son, 22-year-old Chris, also works full-time at Bonnie Brae. "At certain times of the day, when my grandmother is here, there are four generations of us in one place," Mike II says.
While a lot has changed outside Bonnie Brae Tavern (that housing development, for example, now boasts some of the town's pricier homes), not a whole lot has changed inside. The trademark turquoise booths (circa 1955) are still there, as are the little coat hooks along the aisles; the paper placemats haven't lost their ads -- although the ads themselves have gone from touting "Friendly Service" at local gas stations to "Feng Shui Your Way." And while the building's exterior has received several coats of whitewash, for the most part the Dires have resisted any suggestion regarding remodeling or updating.
"After the Second World War, my grandparents did have enough money to build a house across the alley," Mike II says. "And they finally had enough money to make the restaurant bigger, and our dads went to college and came back to work here. We added pizza at some point, and we've added different beers on as people's drinking habits have changed. But most of the recipes were my grandmother's, and they've stayed the same: the chile, the spaghetti and pizza sauces, the blue-cheese and Thousand Island dressing."
Despite the "tavern" in its name, Bonnie Brae has always been more of a restaurant than a bar. And while the prices have gone up, and up, over the years, the food continues to be one of Denver's best bargains. For instance, a plate of spaghetti with meatballs, sausage or both, along with soup or salad and a roll with butter, costs $8. In the old East Coast tradition, our plate was more of a platter, mounded high with noodles and Sue's oregano-sharp sauce, so thick it stood up in little crests, so tomato-paste rich it almost burned the throat. The meatballs were mostly meat, and the spicy sausage bit back. The salad was almost a caricature of the classic Italian-American dining side, with its hacked-up shards of iceberg and two pale tomato wedges, but the blue-cheese dressing was obviously homemade, sour-creamy and blue-tangy. The sweet roasted garlic in the butter was another nice touch.
Pizza was a smart addition to Bonnie Brae's repertoire, since it's now one of the most popular items on its menu. A plain pie proved the best showcase for the extra-crispy crust, which was lightly dusted with cornmeal, and the sweet sauce that sat beneath a thick mantle of gooey, parsley-flecked cheese. But the "sooper, sooper deluxe" pizza was a winner, too, so covered with greasy-juiced sausage, pepperoni, peppers, onions, ground beef, mushrooms and shrimp that we had a hard time remembering we were eating pizza; it was more like an enormous open-faced sandwich.
Venture past the spaghetti, the pizza and the cheese-gooey lasagne, and Bonnie Brae's fare is diner all the way. A hot roast-beef sandwich came piled high with slightly fatty but perfectly cooked roast beef, beneath which sat a slice of white toast, grilled for extra flavor, and a large mound of half-chunky mashed potatoes, all drowning in several ladles' worth of brown gravy. The chicken-fried steak wasn't for the faint, or clogged, of heart, since it featured a thick envelope of breading over the well-pounded flank and a bulky cream gravy with enough pepper to clear the sinuses of people sitting nearby. (Most Bonnie Brae dishes did benefit from a smattering of salt, however.) Although a few items seemed dated in their preparations, there was always something deliciously nostalgic about their flavors. Even the homemade pies -- one a canned-filling blueberry, the other a fresh-fruit apple -- had the right kind of lardy, old-fashioned crusts.
One of the best things about a small mom-and-pop (or grandson-and-grandson) restaurant is that the employees -- who, in Bonnie Brae's case, have been there for years and never miss a regular's name and favorite dish -- are usually empowered to make things right. Once, for example, after I'd waited twenty minutes for an empty table, I was passed over in favor of a few loud businessmen. When the server-turned-host realized his mistake, he shouted to my server, "Treat her real good, and her dessert's on me." There's always a lot of good-natured flirting and yelling going on, especially at lunch. And if that doesn't make you feel like part of the neighborhood, you need to go back to whatever cynical city you came from.
Or you can head across the street to the Campus Lounge, which has always been more of a bar than a restaurant -- although legions of regulars would argue that it's the mostly Mexican menu that keeps them coming back for more. The building went up in 1946 as the Bel-Aire Cafe; in 1949, when it got a liquor license, it became the Campus Lounge. "There have been four owners, as far as I'm aware," says current owner Jim Wiste, who bought the place in 1976. Wiste, originally from Saskatchewan, Canada, came to Denver in the '60s to attend the University of Denver on a hockey scholarship; after ten years as a pro, he decided he wanted to settle down -- specifically, at his all-time favorite bar. "The owner at the time, Bill White, wanted to get out of the business, and so I told him I'd love to have it," Wiste remembers. "But I wish I'd been around in the early days. I recently found a menu from the first one, and they were doing bacon and eggs, toast, hash browns and a Bloody Mary for a buck. At that time, it was just us and Bonnie Brae Tavern and a clothing store, and maybe one or two other shops. But as much as the area has changed -- some people call it progress, I guess -- we've pretty much done our thing just the way we always did."
Which means the decor is still woody, augmented by lighted beer signs, with a U-shaped bar flanking the dining area (love those avocado-colored booths and veneer-topped tables) on one side and TVs on the other. As at Bonnie Brae, there's a generous smoking section -- where else in town can you smoke and get a beer with a tasty weekend brunch? -- but here you're likely to find fewer kids and way more people drinking than eating.
The menu hasn't changed much over the years, either. The Campus has always offered one of my favorite chile rellenos: crispy-style, filled with molten cheese and smothered in a straightforward green that's cornstarch-thickened, pepper-choked and chile-spiced. The "super smothered" burritos feature more of that green, covering fillings of spicy shredded beef, grilled chicken, or homemade chorizo, in the case of the stomach-stuffing breakfast burrito. Some dishes, like Ursie's Sour Cream, were renamed for the customers who kept requesting them over the years; apparently Ursie liked her beef-filled flour tortilla topped with as much sour cream as green. George, meanwhile, appreciated his sandwich of two scrambled eggs, cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayo on toasted wheat bread, while Louise seemed to think that her platter should include a deep-fried flour tortilla nearly smothered in onions.
The Campus kitchen makes many things fresh, though it takes advantage of a few modern conveniences. But while the popcorn chicken and jalapeño poppers were formerly frozen, it was to no ill effect, since both arrived grease-shiny, with the insides all hot and the crunchy outsides ready for a dip in ranch dressing. And although the medium-thick hamburger patty was the round disk of the pre-packaged, it came as the quintessential "grilled to perfection" on a fresh sesame-seed-studded bun, sided by standard-issue French fries. With a draft beer and the Broncos battling in the background, this is the only place to be on a Sunday afternoon.
And that could be true for a long time to come. Wiste's daughter, 23-year-old Courtney, recently graduated from the University of Colorado and is now helping out. "People build new restaurants and spend a million to make it look like places like ours," Wiste says. "It just never goes out of style."
And that's why, with Bonnie Brae Tavern and the Campus Lounge sharing the 700 South block of University Boulevard, it's always a beautiful day in this neighborhood.
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