One of the unfortunate consequences of continued rising real estate prices in this town is that our beloved neighborhood dives are under threat: Unable to compete with the trendier cocktail lairs and breweries going in around them, many are simply drying up.
Occasionally, though, these bars get new life, when a new owner decides to revive and update an old place instead of closing it down for something entirely new. That’s what Dan Landes and his partners decided to do with the Campus Lounge, a dim, musty cave that’s plied Bonnie Brae with drinks since the late 1940s.
Landes’s team bought the Campus in fall 2016 from the late Jim Wiste, a former NHL player and University of Denver alum who’d owned the place since 1976. At the end of Wiste’s tenure, the bar was known mostly for its cheap beers and heartburn-inducing diner food — and for Wiste himself, who spent afternoons bellied up to the bar. The new owners gave the space a deep clean and remodel that took more than a year, giving a nod to the place’s past by preserving the dark, rec-room vibe along with the thick, glass-brick windows set high along the north and west walls.
But the Campus really isn’t a dive anymore. The tap system now pours craft beers, and the kitchen is considerably more ambitious: You can get duck-fat-fried chicken or a pork loin with squash risotto.
If you go during happy hour, which runs daily from 3 to 6 p.m. and then again from 10 p.m. to close, you’ll spy deals that look like dive-bar deals, but belie this restaurant’s newer, more upscale nature: Pitchers of beer are $6 off, bringing the cheaper offerings to $16; a number of $1 snacks include wasabi pea-spiked pub mix and a fried-tofu slider. Bottles of wine, which range in price from $30 to $170, are $10 cheaper, and well drinks come at a $2 discount.
The best value during these hours is the $10 burger and draft beer; the burger, to which you can add such accoutrements as blue cheese and avocado, is a solid and hefty execution of the form, and as a bonus, it comes with a generous pile of nicely crisped fries. In a very un-dive-bar move, the kitchen will cook the burger to your specified temperature and it will actually turn out that way. Our juice-seeping mid-rare patty put burgers at much more upscale places to shame.
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The kitchen is still finding its legs, though, because none of the rest of what we ate during happy hour would draw us back. (And while the kitchen finds its legs, this week the Campus Lounge eliminated its lunch hours, at least until spring.) The corndog was particularly disappointing, its wrapper both oddly thin and confusingly chewy — eating it was like grappling with something not meant to be ingested. And the deviled eggs, pink in hue and garnished with paprika-dusted potato chips, took on a bit of an acrid note in the finish, perhaps from too much mustard.
We would return, however, for the one very solid dive-bar touchpoint: $1 Montucky Cold Snacks beers. The offering means you can still take advantage of this happy hour the way you would at any other dive: by crushing a bunch of light beer in the middle of the afternoon without emptying your wallet. That's what much of the happy-hour crowd was doing, eschewing food altogether. It registers as an accidental salute to the old Campus.