Remembering Denver's Fern-Bar Roots
Racines today, where the fern-bar ethic lives on.
The first fern bar opened more than four decades ago, but the concept could be making a comeback here in Denver, where there's plenty of talk about them. In fact, tonight's Mixed Taste at the Holiday Event Center is "Fern Bars & George Orwell," featuring Nicola Twilley of ediblegeography.com, and Helen Thorpe, the Denver-based author of Soldier Girls and Just Like Us. Thorpe will be talking about Orwell's origins as a war correspondent, Twilley about fern bars.
In advance of that event, we reached out to veteran restaurateur Lee Goodfriend, who worked at Denver's very first fern bar, Zach's, a legendary spot that opened on Humboldt Street just off Colfax Avenue in 1975, five years after what's considered the country's first fern bar, Henry Africa's, opened in San Francisco, and before corporate America morphed the concept into hundreds of Houlihan's and T.G.I. Friday's outposts. The original fern bars were independent spots full of wood and plants and singles, who considered them their neighborhood watering holes.
Zach's was certainly that.
When Goodfriend first started working there, maybe four or five months after Zach's opened, it was "a community gathering place with ferns," she recalls. “I thought it was pretty special." She met her future business partner, David Racine, who worked there; she met her future husband there, too. The Zach's crowd was an extended family that stayed together and played together — sometimes on the job, which Goodfriend says would never pass muster at Racines, the last restaurant in the mini-empire that she, Racine and the late Dixon Staples started.
And Zach's itself gave rise to other restaurants, including Rick's at 80 South Madison (today the home of Chopper's, which is now part of the Tavern Hospitality Group). Goodfriend was at Rick's with other Zach's employees the day in May 1978 when then-President Jimmy Carter visited. "I wasn't cool enough to be inside," she remembers, "but I stood outside." That was 37 years ago, but people still remember Rick's well — and are even encouraging THG to bring back the Rick's Cafe name.
"I thought it was beautiful," Goodfriend says of Rick's. "it was a little lighter than Zach's. I think it had the first outdoor patio in town." It also had more of a singles vibe, while Zach's was definitely artier. The third fern bar in the original triumvirate was Govn'rs Park, which opened in 1976 and is still going strong.
Goodfriend and Racine took plenty of inspiration from Zach's when they opened their own places, starting with Goodfriends on November 30, 1979. But they made a few changes in the concept. "Zach's didn't have a kitchen," she remembers. “I wanted a restaurant with a kitchen; I wanted to be able to get a hamburger. Still, we had ferns, and we had a lot of drinkers…. It was a semi-fern bar.”
Goodfriends had a good long run; today its original home is occupied by Annie's. The partners went on to open Racines on Bannock Street, and later built their own building at 650 Sherman Street, where Racines celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in December 2013. And along the way, they also opened the now-closed Dixons on the 16th Street Mall. At one of those restaurants — maybe Racines, maybe Dixons, "we didn’t have plants right away and got yelled at," Goodfriend remembers.
Zach's has been closed for thirty years, but memories live on. So does its legendary Nutty Cheesy Salad, which inspired a variation on the Racines menu. "We just called it the Nutty Cheese," Goodfriend admits.
Goodfriend and her partners went to look at the old Zach's space years ago; after the restaurant closed, it had a brief stint as a gay bar and then became an architect's office. "It was so much smaller than I remembered," she says. “Denver was much more of a cowtown. It was an unusual time, because things were changing so quickly…. It was such a unique and special place.”
But the fern-bar spirit lives on at Racines, where the plants now thrive on the outside but the crowds inside include a wide range of people — all colors, all ethnicities, all ages. "It felt like people could be themselves," Goodfriend says of Denver's original fern bars. And at Racines, they still do.