In 1986, Patrick McGaughran and a couple of friends from Texas decided to open a Mexican bar and grill centered on margaritas and the food they'd grown up with in the Houston area. They named the tiny joint, located on College Avenue in Fort Collins, the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant, and the strong drinks and cantina vibe quickly attracted a following, making it one of the premier nightspots in the growing college town. McGaughran says that at the time he had no idea that the Rio (as regulars call it) would still be around thirty years later; they were just trying to figure out how to run a restaurant while having a little fun.
This year, the Rio Grande marks its thirty-year anniversary, and the company has grown from that original Fort Collins cantina — which initially lacked the space to even include a sit-down bar — to six full-service eateries. McGaughran and his partners opened the second Rio Grande in Boulder (which has since moved twice), and the original Fort Collins restaurant moved to its current location on Mountain Avenue in 1991. Since then, McGaughran has bought out his partners, Andre and Stephen Mouton, and expanded to Greeley, downtown Denver, Lone Tree, Steamboat Springs (that outlet closed last summer after a thirteen-year run) and Frisco. And two years ago, he opened a miniature version called Rio on the Rocks inside Coors Field.
Although the margaritas haven't changed over the past three decades, the bar and food menus have evolved with changing tastes. McGaughran notes that the Rio Grande still pours more Jose Cuervo than any restaurant in the U.S., but he has explored the vast variety of artisan tequilas available in Mexico and has added his favorites to what was once a simple list of two kinds of margaritas (classic or strawberry), beer and wine. The current roster includes a tequila vault with rare, long-aged tequilas for connoisseurs looking to throw down some serious dollars.
Over the years, rumors have swirled about the "secret recipe" for the Rio's potent margaritas. But McGaughran says there's really no secret, except that the classic Rio marg is mixed as a double, which is why there has always been a three-drink limit. Otherwise, it's just Cuervo tequila, triple sec and a gimlet-style lime mix, which gives the concoction its crystal-clear appearance.
The food menu has matured, too, from the initial days of simple marinated meats swaddled in flour tortillas, although McGaughran notes that even in the early days, the Rio was bringing new flavors to Mexican food in Colorado; he points out that black beans, a favorite from his trips to the Yucatan, were virtually unknown, and fajitas were just becoming trendy. But the Rio's reputation has always rested on the margaritas and the three-drink limit, not the food, so several years ago, Jason Barrett was brought on as CEO, in part to oversee change in the kitchen. This year, one of the menu updates was the introduction of handmade corn tortillas, which are pressed daily at each of the six restaurants.
The Rio Grande is celebrating thirty years with a number of different events from now until mid-June. For starters, you can toast to thirty years with a new margarita called the Triple. For $12 at any of the Rio's locations, you'll get a cocktail made with three ounces of Jose Cuervo tequila aged in oak barrels provided by Odell Brewing Co. (another Fort Collins original) and fresh lime juice served in a commemorative glass that you get to keep. McGaughran says the barrels were shipped to Mexico so that Cuervo could age tequila specifically for the Rio.
The original College Avenue Rio Grande in 1986.
Courtesy of the Rio Grande
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
At the Fort Collins location, the Rio has set up a confessional booth where guests can record favorite memories from the past thirty years. The best stories will be selected and their authors registered for a chance to win a special-edition Jose Cuervo guitar on June 18. If you're not near Fort Collins, you can also post memories using the #MyRioStory tag on Facebook and Instagram.
The actual anniversary date is June 15, so all of the Rio locations will have throwback menus with 1986 prices. And on June 18, all of the locations will close for the day so that the Fort Collins cantina can shut down Mountain Avenue for an all-day block party, dubbed the Three-Oh at the Rio, with live music and flowing margaritas.
McGaughran summarizes the past thirty years of margs and Mexican food with a simple statement: "It's kind of hard to cry into your margarita."