First Look

Meanwhile, Back at El Rancho

El Rancho dates back to 1948.
Brandon Marshall
El Rancho dates back to 1948.
The foothills were foggy on Saturday night, but one thing was clear: El Rancho is back.

This restaurant makes The Fort, which is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this month, seem like a babe in buckskins. El Rancho got its start in 1948, when the Jahnke family built a rustic log building by the side of U.S. Route 40, putting a restaurant on the first floor and moving in upstairs.

Mildred and Ray Zipprich, a couple who had a pie-distribution company in Milwaukee, bought the place in 1953, adding a post office and an emphasis on baking. But El Rancho really took off in 1958, after Donna and Paul McEncroe moved to Colorado from Milwaukee and took over from Donna's parents. It wasn't just the homey-on-the-range atmosphere, the couple's dedication to the community and the spectacular view that brought in business...but none of that hurt. The McEncroes were also determined to make El Rancho a real destination, and in the ’60s, as the federal government was building Interstate 70 through the mountains, Paul persuaded builders to create an "El Rancho" exit for folks heading to the then-sleepy town of Evergreen.

El Rancho was literally on the map. Soon the McEncroes added a gift shop, a visitor information center and a bus parking area. By 1988, when they sold to Skip Rousch, they were pulling in $2.2 million in annual sales — up from $115,000 the year they took over. On one Valentine's Day, their son recalls, they did 1,200 covers.

After Rousch, El Rancho went through several more owners, including Mark McKenna, who sold some of the property's 10.5 acres for development. And develop the area they did, adding a bank, a motel and more along the start of the new Evergreen Parkway. But that action didn't help an eatery that had earned the nickname "El Rauncho." 

In 2015, after the place had been empty for a year, Paul Vincent and his brothers incorporated El Rancho Brewery. But that enterprise fell flat in the face of COVID and other challenges, and by last summer, an ownership dispute had shuttered El Rancho. People who'd put down deposits on weddings and other events were screwed, as were many employees.
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El Rancho is back, and its keeping the brewery added by the last owners.
Courtesy Hilco Real Estate
In November, Evergreen's Jack and Sherry Buchanan of Northstar Ventures and Travis McAfoos of Piedra Peak Properties partnered to purchase El Rancho, the property, now a 21,900-square-foot building on 4.4 acres, and partnered with the Bonanno Concepts restaurant group to run the operation.

Although Bonanno Concepts is known for its urban eateries, ranging from Mizuna to Luca d'Italia to Osteria Marco and the ambitious Milk Market, reviving such a Colorado classic was too tempting an opportunity for Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno to pass up. They held their family's Thanksgiving dinner at El Rancho while contemplating how to position an old standby for a new market.

Fortunately, they weren't afraid to get their hands dirty — which became unavoidable when the pipes burst just a week after El Rancho reopened in January. Dealing with that prevented the Bonannos from keeping the brunch hours they'd originally planned, but in the meantime, happy hour and dinner are packed.
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The reservation books are jammed at El Rancho.
Patricia Calhoun
On Saturday, January 28, the only thing hotter than the reservation book with an hour-plus wait (if there were any tables at all) were the original fireplaces blazing on the first floor. Servers — the Bonanno Group has eliminated tips and is adding a 22 percent surcharge to bills to share with workers — were running out plates of trout and prime rib (both El Rancho traditions), as well as elk chili, bison short ribs, catfish, a French dip and a chicken-fried steak with sausage gravy that Frank was determined to put on the menu. And yes, there's even a salad bar, a hallmark of ’70s-era dining that is also a complete mystery to much of the kitchen crew, Jacqueline admits.

The bar (no reservations) was packed during "Tappy Hour," with thirsty skiers pulling off the highway for a round or three of specialty cocktails as well as Colorado beers; El Rancho's brewing system will soon be back online, too. In better weather, there will be more outdoor seating, with fire pits on the big decks.

The oak floors and many other original features in the dining room are polished to a sheen never known in the actual Old West; Jacqueline pointed out sets of chairs they found in the basement, which date back to 1948 and were designed for sitting in backwards, the better for viewing cock-fighting. We didn't see any birds or any of the promised remnants of an old Pony Express outpost, but my mother, who was a sorority sister of Donna Zipprich McEncroe, recognized the setup in the front of the dining room, which once overlooked nothing but open space but now looks out on encroaching civilization.

Or, on Saturday night, a lot of fog. But the way forward looks clear...

El Rancho is located at 29260 US 40 on the way to Evergreen. For now, it's open for Tappy Hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 303-228-1634 or go to for more information.