Cafe Society

Hick Ousted from Wynkoop Group

Open since 1974, the Wazee Supper Club predates all the hipness, all the gentrification, all the retro this-and-that of LoDo. Founders Angelo and Jim Karagas actually opened their first spot, My Brother’s Bar, in 1969, nine blocks further down 15th, in a neighborhood known more for the rattle in the trap and the briskness of illicit trade than anything else. But the brothers obviously had a taste for sketchy ‘hoods (and the kinds of places where sketchy hoods might tip a bit of whiskey), because thirty-odd years ago, they took a look at this former plumbing supply warehouse and said to themselves, “Hey, you know what would work great here? A bar!”

And they were right.

This week, I’ve got bar food and street food on the brain with a double-whammy hit of cheeseburgers and hot dogs. First, a long overdue review of the Wazee Supper Club, which has been been climbing up my list of favorite Denver neighborhood bars. It’s got everything -- cold beer, history, a wildly diverse clientele. Sure, the jukebox was a lot better before that newfangled internet thingamajig got installed by the bathrooms and, for the most part, the Wazee’s food is forgettable. But if you’re looking for a comfortable place for a cheeseburger, a shot and a couple beers, you could do a lot worse. As a matter of fact, there aren’t many places in town where you could do better.

Cheeseburgers aside, I’ve also got Jason “Dirty Water” Sheehan’s Super Colossal Big Wiener Roundup on tap in Bite Me, a wholly unscientific and completely biased heads-up comparison between several of the city’s more noteworthy purveyors of tubesteak. That’s followed by a visit to the Karagas brothers’ original Colorado outpost, My Brother’s Bar, for both hot dogs and cheeseburgers.

Just as I was finalizing things on Monday morning, I got word that Mayor John Hickenlooper – who bought the Wazee from Jim Karagas years ago after Angelo went to that great burger bar in the sky -- had been bought out of the Wynkoop Holdings restaurant group that he founded. Since he became mayor more than four years ago, Hick’s portion of Wynkoop Holdings has been held in trust, awaiting the day when he triumphantly returned to private life and could once again get his hands into the business of buying up Denver’s most historic bars (like Gaetano’s, the Wazee, the Cherry Cricket…) and preserving them for future generations of drunkards, hucksters, journos and up-and-coming young politicos. After hearing the news that Hick was out, I called Lee Driscoll, CEO of Wynkoop Holdings, and asked him how the whole deal had gone down.

First off, the partners had been planning this move “for months now,” according to Driscoll. “It’s pretty damn scary,” he added, since he and pre-mayoral Hickenlooper had been partners and friends for so long. But scary or no, the partners came to their decision without Hickenlooper’s knowledge since, according to ethics rules, he wasn’t allowed to be in on any of the operations of the holding company while serving as mayor and actually had to get a special dispensation from the ethics committee just to be allowed to meet with the partners and be told he was out.

“I’m sure it was very hard for him,” Driscoll told me, since before getting into politics Hickenlooper was so dedicated to the noble work of liquoring up the local citizenry.

Now, though, that share of the company owned by Hick (about 40 percent, according to Driscoll – 40 percent to his own 35) will be used to bring a whole boatload of new partners into the company. Namely, the employees. Driscoll explained that it’d always been one of Hickenlooper’s goals to bring managers, chefs and long-time employees into a shared ownership position. Witht the buy-out of the Mayor’s interest, now that’s possible.

“It was…Bittersweet,” Driscoll added, hesitating as he spoke and choosing his words carefully. “But I think John sees it as the right thing to do.”

It’s too soon to know whether this will ultimately shake down as good news or bad news for the group (which has had its share of hits and misses over the past few years) and definitely too soon to know what this will leave for Hick to do once he leaves office (Driscoll, for one, hopes Hick will stay in politics for a long, long time). But one thing’s for sure: His Majesty was a restaurant guy when he walked into that office four years ago and he’s going to be a restaurant guy when he walks back out again. We’re like the mob with this thing of ours, and once you’re in, you’re in for life. – Jason Sheehan