More than two decades ago, Chicago native John Burr opened Soundstructure Studios, which comprised ten rehearsal spaces and two apartments, at the corner of 30th and Walnut streets. In 2003, Burr built a building next door that housed fifteen more rehearsal studios, then decided he also wanted to incorporate a venue or performance space -- and in January 2005, he opened the Walnut Room, without any prior bar or restaurant experience. "I was so naive about what I was getting into, so I wasn't that scared or nervous about it," he says. "I think once it was up and running and reality set in, it became pretty terrifying. But at that point, there's nothing to do other than just put your head down and make it work.
"That's kind of what I'd done in the past with the rehearsal studios," he continues. "I originally started when I was 22 years old, so I had no experience in development or property management or any of that stuff; I just kind of winged it. I guess that's just my comfort zone, on some level."
When Burr opened the Walnut Room, the surrounding area was much different than it is today. It had yet to be dubbed RiNo, and there was little to foretell the arts district that would blossom there in the coming years. The Walnut's primary focus was music, though there wasn't much of a neighborhood to service back then, Burr notes. Food was pretty much an afterthought.
"They were mostly just excited to have a bar in the neighborhood," Burr says of the venue's early patrons.
Given the Walnut Room's status as a destination spot during those first few years, Burr realized that the best way to get people there was to focus on national and regional acts like Chris Isaak and Jewel, "because you needed those bigger names to draw people out to that neck of the woods."
Talent buyers Mark Sundermeier and John Kinsner helped bring in some of those bigger acts, while Randall Frazier, who had worked there as a sound engineer almost since the beginning, took over booking duties in 2010 and has since switched the focus more to local bands.
Sound was also a priority early on. Burr hired a sound-engineering company to design the layout and the stage on the performance side of the space, while lead sound engineer Ron Gordon handpicked the mixing board, main speakers and subwoofers, as well as the amps and microphones. The result is one of the best-sounding rooms in the city.
As the Walnut Room gained success as a music venue, Burr started paying more attention to the restaurant side of the business. He says a key turning point was recruiting general manager Leslie Odell, a restaurant-industry veteran, five years ago. As the area has grown, so has the Walnut Room's business. Last February, the restaurant's kitchen was expanded.
"We just couldn't keep up with the growth that we'd experienced over the last couple of years," says Burr. "We were able to rearrange the venue side and kind of eke out some more space in that room and then transfer that into the kitchen. We almost doubled the size of our kitchen without really losing any room in the venue."
A venue that's kept busy with a crowded calendar of touring and local artists. To celebrate ten years in business, Burr is throwing a free concert on Friday, January 10, with a lineup that features an all-star cast of Denver artists who have benefited from both the Walnut Room and the rehearsal spaces over the years. There were plenty to choose from.
The Walnut Room 10 Year Anniversary Party with Adrienne O, Andy Palmer, Roo & The Howl, Matt Hoffman (of Strange Americans), DJ Social Lubrication, 5 p.m., Friday, January 10, the Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut Street, free.
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