Colorado History

Bonnie Brae Restaurants Are Caught in a Changing Denver

The 700 South block of University Boulevard seen from the porch of the now-closed Campus Lounge.
The 700 South block of University Boulevard seen from the porch of the now-closed Campus Lounge. Brian Flynn
The note taped to the door of the Campus Lounge had an apocalyptic feel. "Campus Lounge is closed until further notice" was written in black marker just above these ominous words: "The end."

When the Campus Lounge closed over the Fourth of July weekend, it marked the storied bar's third closure in as many years. By the time Jim Wiste bought the place in 1976, there had been a saloon holding down the corner of Exposition and South University Boulevard for close to thirty years. He gave it another forty, turning the Campus Lounge into a neighborhood sports bar with cheap drinks and plenty of conviviality.

In 2016, Wiste sold the building to Daniel Landes and Charlie Woolley, who spent over a year on a massive renovation. But neighbors turned a blind eye to their vision for the Campus Lounge, and it closed in early 2018. Last October, Dan and Jeff Nickless, whose family had a business on the block for decades, took over, returning the Campus Lounge to its neighborhood-joint roots — but they struggled, too, and finally gave up.

It was a sad end to a long run.

The oft-repeated statistic is that one-third of all restaurants close in their first year; given that, half of the eateries currently open in the 700 South block of University display remarkable longevity: The Bonnie Brae Tavern and Saucy Noodle boast a combined 140 years of history.

But in rapidly changing Denver, there are no guarantees. And while a former restaurateur on this stretch calls it "the block that time forgot," current business owners worry that Denver residents are now forgetting about the block, too.
click to enlarge The Saucy Noodle is nearing 55 years of garlic on University Boulevard. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
The Saucy Noodle is nearing 55 years of garlic on University Boulevard.
Danielle Lirette
"We're not thriving," admits Saucy Noodle co-owner Erin Markham. She's sitting next to her husband and business partner, Nathan Markham, in the restaurant's dining room as lunch customers trickle out into the afternoon heat. Old family photos cover the warm red walls, a testament to the Saucy Noodle's long history; Erin's grandfather founded it 55 years ago. At a table under his photograph, she asks the question that many local business owners are pondering: "How do we bring back the old Bonnie Brae?"

It's not an easy question to answer.

Nathan points to one of the challenges right outside the restaurant's front door: University Boulevard itself. It's gone from a neighborhood street to "an extension of the highway," an easy way for drivers to get from Cherry Creek to Interstate 25. He thinks that the speed and volume of vehicles on University discourages pedestrians from coming to the block. "In the last hour, I've counted three people walking past the window," he says.

More universal challenges are the changing habits of diners, especially their increasing reliance on third-party apps like GrubHub, Postmates and Doordash. Erin has seen the names of regulars popping up more and more on delivery orders rather than seeing the customers themselves. Given that delivery apps take a large cut from the menu price, this is a financial concern, but it goes beyond that, she says: "It feels like we've lost some of our connection as a neighborhood."

The Markhams understand why diners might be staying home. "If you buy a $2 million house, you probably don't want to leave it," says Nathan. But at the same time, he's pessimistic about what the rate of development will do to what's left of the Bonnie Brae neighborhood. "Every one of these buildings will be redeveloped in ten years," he says, gesturing up and down the block.

The Saucy Noodle's owners have been through tough times before: They had to rebuild the restaurant after a fire in 2001. The night they reopened, they turned on the lights and waited for their neighbors to figure out that the restaurant was back in business. "We got our asses kicked," Nathan remembers. But do they need another crisis to remind neighbors that they're still around?
click to enlarge The Bonnie Brae Tavern has been open here since 1934. - PATRICIA CALHOUN
The Bonnie Brae Tavern has been open here since 1934.
Patricia Calhoun
Down the block, the Bonnie Brae Tavern has stood in the same spot since the Dire family founded it in 1934. Mike Dire is part of the third generation to run the place, but the owners are encountering new obstacles these days. For example, the property bill increased by $33,000 last year (in addition to the tavern, the family owns the parking lot attached to the tavern and the space occupied by a dry cleaner next door).

Still, Dire realizes that the family is lucky to own the building. Many restaurants, including the Saucy Noodle, rent their space under what is known as a triple net lease, which means that the tenant is directly responsible for property taxes, building insurance and maintenance, in addition to rent. "If I were renting, I don't know if I could stay in business," he says.

As Dire talks about the challenges facing businesses on the block, a patron is telling the bartender about a big new condominium building going up a few blocks away. A photograph on the wall nearby shows University as it was 85 years ago: a dirt road with a smattering of buildings, including a much smaller Bonnie Brae Tavern.

Competition along Colorado Boulevard and in other nearby areas is part of the reason that business on the block has slowed, Dire says, but he also points to changing demographics in the neighborhood. He thinks that younger families moving in — and paying high prices for scraped and remodeled homes — are not as interested in spending time at a place like the Bonnie Brae, which he describes as "less high-class" than other options.

While a vocal portion of the city's residents talk about the need to preserve landmark restaurants, taverns and dive bars, that talk does not always translate to support. The Bonnie Brae caused a stir in April when the family's application for a certificate of non-historic status was posted on the restaurant's facade. At the time, Dire said the family had no plans to close the restaurant and simply wanted to keep its options open, but many neighbors expressed displeasure with the move...and stayed away. While the city did grant the certificate, which will allow the building to be demolished one day, it cost the restaurant some of its current business.

Erin Markham agrees that while people talk about wanting to keep institutions alive, when it comes time to spend money on a meal, "people want to try something new."
click to enlarge Brightmarten opened on the block in April 2018. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
Brightmarten opened on the block in April 2018.
Danielle Lirette
There's new right across the street: Brightmarten opened in the former home of 730 South in April 2018. "The fact that businesses have endured for so long on this block gives us incredible hope that we can one day become a staple of the community as well," co-owner Jared Riggs says, but he's taking a realistic view. "Denver is booming right now. It's challenging to be seen and heard in an environment that is constantly vying for the attention of the public."

To keep customers coming, the Saucy Noodle tries to cater to changing tastes while "still being true to who we've always been," Erin explains. The Markhams have made a point of offering gluten-free dishes that are rare in Italian restaurants; Nathan Markham, who is gluten-intolerant, takes special pride in the kitchen's scratch-made gluten-free pizza crust. (Erin, meanwhile, is fond of the lasagna with Italian sausage and ground beef.)

Pizza is also a particular favorite of Mike Dire's. "We've been doing pizza for about seventy years," he says, noting that the Bonnie Brae menu also includes a number of diner classics, as well as Mexican fare.
click to enlarge Bonnie Brae Ice Cream has been serving for 33 years. - BRIAN FLYNN
Bonnie Brae Ice Cream has been serving for 33 years.
Brian Flynn
But food is just part of the draw at these longtime restaurants. Dire takes a break to talk to a refrigerator technician, who's just finished a routine service; he calls the technician by his first name. He's just as familiar with his lunchtime regulars. That's what people expect at the Bonnie Brae Tavern, a proud staple of the neighborhood.

The Markhams echo that sentiment; they're proud that they're "still here."

"It's a testament to a lot of hard work," adds Erin, who sometimes clocks eighty hours a week at the restaurant. But that's what it takes to keep pushing not just her place, but the entire block. She wants people to eat at the Saucy Noodle one night, have lunch and a drink at the Bonnie Brae Tavern another, get ice cream at Bonnie Brae Ice Cream (a survivor for 33 years), try Brightmarten.

"We share," she concludes. "We all have a piece of this. That's what I want to get back to."
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Brian Flynn is a writer, baker, comedian and podcaster from Denver.
Contact: Brian Flynn