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Bonnie Brae Tavern May Not Be Historic, but It's Not History, Either

The Bonnie Brae Tavern in April...with the application for non-historic designation posted in front.EXPAND
The Bonnie Brae Tavern in April...with the application for non-historic designation posted in front.
Patricia Calhoun

The Bonnie Brae Tavern opened on June 6, 1934, which makes it one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in Denver — and certainly the only one that's been in the same family for over eight decades.

Carl and Susan Dire purchased the property in the 700 block of South University Boulevard, in the Bonnie Brae Annex subdivision, back in 1933, when the street was still a dirt road and the area was slowly transitioning from farmland to residential. They opened a gas station on a corner of the lot, then the next year added a small frame structure for a restaurant at 740 South University.

The Bonnie Brae Tavern was always a family affair; the Dires's son Michael joined the business in the 1940s, and their son Henry the next decade. By then, the Bonnie Brae had undergone a major remodel/renovation that kept some of the original building, but replaced the A-frame roof with a dome and added an entirely new front — with a beige and turquoise color scheme that still rules outside and inside today. "Oh, god, this turquoise and brown," says Mike Dire, a third-generation member of the family who started working at the Bonnie Brae forty years ago. "I learned to embrace it."

But in early April, the Bonnie Brae's facade suddenly sported something new: an application for a certificate of non-historic status that, if granted by the city, would allow the building to be demolished.

When the family-owned Dire Investments LLC filed that application, Dire says, he didn't realize it would be posted on the restaurant. The blowback from some surprised neighbors was "horrible," he adds. "I feel bad for my staff."

Because at the same time those staffers were bringing out the down-home diner-style food — pizza, Mexican, you name it — that regulars have craved for generations, they were being asked questions about whether the Bonnie Brae was for sale, or closing. Neither, says Dire.

"We have no plans to do anything right now," he explains. "It's just something we might need to do for the future."

Inside the Bonnie Brae Tavern.
Inside the Bonnie Brae Tavern.
Mark Antonation

After all, the restaurant sits on a prime piece of real estate (technically 734-740 South University, which includes both the space leased by a dry cleaner and the Bonnie Brae), at a time when the restaurant business is getting tougher and tougher, with more competition, increased challenges finding employees, and rising costs, particularly property taxes.

In the Landmark Preservation Commission review of the initial application, staffers note that the building has kept its architectural integrity (that color scheme, much like everything else, looks unchanged from 1949), and also has ties to the history of the city. The deadline to file a counter-application for historic designation (28 days after the initial posting) passed on April 30; since none was filed, the certificate of non-historic designation will be issued today, says Laura Swartz, communications director for Denver Planning and Development.

But that doesn't mean the Bonnie Brae Tavern is history...at least, not for now. "There's a lot of ground between demolition and historic designation," Swartz notes.

And Mike Dire says that his family plans to keep running the place for the foreseeable future.

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While the Bonnie Brae Tavern is one of the oldest restaurants in the city, it's not the oldest.

El Chapultepec opened at 1962 Market Street right after Prohibition ended in December 1933, and the Cruise Room in the Oxford Hotel debuted at the same time. The Columbine Cafe opened that month at 15630 South Golden Road in Golden, when the area held nothing but the Coors Brewery and horse pastures. Although that neighborhood has changed considerably in the past 85 years, the Columbine is still pouring, even if the “cafe” portion of its name is limited to potluck events, the occasional fish fry and great breakfast burritos brought in on the weekends. (The saloon portion alone was enough to earn the Columbine our Best Dive Bar award in the Best of Denver 2019.)

Is there an older spot around town? Sam’s Coney Island opened in 1927 at 1500 Curtis Street; today it lives on as Sam’s No. 3, right across the street from its original home. The Buckhorn Exchange beats that; it’s been serving diners since 1893 under the same name and in the same building at 1000 Osage Street, and calls itself "Denver's oldest restaurant" on its website.

But while the Buckhorn boasts Colorado Liquor License No 1, that dates only to the end of Prohibition, when the state began issuing licenses. The address that’s been pouring longer than any other in town? That would be 2376 15th Street, home to My Brother’s Bar for fifty years...and to numerous other bars dating back to at least the early 1880s.

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