At the Bonnie Brae Tavern last Thursday, the pepperoni pizza tasted just the same as it has for the last three decades. So did the excellent green chile, a surprising find at a classic diner. One thing was different, though: The place wasn't nearly as crowded as it was in the ’90s, when families, sports-team members and neighbors would cram the place.
Oh, and another thing: "When I was little, I'd remember ducking down to avoid the line of smoke that was in the air," remembered one of my companions, who came here when he was a kid, is now in the restaurant business and hadn't been back in years.
Smoking in restaurants was banned long ago, and now it looks like the Bonnie Brae will inevitably disappear, too. Rumors started swirling last week that the restaurant would close this month, which is why I grabbed some longtime friends for what I hoped would not be a last meal at the Bonnie Brae Tavern.
At the bar, I spotted Mike Dire, a third-generation member of the Dire family that founded the Bonnie Brae 86 years ago, and runs it today with his cousin, Rick, and various offspring. He denied that the restaurant would close any time soon; things are "status quo," he says.
His grandparents, 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 Dires constructed the current restaurant in the ’40s. The pizza that's been such a draw came a decade or so later.
Last April, the family-owned Dire Investments LLC filed an application for a certificate of non-historic status on the restaurant building, which is part of a package it owns on that stretch of South University that includes the dry cleaners next door and the parking lot. Mike Dire didn't realize that notice of the application would be posted on the restaurant, and the blowback from some surprised neighbors was "horrible," he said at the time. "I feel bad for my staff."
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Those staffers are now again fielding questions. Although neighbors might have been upset at the move, no one filed to oppose the application, and the certificate was granted, creating a five-year window during which the business can be demolished. The family just wanted to keep their options open, Mike Dire explained; with rising property taxes and increased competition, it was becoming tougher and tougher to run a restaurant, even as the neighborhood became more and more desirable. (For evidence, just look to the Campus Lounge, which has gone through two owners since Jim Wiste sold the place after running it for forty years; now the folks behind Recess Beer Garden are taking it on.)
The impetus for the latest rumors? Plans were filed with the city last month for a possible three-story project on the property, with residential and retail units...but no restaurant. BusinessDen identifies the man with the plan as Joe Jundt, who said that while he has a contract on the property, he could be six months from closing. “There’s a lot of things on a project like this that have to get checked off and resolved to move forward,” he told BusinessDen.
Which means that you still have plenty of time to grab another pizza at the Bonnie Brae Tavern.