The Wazee Supper Club has been holding down the corner of 15th and Wazee streets for forty years, in a part of town that's seen more change than there are pizza toppings on the Wazee menu. Gone are the viaducts that sent traffic over, instead of through, the part of downtown that's now called LoDo but was once known by less catchy names -- Skid Row being one of the less flattering, if more accurate. The pizza joint, with its checkerboard floor and its dumbwaiter connecting the kitchen below with the balcony seating above, was already fourteen years old when the Lower Downtown Historic District was created in 1988, halting a steady stream of demolitions begun in previous decades and opening the doors for a revitalization that would make it one of Denver's most exciting and defining neighborhoods.
It would be another ten years before John Hickenlooper and his Wynkoop Holdings group would purchase the Wazee from original owner Angelo Karagas -- which is when Lee Driscoll enters the story. Now CEO of Breckenridge-Wynkoop LLC, the joint restaurant and brewing venture that currently owns the supper club, Driscoll has been a part of the Wazee's history for almost half of its life. And despite overseeing a stable of other breweries and restaurants -- from the original Wynkoop Brewing Company a few blocks away to the far-flung Phantom Canyon and Breckenridge brewpubs in Colorado Springs and Breckenridge, respectively -- Driscoll has a soft spot in his heart for the old corner joint that still retains a vintage vibe and regulars'-hangout appeal, even after a 2012 facelift.
Those renovations included opening up the space with more street-facing windows, a move Driscoll says makes sense now that the viaducts are gone. The signs above the front door may be a little too clean and modern for some who still long for the old days, but the original signage can be found on the inside wall. "It's still seedy and cool at the same time," Driscoll says of the overall atmosphere. His favorite table is upstairs on the slightly smaller balcony, where you can look over the place and "see and feel authenticity."
Change is inevitable, whether for the entire neighborhood or just for one aging eatery. You can cling to the old and grubby as some symbol of an idealized past (that probably wasn't so ideal), or you can work to revitalize the bones of a place without destroying its soul. According to Driscoll, the company's goal for the Wazee is to "honor the history while keeping [the restaurant] relevant so people can feel the authenticity." Bigger bathrooms, a modernized kitchen and a little more space make it a better workplace for employees while improving the overall guest experience.
As for the Wazee's legendary pizza, Driscoll and the restaurant's managers realized that some things don't need to change. After some experimentation with different doughs, sauces and crusts, the current version isn't all that different from what customers enjoyed twenty or thirty years ago. And what style is that pizza -- East Coast, Denver, some hybrid of thin-crust and deep-dish? "It's Wazee pizza," Driscoll asserts, adding that the surest approach is to "stick with what we do. If you want it, you come to the Wazee."
The challenge for the entire Breckenridge-Wynkoop group is keeping up with a booming Denver restaurant market without sacrificing what has made their places special over the years. Part of that is maintaining an owner/operator feel and a commitment from the managers on down to welcome new faces and treat longtime regulars with the same service they've known for decades. Driscoll points out that Rita Reeverts has worked at the Wazee for over thirty years and knows all the lunch customers. Although she's now a manager, Reeverts has pitched in on many odd jobs over the years -- including painting the ceiling during the renovation -- and will still deliver a pie now and then.
The Wazee Supper Club will hold a fortieth-anniversary party on Friday, September 26, when a large supreme pizza will be $19.74 all day and 40-cent pints of Rail Yard Ale in Wazee Anniversary Pint Glasses will be served to the first hundred customers who show up at 6 p.m. "With so many new places opening up in Denver, it's a major celebration to recognize one of the original places that's been serving Denver for four decades," says Driscoll. "This throwback party is our way of thanking our loyal customers who've been such an important part of the Wazee's history."
Keep reading for a Q & A with Lee Driscoll...
Driscoll wasn't born in Denver, but he's been around long enough to see the changes and understand what's important to downtown residents and visitors alike. While overseeing company projects that range from maintaining and expanding current operations (like a new high-speed canning line at Breckenridge and the recently refurbished brewery and rooftop patio down at Phantom Canyon) to a new, multi-acre brewery farm in Littleton, the busy executive -- a former New York assistant district attorney -- found time to respond to our interrogation about his love for the Wazee (and for pizza in general) and its place in the Denver dining scene.
Westword: How did you get into the restaurant business?
Lee Driscoll: I moved to Colorado without a job, with an eighteen-month-old child, and my wife was six months pregnant. Luckily, John Hickenlooper offered me a job. I had no prior experience.
Were you into food growing up -- especially pizza?
Pizza has been my favorite food since I was a little kid. I remember at YMCA day camp, when I was six or seven years old, that a piece of pizza was 25 cents. Every day I would try and find a way to earn a quarter for the next day. I would wait in line and try to get the first piece from a pie that came right out of the oven.
Any good stories you'd like to share from experiences at the Wazee Supper Club?
It would be too embarrassing to share my favorite Wazee Supper Club stories.
What's your favorite menu item there? And favorite beer on tap?
The Supreme Stromboli -- hands down! Within the Breckenridge-Wynkoop family of beers, Wynkoop's Mile High Pale Ale is my current favorite. I love virtually every beer made by Great Divide.
What do you think of the downtown restaurant scene these days?
Very vibrant and very competitive, with so many great restaurants.
Where do you like to eat when you go out?
For a special occasion, I recently had a wonderful dinner at Luca D'Italia. Frank Bonanno does an exceptional job.
Are there any historic Denver restaurants that have closed that you miss?
Easy one: Strings.
What's coming up for Breckenridge-Wynkoop?
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The Farmhouse -- the restaurant we're building adjacent to our new brewery in Littleton -- will be one of the best restaurants we've ever done. We've been planning it for over a year and are hoping to have it open next spring. The new spot is surrounded by open space going down to the South Platte River.