For forty years, Jim Wiste's Campus Lounge was a mainstay of the Bonnie Brae neighborhood. A graduate of the University of Denver and former NHL player, Wiste bought the corner space at 701 South University Boulevard in 1976 from Bill and Joe White. It had started life as the Bel-Aire in 1946 and become the Campus Lounge three years later. But Wiste turned it into a playground not just for Bonnie Brae and nearby Washington Park residents, but for sports fans everywhere.
Two months after he marked forty years of ownership, Wiste sold the restaurant as well as the corner building and three storefronts along East Exposition Avenue for $1.9 million. "I'm ready to be just a customer," said Wiste, who passed away in January.
The new owners were developer Charlie Woolley of the St. Charles Town Company and Dan Landes, a Denver native who'd found big success, first with Watercourse Foods and then City, O' City. The new owners had plans to reopen the Campus within just a few months, but major renovation work on the infrastructure pushed that target back by more than a year. And when the Campus finally did reopen, the former regulars were not happy. The old sign was there, and the new bathrooms and kitchen looked good, but where was the green chile? Where were the burgers? And above all, where were the TVs?
The new, improved Campus Lounge closed in March, after just five months.
But it will soon be back in business under new owners, who have learned some valuable lessons from the last attempt to reboot the place. "We're trying to put a personal touch on it," says Jeff Nickless, who has several personal connections to the Campus. He was right out of college and at his first bank job more than a decade ago when he met Landes and helped him get a loan to open City, O' City. He'd taken a natural interest in the renovation of the Campus Lounge, too: His grandfather had owned the Esquire Meat Market just down the block for over fifty years.
So naturally, "My dad and I went down to see how it was going," he says.
"It wasn't what you'd expect," says Jeff's father, Dan Nickless, "I can understand almost the shock of the neighborhood."
When he learned just how badly things had gone, Jeff talked to Landes. "I let a day or two go by," he recalls, "and then I called my dad and said, 'Want to buy the Campus Lounge? I think it would be fun to do...we've never been in the restaurant business.'"
Dan laughed. "I thought this was a lark," he admits. "When Jeff called me, I thought, there's no chance in the world this would come together."
But he didn't laugh for long. Dan, who'd grown up in Park Hill as one of ten kids, had worked at his dad's meat market while he attended what was then Metropolitan State College, and he knew the Campus Lounge well. "We provided meat for hamburgers and steak night...we were in and out," he remembers. "The Campus was always such a great place."
The Nicklesses believed it could be again. They sat down with the owners and, along with a third partner who lived in Wash Park, on August 1 they closed on a deal to buy the Campus Lounge, as well as buy into some of the real estate. "We're thrilled and excited about the opportunity," says Dan. "We just had a lot of synergies and a lot of fond memories; we all spent part of our youth down there."
In fact, Dan adds, his son "might have spent a little too much time at the Campus" when Jeff was attending the University of Denver, but he still graduated at the top of his class with a double major.
Helping make the deal possible was the fact that while the previous owners hadn't changed the outside beyond cleaning it up, exposing the original windows and repairing the iconic sign, they'd done a lot of the tough, expensive work inside. "It was a labor of love for those guys," Dan says, "and we are the fortunate recipients of the work they did...new bathrooms, new kitchen, all the systems."
But they knew they needed more than an updated infrastructure in Denver's competitive restaurant market. "The criteria for me was pretty simple," Dan explains. "Can we make a go of this? We had the financial resources, but we needed an operator."
They didn't have to look far to find one. Dan's cousin, Jon Kelly, had an extensive background in restaurants, having worked at the Broadmoor Hotel and the Fresh Fish Company, as well as a number of franchises. "He's done it all," says Dan. "We think we've got a great operator, who's still a part of the family."
Now they're working together to make the Campus Lounge a "family-friendly place, a neighborhood gathering place," Dan says. "That's what it always was, and that's what we want to return it to. Having grown up in the neighborhood in a service industry, we know customers are number one, and we hope we can make it a hospitable place."
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They're creating a new menu — yes, there will be green chile, a Campus burrito and burgers, and they're going to bring back some of Wiste's daily specials, maybe even T-bone Tuesday. They're keeping the U-shape bar up front, contemplating a return of the old fish tank, and putting a lot of money into audiovisual equipment and televisions, of course. "I think there are fourteen in the main room, three in the bathrooms," says Jeff. Along with a very big screen in the secondary room, that makes eighteen, which should satisfy the most ardent sports fan.
They're shooting to reopen the Campus Lounge this fall, maybe in time for Monday Night Football on October 1, when the Denver Broncos will play the Chiefs in Kansas City.
The neighbors can't wait. While the new owners were redoing the floors, about ten people stopped in to see if they could get lunch. "We're already turning customers away," jokes Jeff.
"We hope to provide a really good experience for everyone who comes into the restaurant," Dan concludes, "and maybe it will last a few more generations."