Editor's note: Since this story was first published, the opening date has been pushed back until October 21.
The first thing people want to know about the Campus Lounge: When will it finally reopen?
The second: Does it still smell?
Over seventy years, a watering hole acquires quite a patina: worn spots in the bar where generations of customers have rested their elbows, decades of kitchen odors imbued in the scuffed walls, and the gloss of many, many memories.
It was just over a year ago that Dan Landes and his partners closed on their purchase of the Campus Lounge, a classic neighborhood dive at 701 South University Boulevard, in the Bonnie Brae neighborhood. At the time, they had high hopes that after a quick renovation, they'd be able to reopen the place by Thanksgiving. That holiday was soon switched out for St. Patrick's Day. And now, with any luck, the Campus Lounge will definitely be pouring before Halloween. Landes has set a target opening date of October 18, if all city permitting goes according to plan.
And, yes, the Campus Lounge does smell — like new paint, and like the last construction projects after a major overhaul that saw the basement completely remodeled, fresh bathrooms installed, a new, open kitchen ("self-managing," Landes says) put in back right by a food bar, and some of the windows in front restored. "I don't think it had seen light in forty years," he adds. That was part of the Campus's charm, of course: It was dim, it was cozy. And even with new glass blocks in the high front windows, Landes promises that the low-ceilinged space will have an "intimate glow."
That it would take a year to get to this point definitely surprised Landes, no neophyte to the restaurant business. But even if he'd known how major the project would become, "I still would have done it," he says. "I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Two decades ago, Landes opened WaterCourse Foods after putting about $30,000 into the project, he says, and laughs. (He sold WaterCourse to an employee two years ago.) Then he opened City, O' City in the original home of WaterCourse at 206 East 13th Avenue; after a less-scrutinized expansion, it's become a major gathering place for Capitol Hill. Partner Charlie Woolley is no newcomer to the business, either; he's the founding principal and president of St. Charles Town Company, which put together the deal on the Campus and other restaurants around town, including the sale of My Brother's Bar earlier this year.
Both wanted to make sure the Campus remained a classic neighborhood spot, a "food-focused, fun joint," says Landes. He grew up in the neighborhood, and wanted to provide a gathering place "away from the cranes" of downtown that would suit today's residents while still honoring the past.
That past dates back to 1946, when the corner space opened as the Bel-Aire. Three years later, it turned into the Campus Lounge; Jim Wiste, a graduate of the University of Denver and former NHL player, purchased the building from Bill and Joe White in 1976. He closed the deal with Woolley, Landes and company on September 28, 2016, three days after the bar closed with a final blowout marking his forty-year tenure.
And then the work began. Along the way, chef Brendan Doyle left the project and Chris Medved came in to create a menu of from-scratch bar food. "We wanted to provide this neighborhood with a place where neighbors could come three, four times a week," Medved says. So the menu includes not just bar snacks, but a chile-relleno hamburger, duck-meatball banh mi, and a roster of rotating entrees that, yes, include meat. But Landes, who made his bones with vegetarian restaurants, points out that about 80 percent of the menu can be made vegan.
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There will also be a bison dog with red chile. And when the Campus adds brunch, he says, it will expand the chile roster to include "kickass green and red," so you can order your dish Christmas-style, in the old Campus style.
As they put the finishing touches to both the menu and the building — a yoga spot and hair salon will move into the spaces along East Exposition, and the patio out front on University has a railing made out of a circa 1956 sunshade from the old Cherry Creek post office — they're confident enough of that October 18 opening date to finally start hiring.
And in the meantime, Dan Hennessy has finished touching up the classic Campus Lounge sign; a new logo with a smoking fish created by his brother, Kevin Hennessy, will be installed right below. "If the neon's on, we're open," promises Landes.
We can't wait.