Exclusive first look: Frank Bonanno's Vesper Lounge opens tonight

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Those of you who insisted that Frank Bonanno would turn the former Lancer Lounge into an "over-hyped concept" -- which is what at least one person claimed when we broke the news that Bonanno would be taking over the evicted bar wedged between two of his restaurants -- will likely eat your words.

In fact, Bonanno, who's opening Vesper Lounge tonight at 4 p.m., didn't do a whole lot to the iconic bar previously owned by Becky Conda, who, sadly, passed away a few weeks ago, less than a month after the Lancer shuttered. Bonanno and his wife, Jacqueline, cleaned the joint up, slapping on a new coat of paint, exposing the hardwood and art-deco floors buried beneath the old carpeting, installing booths that were procured from Ambria, which closed a few months ago, and adding a few groovy conversation piece elements -- prayer candles whimsically glittered and stickered with everyone from John Hickenlooper to John Belushi, old-fashioned wine bottles exposing small Day of the Dead figures poking out of the cut glass, and a table arcade that boasts more than sixty retro games.

See also: - Exclusive: Frank Bonanno will open Vesper Lounge in the former Lancer Lounge space - Lancer Lounge gets evicted and will close tomorrow at 2 p.m. - Chef and Tell with Frank Bonanno of Luca, Mizuna, Osteria Marco and Bones

"We really didn't change a whole lot -- we just added some TLC to the space, and Jacqueline added her great flair for design," says Bonanno, who honored the Lancer by taking some of the letters from the original signage and rearranging them on a wall in the lounge to spell "No Anger." The wisdom shares space with a Buddha and a long row of lit prayer candles. And to go along with the spiritual theme -- vesper is a sunset evening prayer -- the check presenters double as vesper prayer books.

The biggest change comes via the kitchen -- and an affordable menu that trumpets Middle Eastern cuisine, including several variations of hummus, pita sandwiches served with fries dusted with Mid East spices, skewers plated with cous cous and tzatziki and a cheeseburger. Nothing on the menu is more than $13 -- and most dishes fall in the $6 to $10 range. But why Middle Eastern food? "It's healthy, it's fresh, I've never done it before, and I really think that Middle Eastern food is going to be the next big trend," predicts Bonanno, whose menu also boasts several vegetarian options.

The beer list, which is mostly devoted to Colorado craft brews, pimps ten drafts, six by the can and eight by the bottle, and those are reasonably priced, with pints selling for $5. And if you want to drink really cheap, you can do that, too, thanks to the fact that beverage director Adam Hodak graced the list with $2.50 Utica Clubs. "I guess you could call it the pretentious PBR," jests Hodak, pointing out that it was the first beer sold in the United States after Prohibition.

Hodak is also featuring seven cocktails, three of which will be dispensed from a refurbished 1950s Coke machine, while the remaining four, he says, will be "truly drafted" cocktails from a tap. "We'll be able to carbonate cocktails as well as pour still," he adds, noting that he's designed a syllabus that includes a Moscow mule, an old-fashioned, mai tais, gin fizzes, boulevardiers and palomas.

The quarters flaunt a jukebox, too, as well as board games and a "holy water" dispenser stocked with candy; in the future, says Bonanno, the lounge may play host to Geeks Who Drink trivia gatherings. And brunch, he reveals, will be added next spring, once the patio opens. Bonanno also built a garage door in the second dining area that opens to the streetscape.

Vesper is open seven nights a week, from 4 p.m. to close -- which Bonanno muses will be around 1 a.m. "Nothing good can come after 1 a.m.," he jokes. Last night, I had the chance to check out the remodel and the food (I highly recommend the fresh Colorado lamb pita), and brought back an exclusive gallery of photos.

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