Update: For photos of Lancer Lounge's final night, visit "Slide show: Lancer Lounge's last night." For more on the developing story, read "Lancer Lounge seized by State of Colorado for back taxes."
I don't remember the first time I went to the Lancer Lounge -- it was more than a decade ago -- but I do remember the last time I was there. It was a typical Friday night at the venerable watering hole, where the drinks are as stiff as a starched shirt. Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" was blasting on the jukebox, and the cheap whiskey -- a single that's always a double here -- went down easy. And after a few, the liquid courage had done its job, convincing me to belt out the lyrics...and dance, slow, with a perfect stranger, whose name I'll never know. Nothing out of the ordinary. No one cared.
Just about everyone who lives in Denver has a story about the Lancer Lounge, which Ron Nathan leased in 1976, more than four decades ago -- long before the 'hood became a culinary breeding ground for some of the top chefs and restaurateurs in the city, including Frank Bonanno, who now owns Mizuna, Bones and Luca d'Italia, all of which reside in the same stretch of building, which is owned by the Sherman Agency, a local real estate company.
But according to Becky Conda, who took over the Lancer Lounge in 1999, when Nathan passed away and gifted it to her in his will, Howard Snyder, the vice president/treasurer of the Sherman Agency, has evicted her, and as of tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m., the Lancer Lounge will cease to exist.
Snyder, for his part, refuses to comment, offering only this curt statement: "It's in the courts. I'm not going to tell you what happened."
Fair enough. But Conda, with whom I spoke with earlier today, isn't holding her tongue. "I'm not doing good. I'm numb," she admits through tears and the muffled mumbles coming from the bar, where a few regulars were camped out this morning in solidarity.
"I can't honestly tell you why this happened, but I was one month -- one -- behind in my rent, and I had a sewer problem, which I spent a ton of my own money to fix, but they didn't think that I handled it correctly," she says. "And so they've evicted me, and there's nothing I can do about it. I have to comply with the law."
Conda, who says she also spent $102,000 of her own money last year to bring the bar up to code, including purchasing new kitchen equipment and updating the bathrooms, claims that she attempted to pay her rent, but that Snyder steadfastly refused to accept it. "I had that money in the bank and I handed him a check, but he wouldn't accept it. He said 'I'm not taking your money. The owners don't want you here,'" she tells me. "I tried, I did my best, but it seems like they just don't want a neighborhood dive bar between two upscale restaurants."
She admits that the bartenders pour "a very good drink," and that her bar, which squats between Mizuna and Bones, can get rowdy, especially on the patio, which sees its share of debauchery. But she insists that she hired "crowd control" supervisors to oversee the flow. "I paid extra money to make sure that I had people keeping an eye on things. They made sure that people didn't get out of hand, and we always carded people," she points out.
And she doesn't fault Bonanno, the owner of those two "upscale" restaurants. "I'm not sure that Frank liked having a neighborhood bar next to his restaurants, but he's a good person, and I'm not going to blame him. I don't think he had anything to do with it. It was the owners who didn't think it was a good fit."
Bonanno, for his part, admits that it's an unfortunate situation. "It's been an institution in Denver for years, and I always think it's sad when a business has to close," he allows. "We've been good neighbors, and we've have a good relationship for many years, and I absolutely wish her the best of luck. She put a lot of money into it, and hopefully she'll have a really nice sendoff tonight."
And if you're wondering if Bonanno is going to take over the space, which would obviously make sense, he asserts that it's way too early in the process to even think about it. "I have no idea," he says.
In the meantime, Conda expects the Lancer Lounge to be packed tonight for its final hurrah. "Everyone has been calling, and I think it's going to be a huge night," she says. "I'm really going to miss the people here," she adds, her voice trailing off. "That's what I'm going to miss the most."
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And we'll miss the Lancer Lounge.