"You just kind of roll with the punches," says Owen Olson, CEO and founding partner of the Recess Family restaurant group, which includes Recess Beer Garden
and a new addition, fieldTRIP
, as well as Campus Lounge
. And there have been quite a few punches over the past two years.
Olson had spent time working in Japanese restaurants, including the now-closed Japon on South Gaylord Street, before opening Recess with a group of friends in late 2015. The beer garden, at 2715 17th Street in LoHi, has since become a go-to for good times, thanks in part to its ample outdoor space. "People move to Colorado to be outdoors and to experience all four of the seasons, so I want that to be the majority of the space," Olson says of the Recess design, which he and his team did themselves — a rarity for most restaurants, which typically outsource design and remodeling projects.
With Recess running smoothly, the team took on a new project in late 2019: rebooting Campus Lounge, a Bonnie Brae neighborhood staple at 701 South University Boulevard — for the third time in three years. The address has been a bar for over seventy years, and operated as Campus Lounge under owner Jim Wiste from 1976 until 2016. Wiste, who passed away in January 2018, was a former University of Denver hockey player who established Campus Lounge as a low-key hockey bar. It was the kind of divey yet family-friendly place that welcomed countless regulars over the decades — including Olson and his family.
"I grew up in this neighborhood," Olson recalls. "Most of the [Recess] owners did, too, and we all hung out here. ... We'd come in here and run around, play games while our parents had a beer. When Jim sold it, everyone was pretty sad."
The purchaser? Real estate developer Charlie Woolley and Dan Landes, the original founder and former owner of Watercourse Foods and City, O' City, both pioneers in the vegan restaurant scene. Landes and his partners inked the deal for Campus Lounge in September 2016, telling Westword
at the time that the new project wouldn't be vegan or vegetarian-focused
. Renovations were part of the plan, though, and what was supposed to be a few-months-long project was drawn out over a year. When the revisioned Campus Lounge debuted
with its new menu, refurbished interior and lack of televisions in October 2017, it got a chilly reception from the neighborhood.
There are plenty of seats at the bar at Campus Lounge.
In March 2018, just five months later, the Campus closed once again. But not for long this time. In August of that year, it was purchased by a father-son duo with longtime ties to the watering hole. Dan and Jeff Nickless, along with a third partner, reopened the bar two months later after adding back those TVs, along with plenty of sports memorabilia and a more casual, bar-snack-focused menu.
But in the summer of 2019, Campus Lounge again went dark. Enter the Recess Family. "We came in, and it was kind of the last shot to make it happen," Olson says. "We didn't want to see it go away. It would have been a sad day for most of my Denver friends, just because there's so much history here."
Within a few months, Olson and his team gave Campus Lounge one more update, taking on the design and remodeling project themselves, as they had with Recess. They brought back the original layout and added some unique touches, including a trio of vignettes from Wes Anderson movies in glass cases along the back wall that were made by Olson and his mother. They also gave the menu a retro touch with a salad bar and nightly specials, including a throwback to the original Campus Lounge prime rib deal on Fridays.
Campus Lounge take three opened in January 2020, just two months before the first indoor dining shutdown. "It was tough," Olson admits of the timing. "But it was tough for everybody. ... We managed through." The team began selling booze and food to go, and even started its own delivery service at one point in order to keep staff working. "We've pretty much kept the same people the whole way through," Olson notes. That was a big accomplishment at a time when staffing was a major hurdle at so many restaurants, including Brightmarten, a Bonnie Brae neighbor that closed last month
, citing staffing shortages as a driving force in the decision to shut down.
"We feel pretty fortunate we're still here," Olson continues. "I think that's the dedication of the staff. And over here, especially, the neighborhood and all the people who have their hearts on Campus Lounge and want to make it successful," including the many longtime regulars who bought gift cards during the indoor dining shutdowns in order to help the bar survive.
Now that Campus Lounge's indoor dining area has been fully open for over a year, it's doing more than just surviving. Sales are up significantly, and the neighborhood has been welcoming. "We get a lot of the old-school people in here," Olson notes. "People with families come in quite a bit, too. .... Everyone has a story about Campus Lounge, and they seem to be very happy with what we've done here."
The interior of fieldTRIP has bright, beachy vibes.
As more and more old-school favorites like Breakfast King and the Irish Snug close their doors, the nostalgia for "old Denver" grows. But Olson and his team are a standout example of people trying to help make sure a Denver classic continues to build on its long and beloved history — even as the future of Campus Lounge's block on South University remains uncertain.
"There are whispers about several things that could happen, but nobody really knows," Olson admits, referring to rumors that were sparked when the landlord of the Saucy Noodle down the block applied for a certificate of demolition eligibility in February 2020. "But we plan on making this place the staple of the area. We don't want to go anywhere."
The team is planning an anniversary party of sorts — something it's been unable to host since opening — in May. It will be a celebration of the Campus going back to 1976, with a focus on customer appreciation and, with any luck, the long-awaited return of the salad bar, which has been on hold since the pandemic.
But first, the Recess Family will hold an April 1 grand-opening celebration for fieldTRIP. This new spot next door to Recess, like the new-and-improved Campus, made its debut at a tough time. A lack of steel delayed construction for a year, and the doors finally opened on November 25, 2021 — a cold, late-fall day when a new mask mandate went into effect for Denver bars and restaurants.
FieldTRIP is a brightly colored addition to Recess, with its own, small indoor space complete with a surfboard-inspired bar, a handful of tables and a food menu built around Hawaiian/Polynesian influences. Like Recess, it has ample outdoor seating, and the two concepts share a liquor license, so guests can take their boozy beverages back and forth. Eventually, guests will be able to order food from both menus no matter where they're sitting.
fieldTRIP serves Hawaiian-style eats including a huli huli chicken plate.
Olson has been dreaming of a Hawaiian/Polynesian-inspired concept for a long time. "I originally wanted to do Hawaiian barbecue with Recess," he explains, a desire inspired in part by his college years playing rugby with Polynesian players who introduced him to the food.
At the time when Recess was being developed, Olson felt the public wasn't familiar enough with the cuisine to take a chance on it, but Hawaiian food has grown in popularity on the mainland in recent years. FieldTRIP's menu includes staples like Spam musubi served with a trio of soy-based dipping sauces and a huli huli chicken or kalua pork plate paired with such sides as mac salad.
By April, fieldTRIP will have extended its hours, opening in the early morning with a breakfast menu, something not many other places in the area offer. Olson hopes that it appeals to young professionals who are still working from home and looking for a place to grab a bite and sit outside with their laptops.
And the group doesn't plan to stop at three concepts; the Recess Family will keep growing. "We've got several other projects that are in the works, and we want to be the next locally owned Denver restaurant group," Olson concludes.
It's time for Recess.