At 4 p.m. yesterday, the Rocky Mountain Diner, an authentic slice of Americana that's resided in the Ghost building at 800 18th Street for the past twenty years, was supposed to shut its doors, but when the clock struck four, the bar and dining room was still packed with lingering regulars knocking back schooners and feasting on the diner's prized fried chicken, and co-owner Brad Anderson was in no hurry to toss them out. "We sort of thought we'd go out with a whimper, especially since there was really no way to tell our customers that we were going out of business, but we've been overrun with customers showing their appreciation, so we're keeping the doors open for a while longer," says Anderson, who, along with Tom Walls and various other partners, opened the iconic diner in 1990. But last Friday, the owners received an eviction notice from Frances Koncilja, the building's landlord. "We tried and tried and tried to negotiate a new lease, and we were legitimately offering above-market rent in a downmarket, but we got a letter on Friday from the landlord telling us that we had exactly ten days to vacate," Anderson tells me over schooners in the rusticated dining room. "It doesn't make sense. We're still in shock that it ended like this -- so abruptly, so senselessly."
Anderson, who moved to Denver from Kansas City in 1982, met up with Walls while Anderson was tending bar at Rick's Cafe, a long-gone Denver watering hole, and the two set their sights on opening a restaurant. Anderson wanted to open a joint similar to Stroud's, a Kansas City legend that's revered for its fried chicken -- he held the coveted recipe in his hands when he relocated to Denver -- so the two begin to hunt for a location, which they found downtown. "This space had been sitting vacant for seven years, but we figured it would be a nice location for lunch, even if it sucked for dinner," recalls Anderson. "We started working on it in 1989, put a menu together and opened in December of 1990," -- to a crush of crowds, it turned out, who mobbed the joint for lunch and dinner. "It was really amazing, and we did a lot better than we thought we would" said Anderson, his voice trailing off.
Walls, who also own the Trinity Grille, Chopper's Sports Grill and the Castle Cafe, is stopping at tables, shaking hands and attempting to explain to shocked customers, as best he can, why the diner is closing, and it's apparent he's struggling to find the words. "I'm devastated," he says, shaking his head. "Just devastated." Anderson nods in commiseration. "We really had no idea something like this was going to happen,"he echoes.
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But while the diner now sits vacant, its famed saddle seats in the bar, bereft of butts, Walls and Anderson are already scouting new spaces to resurrect it. "We're in the middle of whirlwind craziness right now, but we're looking around for a new space, somewhere downtown, we hope, and while we're incredibly disappointed by how this turned out, we do want to reopen," stresses Anderson.
Meanwhile, Koncilja, who has been the landlord for the past five years, has plans to open a restaurant in the empty space, according to Anderson, who notes, apologetically, that forty employees no longer have jobs. "The whole thing just sucks," he laments.
We couldn't agree more.