We’re proud to say we don’t look a day under 80 years old. Still awash in our whitewash and turquoise vinyl, we’re much the same in style and spirit as we were on June 6, 1934.
Let us take you on a sentimental journey.
Look east from our parking lot and imagine sagebrush as far as the eye can see, interrupted by a dairy farm or two. And to the west, not the pop-tops of prime real estate, but the modest bungalows of a proper young neighborhood named Washington Park. Along comes a scrappy auto mechanic from North Denver. He’s invested every dime he has in the weeds and dirt across the street, and he’s got big plans. Prohibition’s out, and Carl Dire has decided to open a bar across the street from one of the driest neighborhoods in Denver.
Our patriarch was a stubborn man indeed, the orphaned son of Italian immigrants who had died of the flu. Unlike today’s aspiring MBAs, Carl Dire did not pour over the shifting demographics and trends in the food service industry. He pretty much got things up and running as fast as he could and then waited out the patience of his neighbors, who just happened to be leaders in the local temperance movement. In the end, they were the ones who finally blinked. A few of their grandchildren ended up working for Carl. The rest became good, paying customers.
Carl and wife, Sue, named their business after the housing development surrounding it. Like the restaurant, Bonnie Brae neighborhood took time to grow into its name, which in Gaelic means “pleasant hill.” In 1934, it was nothing more than a scandal-ridden development that had gone bankrupt a few years earlier and would stand idle for a good many more.
In the meantime, the Dires slogged away through a long, long Depression. They used to put their young sons to sleep on a mattress in the back of a Model A, parked behind the restaurant. After closing for the night, the family would drive home to North Denver only to turn around a few hours later and do it all again. After a few years, they could afford to build a modest apartment upstairs from the bar.
With the end of World War II came prosperity at last. Behind the restaurant parking lot they built their first home. Sons Mike and Hank graduated from college before taking their place in the family business. The Bonnie Brae Tavern doubled the size of its dining room and added an extravagant new item – pizza.
As new roads and street signs sprouted in the neighborhood, you became our customers and friends. You were a student at the University of Denver, or a gas station attendant next door, or a Polo Club millionaire from down the block. We looked for you once a month, once a week, once a day. You were the henpecked husband who pushed your lawn mower all the way to our door and then abandoned the darn thing outside for a seat at the bar and a cold beer. Or the cable television magnate who would “tip the girl” a $100 bill for prompt service and a pizza cooked just right. Or the construction worker who ordered the same sausage and cheese sandwich so regularly that we finally named it after him: The Don Wright. May its namesake rest in peace.
Eighty years have come and gone and you’re still coming, not just for the food, the food is only a part of it now. You come to propose marriage, wait out power outages, let your kids burn off steam after their soccer games, to grouse about the Broncos, celebrate a job promotion, mark a birthday, a birth a death.
You have been there for us as much as we’ve been there for you. When Carl Dire died in 1982 you were there, drinking a shot of whiskey at the bar in his honor. You paid your respects to Sue in 2002, showering flowers and cards on the booth where she took her meals twice a day almost until the day she died. You packed the house again when Hank, their youngest son, passed in 2012. In his 84 years, he had rarely ventured farther than a few miles from the Bonnie Brae. His earliest memory in life had been standing behind the same bar at which you sit today, not quite tall enough to see over the top.
Your loyal patronage has allowed a third and fourth generation, grandchildren Michael and Ricky and now great- grandchildren Teresa, Pat and Chris, to maintain one of the longest continually owned and operated family businesses in Denver.
So, cheers. Have a seat and put up your feet. Tell your waitress if you need us to turn up the volume on the game. Have a beer and try the No. 5 with sausage, mushroom, pepperoni, onion and black olives. Don’t worry if the kids climb on the seats or slide under the table as countless children have, and will. Take a load off, why don’t you, and enjoy life in a place where time is not nearly as important as the memories that inhabit it.
Story by Angela Dire