Beloved Bonnie Brae landmark and iconic Denver spot has reopened. We sat down with new owner Dan Landes to get the skinny first hand. The neon is on!
At long last a piece of Denver culture has been restored in the neighborhood. It is fair to say that we’re all grateful this iconic spot was not torn down. Can you tell us about the renovating process and why you chose to maintain the bones of Campus?
At long last indeed! The bones of the old Campus are strong. They have been fortified by 60 years of storytelling, beer drinking and people gathering for the good times, and the bad. I wanted to keep the sign lit. I remember loving that sign as a kid as my folks drove along University. That sign is important to Denver’s character. If we don’t save what makes our city unique it will begin to look like every other city. We also kept the basic footprint of the old place. We kept the shape of the horseshoe bar. The booths are placed in a similar layout. Our goal was to keep a retro feel without being campy.
While renovating the old Campus Lounge 25,000 variables were addressed and managed. I thank god for my project manager, Kaela Martin, who managed 24,999 of those (I managed to get nature sounds in the bathrooms!) Denver is a boomtown. Everybody associated with building; architects, carpenters, plumbers, the building department, Xcel, etc. is totally overworked so it was difficult to get urgency around our project. Although it felt like an eternity the fact it only took us 12 months to totally remodel a Denver landmark is remarkable.
So the look outside may be familiar but the new Campus Lounge is very different from the old. Tell us about your concept for our neighborhood gathering place.
The concept was to create a food-focused neighborhood restaurant/bar. A place where families can come in and feel comfortable while a few feet away, at the bar, two people who swiped right are meeting for the first time. We wanted to build a place for people to gather and share food, drink and conversation. I have been creating gathering places for the last 20 years. It’s more important than ever to have a place to meet up with friends and family, raise a glass, and break bread. We spend so much time in front of screens, or behind a desk, or a steering wheel that we can feel isolated from others. I wanted to create a place where people can focus on interacting with other people. A place where strangers can become friends and friends can maintain friendships.
We’re fans of your restaurant City O’ City, but being carnivores, we were excited to see both meat dishes as well as an ample Vegan menu. Tell us about Chef Chris and what inspired these inventive dishes. P.S. The Campus Burger is off the charts delicious.
Chris Medved is a dream chef. He is humble to the fact that his work is to make things that people put in their mouths. Very intimate work. Chris wants to create dishes that people want, not dishes he wants people to have. This is the difference between an ego driven chef and a chef who is humble to the craft of service. When he presented me his first draft of the menu I knew he understood what I was looking for; an approachable menu that has elements of exoticness and well-sourced ingredients. We have worked with each other before at City O’ City and Watercourse. He then went on to work at Stueben’s, and opened up Ace Eat Serve. It was his experience at Ace that shaped some of the Asian influences you see on the menu. We have great discourse, which is not always the case between the chef and the owner, which allows us to be responsive to guest feedback and maintaining our vision.
When I chose to serve meat at one of my restaurants I wanted to source from ranchers that understand the importance of an ecosystem, how livestock can work within that ecosystem, and the value of all life. I found just such ranchers at Corner Post. The ranch is located on the rolling, wooded hills east of Colorado Springs. The land is leased from the Audubon Society because their ranching techniques actually create better habitat for birds. Among other products Corner Post provides the ground beef we use for our burgers. The beef is grass-fed, whole animal grind, which is why our burgers are so flavorful.
We love the intentional throwbacks you have included in the decor. The wood paneling, the vintage wallpaper and of course the old Pac Man game! But as music lovers, the juke box has our heads spinning. How did you choose the albums when you restored the machine?
I wish I could say I was cool enough to have selected that eclectic mix of music but that credit goes to Rick Griffith. Rick is the owner of the design studio MATTER. He is a huge creative in our city and a good friend. When Rick first approached me with his jukebox it wasn’t just to play some greatest hits and make a few bucks it was to create a music library that people can access. So much of the music on there has an important lineage. There is a companion book that goes through the history and importance of the albums he selected. In some ways having this jukebox is like saving the Campus Lounge sign. It’s preserving a unique piece of history and helping maintain a diverse and unique city.
We know you are in this for the long haul, Dan. What can we expect to see in the future? Please say brunch, please say brunch…
Campus Lounge 2.0 is a newborn baby. It has to learn to walk before it can run. We are going to focus on lunch and dinner through the holidays and then open for brunch in early 2018. We will continue to adapt, respond and explore with the Campus Lounge. I intentionally left the new Campus a little sparse so the community can influence how it ages. I am not a fan of the new places that are popping up that feel like the ownership said ‘here is our concept deal with it.’ I am much more interested in creating a place that, over the years, can take on the patina of the stories told within the walls, the celebrations and wakes, the victories and defeats. This is what made the old Campus such an institution and with any luck it will make it once again.
We have no doubt this new life for Campus Lounge will indeed be filled with colorful stories and community.