A team of 13 bar owners who have seen success in Denver’s Highland hope to be the ones to save Campus Lounge, which has changed hands three times in two years in the Bonnie Brae neighborhood.
The last two versions of the 40-plus-year-old bar lasted less than six and nine months, respectively.
But the owners of LoHi’s Recess Beer Garden have leased the building and started remodeling the space with plans to reopen by mid-December. They’re giving the bar a “summer camp” feel, according to co-owner Owen Olson.
Playing off the youthful nature of Recess, they’ll decorate the Lounge in 1970s “outdoor camping” decor, and they’ll turn a side dining room into a game area.
“Most of our ownership group grew up in this neighborhood,” Olson said. “We remember going in here with our parents and running around.”
Nostalgia has played a major role in the Campus Lounge’s multiple revivals since its longtime owner and All-American University of Denver hockey player and Blackhawks veteran, Jim Wiste, died in early 2018. Vic Romer was the original owner, in the 1960s, of the bar by the same name.
Shortly before Wiste’s death, in 2017, local restaurateur Dan Landes took over the business and cleaned up the sports bar, adding in a creative food menu and — controversially — removing the bar’s TVs. Reviews of the Campus Lounge’s new direction were mixed, if not confused.
Then, following Landes’ departure, father-and-son partners Dan and Jeff Nickless tried to reinstate a “living room atmosphere” to the bar and also reinstall some 14 flatscreens. Their experiment lasted nearly nine months, closing in July.
Now the Recess team is stepping in, and keeping the televisions but going for a particular mix of campy steakhouse and kids’ arcade. The food and drink menus will focus on “cheaper” beef cuts and cocktails, as well as pitchers of beer and an “old-school” salad bar, Olson said.
One major difference: Because of legal issues with the previous owners, Olson and his partners can’t keep the name Campus Lounge. And while they haven’t yet nailed down the new name, some options are Campus Lodge and Summer Camp Lounge, Olson said.
At least the neon Campus Lounge sign will stay.
“This neighborhood’s our home,” he said, “and we don’t want to see the place just completely go away.”
Olson and his partners are betting on this and more Denver businesses long-term. Across town, they are working on two more projects at the same time. First, they’ll expand Recess onto the lot next door, with a new outdoor bar and another lower level to the beer garden. That’s set to open next summer.
And at an abandoned space at 1077 S. Pearl St., they’re building another concept from the ground up. It will be a supper club and brunch restaurant, yet to be named and planned for sometime in 2021.
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