Future of Red Onion in doubt

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The owner of the Red Onion said he is uncertain whether he will be able to afford a new lease for one of Aspen’s oldest businesses.

A year from today, the Onion’s 20-year lease ends, and Dave “Wabs” Walbert, who owns the business, is questioning whether his new lease will be affordable.

“I can’t say if we’re closing – it depends on if the building owners offer me a lease I can handle from a business standpoint,” he said Friday.

The lease that Walbert signed in 1984 was reasonable in the 1980s, he said, and though he didn’t want to comment about specific dollar figures, he’s heard the owners are interested in bringing the rent up to market value.

“I can’t run the Red Onion at market value,” Walbert said. “The rumors of it closing depend on what the lease says next year. If [the building owners] raise it to one point and I thought it was a good business decision, I’d keep going. If it’s impossible, I won’t.”

The red-brick building on the Cooper Avenue mall was built in 1892 by Tom Latta, and has predominantly operated as a restaurant and bar ever since. A gambling establishment during the silver boom of the late 1800s, the old saloon was remodeled in 1947. It became one of Aspen’s first venues for apres ski and late-night entertainment that included a performance by Billie Holiday.

Carbondale resident Charles Israel owns the building along with six other investors. He said the group has not yet decided what to do with the building’s rent, although he’s certain it will be raised. He isn’t certain, but Israel said fair market value is probably twice what Walbert is paying.

“For almost 20 years they’ve had the cheapest rent in town,” Israel said. “A 20-year lease was unheard of, and I wanted to help Wabs out. He’s been a wonderful tenant, and unlike the stories you normally write, I didn’t gouge anyone, I just helped out a local kid.”

Walbert and his wife, Ellen, moved to Aspen in 1976, and had operated a Mexican restaurant called Pablo’s in the garden-level space that the dance club Mecca now occupies. The early ’80s saw roughly five operators go in and out of the building, including national hamburger chain Red Robin. In 1984 Israel offered the long lease to Walbert.

“It had been a lot of things, but when we got it, we wanted it to be the old bar it always should have been,” Ellen Walbert said.

If the Walberts cannot afford the terms of the new lease, Israel said the building – and the business occupying it – could still remain the “Red Onion,” since he and his business partners own the name along with the building.

“The Red Onion restaurant you see there today is the formula of Dave Wabs – the next person who has a restaurant there might want to call it ‘Gourmet Dining at the Red Onion,'” Israel said. “They could change that formula.”

Israel acknowledges that the Walberts have a faithful following with their menu that includes both Mexican specials and tried and true hamburgers and sandwiches. But “Aspen has gotten a little more sophisticated,” he said, and locals may support a newer concept.

“If there’s a problem, it’s that the rent is 20 years old and the menu is, too – they didn’t change with the times, and I think Aspen got a little more sophisticated,” Israel said.

David and Ellen Walbert both say there are no hard feelings about a possible rent increase, since they’ve loved having the opportunity to run the restaurant for 19 years now. The Walberts also own the Old Dillon Inn, a historic restaurant and bar in Silverthorne.

“I would hate to see the Red Onion go away from Aspen, because it’s an institution, and a part of the essence of town, but I don’t have any control over that,” Walbert said. There are two notebooks kept under the bar full of comments from customers telling stories about good times they had at the Red Onion years ago.

“It’s not outrageous to up the rent according to the rest of the market – they’re not out of line,” Ellen Walbert said. “It’s a sign of the times, and a reality of what’s happened to Aspen.

“It’s been an incredible honor to have that place.”

Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is