Is this really goodbye to the Red Onion? |

Is this really goodbye to the Red Onion?

John Colson
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

The story of “The Red Onion riot” is at once a delicious historical tidbit and a symbolic paean to times gone by.Back around 1980, when David “Wabs” Walbert owned the long-defunct bar known as Pablo’s, he witnessed the depth of feeling that locals have for Aspen’s oldest continuously operating bar, The Red Onion.Wabs was working in Pablo’s, which was located in the “well” at the corner of Galena and Cooper, when he began to notice something odd – grown men kept running into his bar for a quick shot. Breathless and laughing, they’d hang around for a while, keeping their eyes on the street, then dash back out and up the stairs.

It turned out that they were raising hell in the newly re-opened Red Robin at the Red Onion, which several observers said had been bought a short time before by a man named Goldberg, who gave the old place a modern makeover, a franchise format and a new name.”His concept was to turn it into a fern bar,” Wabs said with a grimace, referring to the man he knew as the new owner, “and his comment was that he didn’t want any of the local riffraff in there. So that turned up a little anger. So some of the riffraff came in and, I guess, started wrecking things and running into my place to hide from the cops.”He said he didn’t check out the destruction, but noted it was “pretty funny” to watch the sideshow, which he referred to as “The Red Onion riot.”One longtime local who was there that fateful Friday, Aspen Mountain ski patrolman Tim Cooney, recalled that the event even had a name, “Riffraff Day.”Spurred on by a “Riffraff Welcome” sign at another venerable local hangout, the Hickory House restaurant on Main Street, and probably a liberal dispensation of beer at the Hick House that day, “Everybody showed up there … and packed the place,” Cooney said.It wasn’t long before the mob decided to take hanging pots of ferns down from the walls and smash them in the street outside, Cooney continued. Despite the proprietors’ efforts to placate the crowd with plates of free wings, the mood turned uglier. One wise guy tossed a lit firecracker behind the bar, blowing up some bottles of booze and prompting a call to the police, which ended the evening’s rowdiness.But a locals’ boycott followed, and Cooney said the Red Robin “closed the following spring, as I recall.”And now, at the end of the Aspen Historical Society’s “Celebrate History Week,” the oldest continuously operating bar and restaurant in Aspen is set to close its doors for what could be the last time.Owners Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht, two local attorneys who have recently figured in several high-profile property deals, were about to double or even triple the rent on the Onion space last year, Wabs reported.That convinced him it was time to give it up, and no one is sure what will happen next. A blowout farewell party is scheduled for Saturday night, March 31, to give the patrons a chance to raise their glasses in what might be a final toast to the Red Onion.

The bar was owned by partners Doug Betzhold and John Beaupre in 1981, under the name of Red Robin at the Red Onion, according to city liquor license records. In 1983 the liquor license was transferred to longtime local Ann Sanderson Owsley.Owsley, wife of current Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley, at that time had been the owner of a popular eatery, Freddy’s Main St. Cafe. She recalled this week that she had reopened The Red Onion after it had been closed for more than a year and ran it for less than a year. She said she was forced to shut it down after a low-snow winter brought an economic slump, and a catastrophic sewer-pipe failure under the Cooper Avenue mall brought business to a smelly halt.

Walbert took over the business and got a 20-year lease on the building from local banker Charles Israel in 1984, and Wabs’ goal was to keep it as it had been for decades – a locals hangout with enough historical flavor to keep its loving base of tourists coming back year after year.And, it must be noted, he and his wife, Ellen, have lasted a long, long while by Aspen standards – 23 years, to be exact. And while he looks back fondly at those years, it is an experience that Wabs does not plan to repeat once the Onion closes. Instead, he’s going to reinvent himself as a “small-businesses bookkeeping service,” using skills he learned at The Red Onion.And, of course, Wabs still has an interest in the Old Dillon Inn, a restaurant and bar in Silverthorne run by his partner, Robert “Buddy” Nicholson. The pair bought the Inn in the early 1970s after it had been shut down for code violations, and it remains a going concern.

The Red Onion was built in 1892 by entrepreneur Tom Latta. It was christened the “New Brick” during a gala opening ceremony, serving as a gambling hall and saloon with unspecified activities in upstairs rooms that now serve as office space.It apparently was up-and-running through all or most of the Quiet Years, that time between the silver bust of 1893 and the Aspen’s rebirth in the 1940s. It was during that time that a nickname, The Red Onion, apparently was coined by either Latta or a subsequent owner, Tim Kelleher. The phrase, according to a brief history written by Ellen Walbert for the back of The Red Onion menu, meant “something out of the ordinary, unusual, odd, ‘a white elephant,’ something the likes of which could be found nowhere else on earth.”In 1946, as Aspen began to awaken as an international ski resort, 10th Mountain Division veteran Johnny Litchfield bought and remodeled the old saloon, reopening on Jan. 8, 1947, and made the nickname official.Six years later the saloon was bought by Werner Kuster and Arnold Senn.Kuster, a Swiss chef, had been dividing his professional time between the Onion, where he leased the kitchen in a profit-sharing arrangement with then-owner John Sihler, and the Hotel Jerome under head chef Senn. When word got out that Sihler wanted to sell, Kuster and Senn jumped to buy it for $21,000. Senn stayed on at the Jerome, but Kuster ran the Onion under Senn’s watchful mentorship.The Red Onion, with its elegant dining room on the east side, nightclub with stage on the west, and the core bar and booths in the middle, quickly became the hottest spot in Aspen. The list of performers on that stage is legendary, from internationally acclaimed blues singer Billie Holliday to local jazz favorite Freddie Fisher on saxophone, and many photos from those days still grace the walls, after being discovered in a box in the basement by Ellen Walbert. Longtime chef Kurt Wigger recalled that the late singer John Denver sang his breakout hit, “Country Roads,” for the first time one night at The Red Onion in the early 1970s.Aside from the musical variety and excellence, the stories feature regular patrons doing wacky things and have soaked into the walls of the bar and the collective consciousness of town.

For instance, there are tales of the special “late breakfast” menu at 2 a.m., when the workers from all around town took over the place for their final blowout before heading home to sleep it off.There’s the story, possibly apocryphal, of the cowboy who rode his horse into the bar after a dusty cattle drive, dismounted and ordered a shot and a beer. When a patron pointed out that his horse was lifting its tail and needed to be moved outside, the cowboy doffed his hat and cupped it under the horse’s tail just in time to avoid a deposit on the floor. He then reached over and downed his drinks, replaced the now-full hat on his head, remounted and rode out the door.Cooney recalled a day when the men of the Strong family, legendary drinkers, fighters and owners of a sawmill in the valley, challenged two visitors who were playing music on the Onion’s piano that offended the Strongs. The two strangers, who happened to be members of the elite military outfits, the Airborne Rangers and the Special Forces, proceeded to “basically kick their [the Strongs] asses” he recalled. “It was one of those legendary fights.”And there were the social gatherings, such as the annual Wild Game Dinners, fundraisers for Aspen Valley Hospital.Kurt Wigger, head chef at the Onion for 15 years before he started the Sopris Restaurant in Glenwood Springs, told The Aspen Times in the late 1970s that he would marinate the raw wild meats for three days beforehand in a special blend of vinegar, spices and vegetables, before the stewing would begin.”Everybody went to it,” said Cooney. “It was kind of like the St. Pat’s Day Dinner at St. Mary’s today.”

And Kuster, who sold the restaurant, building and all, in 1979 for $2.8 million, recalled his final blowout party, a fundraising dinner for the Music Associates of Aspen sponsored by Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco. Danny Kaye conducted the orchestra that played on the stage.At its height, he said, the Onion employed more than 85 people, and “the biggest problem was housing for employees.” And, he admitted, “there were some ups and downs” involved in running such a successful business in a resort town with the kind of cyclical economy that is both the curse and the charm of Aspen.

From 1984 until this year, the Onion has been run by Wabs and his wife with a cast of employees that has changed some over the years, but always has included some long-timers and has stayed steady at about 14 full-time workers.One of those long-timers, bartender “Big Al” Heide, has more than 10 years at the Onion, said he has no plans except to take a couple of months to travel once the Onion closes.”Wabs is one of the best people to work for, and the staff here is like a family,” he told The Aspen Times in November 2006, when the closure was announced. “I guess I was hoping he’d get another lease extension. There are not many people who can say they love to come to work every day.”By the time Wabs and his wife took over the Onion, the restaurant had been pared back to the two-story brick building, with a basement tucked into the ancient, sandstone foundation, that first went up 115 years ago. Gone were the two wings added by Senn and Kuster in the mid-1950s, but between those original walls were the old floor tiles that Ann Owsley said were also used in the Hotel Jerome.Wabs said he has worked in the kitchen, on the floor and behind the bar, and that the only work he did at first was to put in a carpet to muffle the noise in the dining room.One point of pride for Walbert has been the two composition books he keeps at the bar, ready for any patron to write down his or her memories of The Red Onion and its effect on their lives. None go back farther than the 1940s, Wabs said, but all are entertaining and instructive.As he talked with a reporter at the bar, a woman named Chris Stafford approached Wabs and told of how she had met her husband, Bill, at one of those “late breakfasts” in 1968, while she was taking a year off from college and working in Aspen.Within minutes, another man, Lyle Sanders, came up and described the time he saw the fabled television newsman Walter Cronkite eating a meal at the bar. A local drunk reportedly started eating off Cronkite’s plate and had to be ushered away.

As of the deadline for this story, it was not known if early predictions that the owners of the Cache Cache restaurant in the Mill Street Plaza, Jodi Larner and Chris Lanter, would become the new proprietors of the Onion.”We’re still in negotiations,” was all Larner would say to a reporter this week, and Garfield and Hecht have not responded to numerous interview requests. Some have speculated, in disappointed tones, that the space will be converted to high-end retail or a real estate office.”I really care that the Red Onion stays a bar and a restaurant, instead of high-end retail,” Walbert said.”I’d feel very bad about it,” said former owner Kuster from his home in Tucson, Ariz., about the idea of The Red Onion closing for good. “The Onion always was an institution. It belongs to the Aspen Historical Society.”If the worst fears of Aspen’s preservationist community are realized and The Red Onion bar and restaurant is shuttered forever this month, then one local institution stands ready to do what it can to keep the memories alive.The Aspen Historical Society would like to collect all the booths, the Beer Gulch table, the bar and other accouterments of the 115-year-old nightclub, and reassemble them at the entrance to a planned museum at the base of Shadow Mountain.

No one is sure where the stately old back bar came from, but it’s been in place since anyone living can recall, and old-timers swear the Hungarian gypsy figures perched on top of the ornate structure date back to Aspen’s silver-boom days in the late 1800s.Wabs and others have said the booths are believed to be original furnishings.But Aspen Historical Society director Georgia Hanson said she would rather the furnishings stay in place and be used as they were intended.”The Historical Society doesn’t want to see it go away,” Hanson said. But, she added, if that is what happens then the society wants “to hang onto every memento it can, especially the bar.”John Colson’s e-mail address is