Last call at The Red Onion
ASPEN It was a bittersweet countdown to the closing of Aspen’s historic Red Onion bar and restaurant Saturday.Old friends bellied up to the iconic Aspen bar to catch up on old times, and once the bands began playing at 3 p.m., the place was packed and revelers spilled onto the mall.The kitchen was closed, the booze flowed, and there was at once a celebratory quality and a mourning for the loss of another Aspen institution.”I feel sad,” said David “Wabs” Walbert, who has operated the Red Onion with his wife Ellen since 1984.”But I don’t see here the death of the Red Onion; I see a change,” Walbert said, adding he hopes the owners, Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht, do as they’ve promised and keep the 115-year-old bar venue a restaurant. “It’s in essence a museum … if it’s still here, I think that’s excellent.”While he’s disheartened that he’s being forced out by high rent, Walbert, a 20-year veteran of the Aspen Fire Department, said he’ll stay in town and will continue operating the Old Dillon Inn in Silverthorne along with partner Robert “Buddy” Nicholson.”We’re going out with our heads held high,” Walbert said, looking out at the packed bar and many good friends.
“It’s a sad day for Aspen; it’s a sad day for Aspenites; it’s a sad day for downtown,” said Aspen City Councilman Torre on Saturday. “This is where community thrives.”Torre sat in what Ruth Harrison, a retired Aspen teacher, said was once “Beer Gulch,” the narrow window-side area at the front of the bar where locals used to crowd around a big table and spin yarns.
“The stories will always be held in the walls of the bar,” Harrison said.”Today is wonderful,” Harrison said about the busy bar Saturday. “But the loss of the Red Onion is tragic … The Red Onion was the heart and soul of the old Aspen locals. It was a magical place.”Torre said the Red Onion has always been a special place to bring visiting family or friends, and said the restaurant won’t change if he has anything to say about it – which means implementing “interior historic preservation.””I expect to see it continue as a restaurant and bar,” said Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud.
More than “a good excuse for a party,” Klanderud called Saturday’s closing a “symbolic of change in the community” – and change is something some accept and others don’t, she said.”I can’t remember,” joked Howard Wright, a longtime painting contractor in Aspen, about the years he was a cook and dishwasher at the Red Onion.Asked if Saturday’s closing was sad, Wright said, “It’s been a sad 20 years … there’s not much community left … there aren’t many places to meet locals now.”But Wright said he trusts the new owners, Garfield and Hecht, will do the right thing and keep the Red Onion a restaurant. “They would get lynched if they didn’t do a good job.”
“It’s nice to see so many people out,” said Aspen City Councilman Jack Johnson, but it is those very patrons who could have kept the place going, he said. “It’s a pity this town can’t sustain this kind of bar in the future,” Johnson said. But Johnson said the change in management at the restaurant might not be that extreme. And Johnson added that Aspen’s glitzy image is not deserved – that there are still plenty of places where locals meet, and even some of the glitzier watering holes just need a minor attitude tweak.”Pretentious means to pretend,” Johnson said. “All you have to do to stop pretension is to stop pretending.””You [need] a loan to get drunk in this town,” said Pat Newkam, an Aspenite born and raised, who remembers childhood lunches at the Red Onion with his whole family. “That’s the way Aspen is going.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” agreed Zo, a longtime Aspenite and bartender at Bentley’s, who worries the next incarnation of the Red Onion will be a boutique. “It bums me out.”He remembers high rents forcing O’Leary’s to close, and said he just hopes the trend comes “full circle” and that young people returning to town might mean rebirth in the future.Wearing a shirt commemorating the first annual Red Onion Brawl, Annie Murchison, aka “Ticket Annie,” said she remembers the years when earlier owners tried to turn the restaurant into a “fern bar” and is afraid it might happen again.”Everything changes. It’s a metamorphosis,” said one bar reveler, who’d only go by the name Ralph Jackson, Aspen’s long-departed “clown prince of skiing.””The ‘greed heads’ are taking over,” said Reggie Barbour, former general manager of Boogies.
“It’s just one less skanky bathroom to do coke in,” said another reveler who wanted to remain anonymous.”It’s very sad because so much of the charm of that first attracted me here is gone,” said Polly Ross, a longtime local and member of the Powder S.L.U.T.S (Seeking Light Un-Tracked Snow).New arrivals to Aspen care more about what they can take from the town, not for the lifestyle that used to attract people, Ross said. “Greed,” she said, is the cause.
“This whole week has been difficult because so many friends have come in to wish us well,” Walbert said. “It’s overwhelming how much love there is for the Red Onion and for us.”The bands played to a packed crowd Saturday, and Walbert would only shrug his shoulders when asked about rumors of a planned wet T-shirt contest.”What can the police do, throw him out?” said one reveler.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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