Last call for the Red Onion
The venerable Red Onion, an Aspen landmark, will permanently close as a restaurant and bar March 31.
Dave “Wabs” Walbert, who has owned the popular eatery and watering hole for the past 23 years, notified his employees Monday about the impending closure. The tall, red brick structure standing along what is now the Cooper Avenue mall appeared on Aspen’s “skyline” in 1892; it has operated predominantly as a restaurant and bar ever since.
“I’m unhappy about it,” Walbert said. “I’d like to keep the Red Onion going, because I think it’s such a historic, valuable, community place. But they don’t think the restaurant and bar that is the Red Onion will work there, so they’ll gut it out and put retail there, I guess.”
The building’s owners, known as Red Onion Investors, have been negotiating with Walbert over the future of the business since his 20-year lease on the property expired in 2004. The owners gave Walbert two year-long lease extensions, and this fall agreed he would have a six-month lease that ends March 31.
Aspen attorneys Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht purchased a controlling stake in the building earlier this year. Neither Garfield nor Hecht responded to multiple attempts to contact them Monday. Former longtime building owner Charles Israel is currently out of the country, according to his wife.
In a meeting about two weeks ago, Walbert said Garfield and Hecht told him of their intentions to triple or quadruple the rent on the space. Walbert would not comment on how much he currently spends on rent, but said even raising food and drink prices would not cover such a large increase in rent.
In a 2003 interview with The Aspen Times, then-owner Israel said Walbert had been paying below-market rent on the space for years.
“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, have lived in Aspen since 1976, originally running a Mexican restaurant called Pablo’s in the subgrade space below Kemosabe. They continue to co-own the Old Dillon Inn in Silverthorne. In 1984, Israel offered Walbert the 20-year lease on the Red Onion.
The “New Brick,” as the building was originally known, served as a gambling establishment and saloon during the silver boom of the late 1800s. Owner John Litchfield renamed it the Red Onion in 1946 ” a name that had been just a nickname for the building and business. In 1947 the building was remodeled, and it became one of Aspen’s first venues for apres-ski and late-night entertainment that famously once included a performance by Billie Holiday.
Around five businesses went in and out of the space in the early ’80s, including national hamburger chain Red Robin. Walbert brought his own mix of burgers, the town’s favorite meatloaf, beer and Mexican food to the business, as well as Monday Night Football specials and annual Aspen “freshman class” parties for the town’s newest arrivals.
“It is a loss,” said Megan Callagher, a part-time member of the restaurant’s waitstaff. “I’m really upset and sad about it, and I question what will happen to things
like the bar and the floor.”
The bar area of the Red Onion appears almost exactly as it was in 1892, according to restaurant literature. Walbert said he’s fairly certain the cracked tile floor that feels uneven underfoot in that area of the restaurant is the original tiling from 1892, especially since it includes the name of builder Tom Latta, whose name also graces the red brick façade.
Although it’s clear the bar and back bar have received plenty of use over the years, Walbert is not certain whether they date back to this town’s mining days. The staff seems fairly certain the two small Hungarian gypsy figures perched over the back bar’s mirror are original, and they’re still in pretty good shape.
In 1993, Walbert established a couple of black composition books he keeps behind the bar, just for patrons who come into the Red Onion with stories to tell. The two bound notebooks are full of stories recounting good times in the venerable bar, or just quirky stories from the history of Aspen (see related story).
“I really thought that maybe I wouldn’t be there, but that someone could have a different [restaurant] format that would make them able to pay enough rent to make it viable,” Walbert said. “I never thought it would go away. It’s sad, but I’m a businessman, and I understand the economics of it. I’m just not happy that it’s not going to work. There’s so much history here that relates to the heart and soul of Aspen.”
Bartender “Big Al” Heide, who has been at the Red Onion full-time for the past 10 years, said he doesn’t know what he’ll do after the restaurant closes.
“Wabs is one of the best people to work for, and the staff here is like a family,” he said. “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.”
Walbert said Garfield and Hecht mentioned the possibility of relocating his business within Aspen, but Walbert has doubts there’s another affordable location in town that would fit the bill.
The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.
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