Owners, landlord hope Red Onion closure isn’t permanent

Historic downtown Aspen bar closing down because of pandemic restrictions

People dine inside of The Red Onion on the walking mall in Aspen on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Owners of The Red Onion are closing downtown Aspen’s venerable drinking institution because of health restrictions that have doomed its prime-time business hours of 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Landlord Mark Hunt and Red Onion owners Brad Smith and Michael Tierney agreed to terminate the restaurant’s lease on the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall with a verbal understanding they could re-open the space when the coronavirus pandemic has ended.

Until then, the Red Onion’s last day of business is Sunday. Thirty to 35 employees will be impacted by the closure. They were given the news this past Sunday.

“I don’t think anybody expected it to go out this way,” said Jordan White, general manager, on Monday. “Everybody saw the writing on the wall with COVID, but I think everybody was caught by surprise.”

White has worked at The Red Onion since Thanksgiving week of 2010.

To observers, the Onion might have seemed busy during the lunch and dinner hours, and it was, relative to the restrictions imposed upon it and other restaurants.

“The summer was great,” Smith said, “obviously because we had the space outside.”

Hunt and the Red Onion owners also participated in the city’s summer rent relief program through which commercial tenants, landlords and the city would divvy up monthly rent payments three ways.

Smith and White, however, said the ongoing public health rules closing bars entirely and restaurants at 10 p.m. — along with the recently installed 25% dine-in seating capacity — devastated the business. Restaurants had 50% capacity until Pitkin County moved into the Orange phase on the state’s COVID-19 dial earlier on Nov. 19.

“That was playing into the whole decision,” Smith said. “The Red Onion is its busiest until 2 a.m.”

With Hunt’s blessing, they even tried to open the empty second-floor space to in-person dining, but city codes made it cost prohibitive.

Smith said he wants to reopen the Red Onion one day, and Hunt said that will work for him.

“I think it’s closed until we have a better understanding of the virus,” Hunt said.

Hunt said he won’t advertise the soon-to-be-vacated space for lease because there’s no demand for new restaurants in town, given the current business climate. Hunt also has eyed the 400 block of East Cooper Avenue — where The Red Onion is located — for major redevelopment. The upstairs of the Onion is to be renovated for a performing arts venue for Jazz Aspen Snowmass, while at the eastern end of the block, Hunt’s Bidwell building faces demolition. The JAS project is on hold for now because of the pandemic, Hunt said.

“It’s important that The Red Onion is coming back,” Hunt said. “It’s kind of a staple here. It has to come back.”

The Red Onion opened in 1892 at the very location it will occupy through the weekend. It has gone through multiple ownership groups, with Smith and Tierney having owned the business the past 10 years.

Billie Holiday and John Denver performed there, and before the pandemic it regularly held an open-mic night every week and was one of the few remaining Aspen bars where local musicians could perform.

Smith, who has a couple of other jobs, said one of the toughest parts of the closure is not seeing his co-workers on a regular basis.

“A lot of our staff met their families here, met their significant others — myself included,” he said. “Everybody here is really close. It’s like a family.”

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