Peeling the layers of the Red Onion’s nine lives in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Peeling the layers of the Red Onion’s nine lives in Aspen

Courtesy Aspen Historical SocietyOutside the Red Onion in Aspen, circa 1965.

ASPEN – The Red Onion has nine lives – and each one, it seems, is filled with characters and stories that tell a tale of the times.

“Everyone has a story to share,” said Jennifer Colosi, who, along with her brother Thomas, reopened Aspen’s historic Cooper Avenue restaurant and bar a week ago. “I think that’s what’s blown me away the most – everyone who comes in here is so glad the Onion is back, and everyone has a memory, a story …

“The Red Onion is a piece of Aspen; it’s a piece of each of us.”

With a storied history that spans nearly 120 years, it’s no wonder The Red Onion is a part of Aspen’s lore that locals can’t – nor want to – forget.

It began in 1892, when entrepreneur Tom Latta built and opened the “New Brick” as a gambling hall and saloon with unspecified activities in the upstairs rooms.

It continued in the ensuing Quiet Years, that time between the silver bust of 1893 and the Aspen’s rebirth in the 1940s, when the establishment became known as The Red Onion, a nickname coined by either Latta or a subsequent owner, Tim Kelleher. The phrase, according to a brief history featured on the back of an old 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.”

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Then, as Aspen gained fame as a ski resort pioneer, so did The Red Onion. The list of performers who played on its nightclub stage is legendary, from internationally acclaimed blues singer Billie Holliday to local jazz favorite Freddie Fisher on saxophone. In those years, the Onion’s dining room was elegant, the bar was hopping, and the music scene was top-notch.

And while The Red Onion changed hands in subsequent years – 10th Mountain Division veteran Johnny Litchfield bought and remodeled the old saloon in the mid-1940s, reopening it on Jan. 8, 1947; six years later, The Red Onion, as it was then officially named, was sold to Werner Kuster and Arnold Senn (Kerster would remain its owner until 1979) – its popularity and headline-making potential did not change.

Longtime chef Kurt Wigger recalled that the late John Denver sang his breakout hit, “Country Roads,” for the first time one night at the Onion in the early 1970s; a 1979 fundraising dinner for the Music Associates of Aspen, sponsored by Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco, featured Danny Kaye conducting the orchestra that played on the stage.

The following decade saw the Onion continue to change owners – in 1981, Doug Betzhold and John Beaupre ran the business under the name Red Robin at the Red Onion; Ann Sanderson Owsley, wife of Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley, took over for a year after the previous partnership dissolved and closed the restaurant; and then, in 1984, it was Dave “Wabs” Walbert’s turn.

It was a turning point in many ways. With a 20-year lease on the building, Wabs and his wife, Ellen, set out to keep The Red Onion as it had been for decades – a locals’ hangout with enough historical flavor to keep its base of tourists coming back year after year. It worked, but with a twist: Out, to a degree, was the swinging music scene; in, it became apparent, was the bar scene. The Onion became Aspen’s workingman’s bar, the place to grab a beer after a hard day’s work or a hard day on the slopes.

But hard work was not enough to keep the Onion afloat. When Wabs’ lease ran out, so, it seemed, did the Onion’s streak as Aspen’s oldest watering hole. Wabs could no longer afford the rent being demanded by the building’s owners, and he had no choice but to close the bar.

“I feel sad,” said Wabs, on the eve of the Onion’s closing party, March 31, 2007. “But I don’t see here the death of the Red Onion; I see a change.”

That change would be three years in the making, however, as the souring economy made the restaurant’s rebirth a series of ups and downs. Rumors swirled of new owners in the initial months after its closure, and then restaurateur Scott DeGraff actually signed a lease and began remodeling the space to reopen as Junk at the Red Onion, but financial troubles and other business woes led to that deal being terminated.

Locals, city officials and others were frustrated. They wanted the restaurant to reopen. They bemoaned the loss of yet another affordable place to eat and drink and hangout. They needed The Red Onion.

Enter Jennifer and Thomas Colosi, the main characters is this most recent chapter of the Onion’s story, who in February 2010 signed a 15-year lease with the owners building, vowing to keep The Red Onion a true locals’ hangout.

To that end, the brother-sister duo have created an affordable menu of comfort foods, family recipes, Blue Maize favorites (Thomas was a chef-owner of the now-defunct popular Aspen restaurant) and breakfast all day and night, as well as a hopping bar that feels much like The Red Onion of the past. So far, it seems to be working.

“The response has been phenomenal. Everyone’s just so happy,” Jennifer said on Sunday. “It’s all been going great – especially considering it’s a new staff, a new menu, a new business in many ways.

“But it’s still The Red Onion, and we’ve put our complete hearts into staying true to that.”

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com