It is the time between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama, the distance between a dirt road and a digital highway, the difference between a World War and a War on Terror. For four generations of our family, it is time spent cultivating what was once a weed lot into a small, cherished business.
Three quarters of a century we have been here, yet we seem hardly changed for it. While the world is a different place indeed, we at Bonnie Brae Tavern are still awash in our whitewash and turquoise vinyl, much the way we were when we opened our doors in 1934.
It was the year of a great migration west to escape the Dust Bowl, the year in which Babe Ruth would become the first man to hit 700 home runs in the still innocent game of professional baseball.
Far from all that, a Yankees’ fan named Carl Dire had his own small dream. He surveyed the empty land next to the gas station he owned at University Boulevard and Ohio Avenue. To the east lay sagebrush as far as the eye could see, interrupted by a dairy farm here and there. To the west were the modest bungalows of a proper, young neighborhood named Washington Park, whose upstanding residents were steadfast in their support of Prohibition.
But times were changing, Prohibition was over, and Mr. Dire was not a man to be told no. Only a stubborn man, a son of Italian immigrants, orphaned by a flu epidemic and raised by his North Denver relations, would have had the moxie, the outright gall, to open a bar caddy corner from the residence of local Temperance leaders.
Carl and wife, Sue, named their fledgling if not wholly unwelcome tavern after the empty housing development surrounding it. It would be a while before “Bonnie Brae,” Gaelic for “Pleasant Hill,” grew into its name as well. Far from the gold standard of Denver real estate that it is today, the disgraced development had gone bankrupt a few years earlier and would stand idle for a few more.
The Dires hardly noticed time pass as they worked, day and night, through a long, long Depression. They would put their young sons to sleep on a mattress in the back of a Model A parked behind the restaurant, then drive home to North Denver in the wee hours of the night, only to turn around a few hours later and do it all over again, day after day, until they could afford to build a modest apartment upstairs from the bar.
The end of World War II finally came, and with it, prosperity at last. Now the couple could afford a house, not an apartment, across the parking lot from the restaurant. They sent both sons, Mike and Hank, to college before both young men took their own places in the family business. The Bonnie Brae Tavern doubled the size of its dining room and added an extravagant new item: Pizza.
As new roads and street signs sprouted in the neighborhood, you became our customers and friends. You were a student at the University of Denver, or a gas station attendant next door, or a Polo Club millionaire from down the street. We looked for you once a month, once a week, once a day. You were the hen-pecked husband who would mow his lawn and keep on pushing, all the way to our door, abandoning the mower outside for a seat at the bar and a cold beer. Or the cable television magnate who would “tip the girl” $100 for prompt service and a pizza cooked just right. Or the construction worker who ordered the same sausage and cheese sandwich so often we finally named it after him: The Don Wright. May its namesake rest in peace.
Three quarters of a century has passed, and you’re still coming, not just for the food, the food is a small part of it now. You come to propose marriage, wait out power outages, let your kids burn off steam after their soccer games, to grouse about the Broncos, celebrate a job promotion, mark a birthday, a birth, a death.
You have been there for us as much as we’ve been there for you. After Carl Dire died in 1982 you were there, drinking a shot of whiskey at the bar in his honor. You paid your respects to Sue in 2002, showering flowers and cards on the booth where she took her meals twice a day, almost until the day she died. Your loyal patronage has allowed Carl Dire’s grandchildren, Michael and Ricky, and now his great-grandchildren, Teresa, Pat and Chris, to have a part in his dream. And for that, we thank you.
So please, sit down and put up your feet. Tell your waitress if you need us to turn up the volume on the game. Have some cheese sticks or a beer. Don’t worry if the kids climb on the seats or slide under the table, as countless children have, and will. Most of all, take time to enjoy yourself in a place where time is not nearly as significant as the memories that inhabit it.
Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them.
Story By Angela Dire
Bonnie Brae Tavern, Inc.
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