by Jim Harrington
For its size Boulder has always had a large number of restaurants perhaps due to its affluence, being a college town, or just a general lack of interest in cooking indoors when you can be outside hiking, biking, or skiing. But back before the mid 1970’s there were a lot fewer restaurants and honestly not as many good ones. If you sent your typical Boulder bistro diner of today back to the 1970’s they wouldn’t know what to eat. All the food was pretty much American then, the local brew was a Coors beer and there were no fancy coffee shops only simple olde fashioned morning joe coffee. What Boulder had back then was ‘Mork from Ork’, played by Robin Williams, great weather, and famous beat poets who sipped borscht and ate corned beef on rye at the New York Deli, ate ice cream at the middle of the night at the Serendipidty Café and drank whiskey at Potters. With the help of Joan Brett’s Culinary School of the Rockies, now the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts and other natural cooking schools elevating the technical skills of the kitchen staff the food scene in Boulder has improved tremendously to become one of the foodiest towns in the country.
Boulder restaurants did not always serve such distinguishing palettes. People use to fly over Boulder to get to Aspen but now Boulder at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is a food destination of its own. Top chefs, attracted to the Boulder lifestyle, perform culinary magic nightly with their skilled staff at restaurants like Frasca, Flagstaff, Greenbriar, Blackbelly, Jax, the Kitchen, Salt, Bacco and others.
As good as the award winning food in Boulder is the memory of what it was in years past is always better. Top chefs know it is better to create a new food experience than try to recreate or compete with an old one. Mom’s cooking won’t be beat by any classically trained French chef! As we stroll down memories lane reflecting on yesteryears meals we dine on the nostalgia of Boulder past savory delights. We salivate for that delicious meal not fully remembered yet also even today not fully forgotten by our taste buds. We remember exquisite flavors that can’t be recreated in large part because it was a meal shared in especially good company during Boulder’s simpler days.
Boulder Restaurants in the 1970s
In the 1970’s there were Hippie hangouts including the Carnival Café on Broadway between Pearl and Walnut. It was a sharing-caring-cooperative run restaurant that exuded a colorful gypsy-esque potpourri of enthusiastic alternativeness. The Carnival Café was founded initially by Mark Gunther who later sold it to when the debts were paid off to all 20 plus workers many were also in a performance troupe. The “Carnies” as they were called were a lively bunch of buskers running a restaurant, bakery and store who were also involved in theater, clowning and dance. The Café was a collective demonstration that “Life is a Carnival” to be loved and enjoyed every day and was visited by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsburg, Black Elk, Dan Fogelberg, Steven Stills and even Patty Hearst when she was on the run. The Carnival Café ended with a prophetic Joni Mitchell song “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Boulder would continue to have a long string of interesting but ultimately short lived natural foods cafes until cooking techniques improved to make them famous. But if we could step back in time and return to tour the magical mysterious Carnival Café even a bowl of their simple rice and beans would surely delight us.
Patty Hearst (1954 – ) a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army is not the only famous outlaw to dine in Boulder. The University of Colorado named its student cafeteria after Alfred Packer ( 1842 – 1907) the only man convicted of dining on his traveling companions. On campus many people prefer to eat alone now. Cowboy Tom Horn had a restaurant named for him on the old Pearl Street, next to where the Pearl Street Pub is today. Steve McQueen played him in the 1980 movie “Tom Horn” Some of the legendary gunmen of the Old West were lawmen, but more, like Billy the Kid and Jesse James, were outlaws. Tom Horn (1860–1903) was both. Tom Horn lived, played and rested in Boulder. He was a scout for the U.S. Calvary during the Apache Wars and helped capture Geronimo. Then he became active in the war between cattlemen and sheepmen and was hired in 1889 to handle investigations around Boulder and the Rockies. He became a hired gun for the ranchers but also did some law work. He even helped chase down Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang. He was a cowboy’s cowboy and some say the old west truly ended when he did. Tom Horns was a great place for a boy to go with his dad to have a burger and think of the cowboy days of Boulder’s past.
There was also a working class restaurant tradition in Boulder with real diners that served real breakfast for real people who had to go to work in the morning. And also places like the Broken Drum bar sometimes called the ‘Drunken Bum’ and Campbells Café that served hard working carpenters and other folks meals and beers after a long day’s work. They were located near 15th and Pearl which is now one of the city’s best looking multi story car parking structures. A lot of tourists don’t even know it’s a parking structure. It has shops on the street level. And the best view of the Flatirons on top.
The times were a changing with emergence of the new Pearl Street Pedestrian mall and memories of the original diners and yesteryear cowboys were being forgotten. A new age was emerging with new ‘Zen Cowboys’ and newly minted finely dressed cowboys pulling their horse trailer in their Cadillac while sipping their cappuccino latte drinks. Boulder restaurants, like Tom Horn’s that served a simple good meal enjoyed by those who knew the value of a hard earned dollar were being replaced with some new exotic cuisine with more expensive tabs. Some of it is quite delicious but fond memories of simpler times, simpler meals with real cowboys remain.
The original Dot’s Diner at 8th and Pearl St emerged at a unique juxtaposition of time in Boulder restaurant history. There were older diners, Greek restaurants that served traditional breakfast fare and there was this new trend of people that loved breakfast later in the day because they stayed up all night. The traditional diners looked at people a little strangely if they came in looking for breakfast at or past the lunch hour. Dot’s saw this as an opportunity and created the brunch experience without any questions asked why one was up so late the night before. Farm fresh eggs, served as you want them and a biscuit with raspberry jam were unique to the Dots experience. Dots started in a gas car repair station with a couple tables inside and a small counter to serve guests. Over time the gas, car and repair station closed and the Dot’s diner took over the entire former gas station. It became a community of musicians, poets, entrepreneurs ect “Where folks meet to get their yolks”. In warm weather it had the best outdoor seating in town. Dots had expressive wait staff with tattoos and interior design filled with a collection of Barbie dolls in funky dress showing off a new emerging culture. Basically like ‘Portlandia’ well before ‘Portlandia’ became known as a thing. Folks knew that because of pending gentrification it could not last and had to be enjoyed in a now too soon gone. When the original Dots Diner was going to close they sold, their name, recipes decorum design to new owners that bought a handful of the old declining Greek diners and turned them into Dots. You can still get a flavor of what the original Dots was at these various locations but somehow it does not match the original. Dot shared everything she knew about running Dots but without her heart in it there was always a little bit of something missing. Isn’t that true with shared recipes of your best dishes? All the same ingredients but the dance that pulled it all together has changed its subtle flavoring. Dots Diners today are still great restaurants to enjoy! And with new Nepalese cooks they have added new culinary dances with great curries and unique chai blends to their breakfast offerings.
Don’s Cheese and Sausage Mart
Don’s Cheese and Sausage Mart was another Boulder institution with lunch lines going out the door. They had fabulous bratwurst on a bun served with hot German potato salad and white beans. Between 1963 and 1987 Don’s changed ownership, moved into four different locations before slipping into bankruptcy. Highly popular with the lunch crowd, the cheese and meat market was more of a take and go deli than a sit down restaurant.
Don Olk, the market’s founder was a World War II veteran who moved to Boulder in 1961. Two years later, he opened his own business at 1908 Pearl St., in the former John Lund Hotel. Before long, Don founded the Boulder Sausage Co. and began making his own sausages from recipes said to have been passed down through his family. The potato salad was his own recipe of crisp bacon, flour, bacon grease and water mixed with sugar, vinegar, onions, salt and pepper, then poured over cooked diced potatoes. By today’s standards the side dish was heavy on the grease but was highly popular back then. Other staples on the menu included sauerkraut, coleslaw, plenty of spicy hot mustard and garlic dill pickles. In 1968 Don Olk sold out to Joseph Beeler who kept the name of Don’s Cheese and Sausage Mart and ran the 1908 Pearl St. location until 1979, when he relocated the business to 2720 Baseline Road only a couple blocks away from the Best Western Plus Boulder Inn
In 1983, in addition to keeping the Baseline Road location, Beeler opened another Don’s Cheese and Sausage Mart at 1580 Canyon Blvd. (east of the parking lot for Liquor Mart). Both the Baseline and Canyon locations closed in 1985. However, another Don’s Mart opened at 2716 28th St., at Bluff St. (now the relocated home of Dot’s Diner which had originally been at 7th and Pearl) and remained at that location until 1987.
Although a few additional Don’s Marts opened in other parts of Colorado, the 28th Street location was the last one in Boulder. By then, the delis, even with lines of people out the door and the sausage company, under the same management, had slipped into bankruptcy. Sometimes outer success is not financial success. Selling off the deli locations allowed the Boulder Sausage Company to pay back taxes and debts and remain in business. Don’s Cheese and Sausage Mart is gone but their sausages live on in grocery stores. And with work you can make their potato salad recipe
- 5 pounds of bacon
- 6-2/3 cup flour
- 8 cups sugar 6
- -2/3 cup vinegar
- 5 oz salt
- 2 TB pepper
- 5 quarts hot water
- 3 cups diced onions
- Cooked diced potatoes
Fry bacon until crisp. Drain. Mix flour into the bacon grease. Mix until thick paste forms. Add hot water. Add everything else. Mix over cooked diced potatoes and combine well. Serve warm with Boulder Sausage Company bratwursts, good sauerkraut, hot mustard and the best garlic dills you can find. Then enjoy!
The New York Deli
The New York Deli was made famous by its fictional employee Mork from the planet Ork, played by Robin Williams in the 1970’s hit TV sitcom “Mork and Mindy”. As amazing as the fictional comedic chef from outer space is the true founding of the New York Deli at 1117 Pearl St is almost as unbelievable. Above the New York Deli and now where the Boulder Book Store is was the original Tibetan Buddhist Karma Dzong meditation hall and the original Naropa Buddhist and Beat Poet University both founded by Tibetan Monk Chogyyan Trungpa Rinpoche. Alan Schwartz and his wife came to Boulder to study Tibetan Buddhism and were challenged with how to make a living to support their meditation practice in a town with student dominated minimum wage jobs. In 1975 they were inspired to open a genuine New York style deli about 2,000 miles away from its supply chain. Was this was a flash of brilliance? or was it a flash of foolishness? With Robin Williams character ‘Mork’ in their future it had to be a bit of both.
From the first day there were lines around the block, and many comical disasters to laugh at. Outwardly the little New York Deli in Boulder Colorado was a smash hit. But sometimes an outward success can be an inward disaster. None of the owners had ever worked even a single day in a restaurant before.
Now they were running an insanely busy deli from morning to night every single day which needed to get its key ingredients over 2,000 miles away. With all this busyness it was disturbing to discover the illusion of their outward success stood in contrast to their private sinking experience. They gained valuable financial advice from their meditation teacher who said, “When you are in the crocodile’s mouth, you have to carefully examine every tooth.” They were not experiencing cash flow loss due to any theft or major loss. Instead they were suffering impending bankruptcy due to a thousand irregular slices – they were going broke a nickel at a time. Every time four and three-quarter ounces of pastrami (instead of four) went out between the slices of bread, every time a glass was dropped and broken, every time a server worked an hour when there was slack time, every time they sent someone to the supermarket because some ingredient ran out, another tiny sum of money flowed out rather than in. And of course, driven by the urge to ingratiate themselves to their customers, friends and teachers their prices were just a little too low. By paying attention to each ‘tooth’ they were able to save their business. It was a balance between being generous to your paying customers and watching out for every nickel and dime spent. The New York Deli stayed in business about 25 years until high rents on the popular Pearl Street Mall forced it to close in June 1999 to be replaced with a trendy Hapa sushi bar. On closing day, “I was here on opening day, and I’m here on closing day,” said Bob Chervin, who estimated he’s eaten at the deli 500 times. “This place reminds me of my roots. I had to have my pastrami on rye, my chicken matzoh-ball soup and my Dr. Brown’s celery tonic one last time. Can’t get it anywhere else done right but in New York city or in this restaurant.”
John Lehndorff Boulder’s food critique and enthusiast extraordinaire with over 40 years’ experience nibbling around town called the late 1970’s in Boulder “the golden age of the fern bars” ranging from JJ McCabe’s to The Walrus, Potter’s, Pearl’s, Tico’s, Banana’s, Sebastians, and Pelican Pete’s; they all served casual fare. Tico’s was the best Mexican restaurant ever and is now the Rio Grande. Pelican Pete’s on Arapahoe an Folsom owned by Pete Brophy was one of the first places in Boulder to serve fresh seafood requiring a supply line over 2,000 miles that had to be delivered by air to still be fresh. Even Fred’s on Pearl Street across from the courthouse with its monster burger got a fern bar make over and music stage. Fred began playing music after the age of 50 and loved sharing tunes, burgers and cherry apple pies with all his guests. Fred’s most notorious guest old Mr. Lowry, a civil war vet who was often asleep in his soup. Fred looked out for him and the alley behind Fred’s on the Pearl Street Mall is named Lowry lane in his honor. The alley on the other side of the Mall is named Tom’s way for Tom Eldridge former philanthropist, city council member and the owner of Tom’s Tavern that never got a fern bar make over. Film critic Roger Ebert would always eat at Tom’s when he was in town. Salt Bistro is there now and has a pretty good burger on its menu in honor of Tom’s Tavern. Brunch became an every-weekend occasion embraced at places like Nancy’s Restaurant, Rocky Mountain Joes, Lucille’s, Jose Muldoons and of course Dot’s Diner. You could still have your wake-up meal big, loud and messy if that’s how you like it at The Aristocrat Steakhouse sometimes called “The Artistic Rat” at Broadway and Spruce with their 13 egg omelets and foul mouthed cook. They were always hiring new waitresses.
At 1428 Pearl, Ferns and the aroma of spiced tea decorated The Good Earth Restaurant, which tapped a growing desire for a more comfy natural-foods dining experience. It later became metamorphosed into is Turley’s Kitchen. The site is currently a clothing store called “Colorado Limited.”
Boulder beer snobs in the 1970’s were sipping foreign brews but took to heart the slogan ‘think globally and act locally’. They started drinking domestically from their own home grown brews that got so popular with their neighbors and friends they opened Boulder’s first brew pub, the Boulder Beer Company, which introduced the novel idea of truly local ales. Then there was the debut of the Great American Beer Festival started in Boulder at the Hilton Harvest House (now the Millennium Hotel) and this was a game-changing glimpse of craft breweries to come. The dawn of restaurant beer lists, notably the 100-beer menu at the first Old Chicago (formerly Walt & Hank’s), added to local brew sophistication. The local beer movement would grow to become a national trend.
Over time Boulder’s tastes grew up from thrilling all American dining with real cowboys, to hippie hangouts, to mesmerizing chefs from outer space, to an explosion of fern bar adventures and comfy natural food selections to today being one of the foodiest cities in the nation. Dining well does not have to be as expensive as it is in Aspen Shamane’s Bake Shoppe (2825 Wilderness Place) and Zoe Ma Ma (2010 10th St.) are going to be highlighted on the food networks Cheap Eats for their big sellers ‘: chicken pot pie ($8.50) and za jiang mian ($7). Boulder is now, has been in the past and will continue to be in the future a remarkable fun place to go out to eat. Bon A petit!!