Red Onion Renaissance

New owners restore 19th century Aspen bar and plan 21st century menu

I was just in Aspen all-to-briefly for a meeting, but as usual, I managed to wander around town for a while to see what had changed and what hadn’t. The door to the once and future Red Onion at 420 East Cooper Street was open, and the final steps of a work-in-progress were in high gear. I’m happy to report that during this second renovation in three years, it has been restored rather than ruined.

First I just looked in, then I stepped over the threshold onto the vintage tile (either the original or a great replication) and finally, I got a chance to chat with the new proprietor. Long-time Aspenite Tom Colosi, who used to own/operate the Blue Maize,  is reopening it with his sister, Jennifer, as the Red Onion. Whew!

Rewind to 1892, when a saloon and gambling establishment opened in this place in the midst of one of Colorado’s greatest mining heydays. Its popularity rose and fell with the town’s boom-and-bust fortunes. Several bars and restaurants occupied the space, which became the Red Onion in 1946. The name stuck. The Red Onion is woven into the fabric of Aspen history, and everyone who has ever lived there and many who have just visited have Onion memories imprinted in their psyches.

Dave “Wabs” Walbert ran the popular eatery and watering hole for 23 years, but there were lease issues, and in this most moneyed of all resort towns, he couldn’t hold on in the pre-recession era. It seems that that than landlord wanted more than the long-time lease-holder could pay, so on March 31, 2007, the venerable Onion closed — it seemed for good. Click here for an image of locals at last call. The Onion was destined for an awful glitzification at the hands of a new owner, Scott DeGraff, who seemed hellbent to override the ambiance of the well-loved bar with an awful, improbable idea. The new incarnation was something called Junk at the Red Onion, remodeled with two bars, a new paint job and “junk” as decorative elements. DeGraff overextended, reportedly didn’t pay his bills and lost the Onion and other ill-concieved projects in Aspen and Snowmass.

The Red Onion was dark for months, but is rising once more. Colosi take-over is a Colorado Cinderella story. When I went in, there were still blueprints on the bar, ladders, tools and cleaning supplies all over the place, but most of the real work had been done. The Onion looks a lot like it used to, but cleaner. Decades of old varnish, grime and smoke have been stripped to reveal a beautiful bar and other woodwork. Vintage photos will return to the walls, and the new will feel old — and vice versa. One visible change: a flat-screen TV near the front of the bar area.

The menu promises to be a bit of this and a bit of that reflecting the variety people’s eclectic tastes: breakfast items, burgers, pastas, salads, Blue Maize’s Southwestern favorites, East Coast pizza (the Colosis are from Niagara Falls) and Asian items. Dishes will be available in full or half portions, and prices will be affordable by any measure and downright cheap by Aspen standards. That will guarantee a mix of locals or visitors, a healthy combination.

Tom Colosi told me that he hopes for a soft opening on Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day.  The address is the same (420 East Cooper), the website is still a skeleton and the phone number 970-925-9955. I am looking forward to going there the next time I’m in Aspen. You too?

4 thoughts on “Red Onion Renaissance”

  1. Claire, this is such great news. Thanks for
    the post. I lived in Aspen from 89-92 and was a regular at the Onion. One time I was in line in front of John Oates waiting to get in. At first I couldn't place him and was thinking he was someone from high school.
    Anyway, glad to know it's in good hands.

  2. I agree with Lisa. I ski bummed in aspen years ago when you could still be a ski bum. We always hung out at the onion.

    Fran

  3. So glad to hear the good news about the Red Onion!!

    I lived in Aspen from '89-'92 and it was one of my favorite places…many fond memories of St.Patrick's Day!!

    I am hoping to be in Aspen this August, so I will make sure I stop by and see the resurrected 'Onion'.

    Thanks for the update!

    Jamee Phifer Tuttle

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