The neon sign on top of the Campus Lounge is something that you would not see in modern buildings, Dan Nickless said.
Although the Denver zoning code still allows neon signs, there are restrictions on placement of signs as well as how the signs light up. For example, blinking or animated lights are not allowed.
After the Campus Lounge’s longterm owner Jim Wiste sold the restaurant to Dan Landes in 2016, the neon sign stayed on the building despite a large renovation of the inside. Nickless said he’s glad Landes kept the sign.
“You can’t do those kind of signs anymore, anywhere,” Nickless said. “We were very grateful that Dan (Landes) embraced the history and didn’t lose the iconic nature of that sign, because that means a lot to a lot of people.”
As a child, Dan Nickless remembers running through the alleys of Bonnie Brae trying to figure out the mystery of what was behind the doors at the Campus Lounge. Back then, bars were dark and people could still smoke indoors. His first experiences of the bar on the same block as his dad's grocery store are tinted with the curiosity of childhood.
Decades later, Nickless finds himself part-owner of the Campus Lounge, 701 S. University Blvd., along with his son Jeff and longtime friend Steve Bentley.
Over the years, the bar had taken on an important role in his life. His father, R. Walker Nickless, sold hamburger meat and T-bone steaks to the bar through Esquire Market, a job his brothers Paul and David took over when they began to run the grocery store. The Campus Lounge became Dan's own neighborhood hangout when he started going to college. His son Jeff also frequented the bar while attending the University of Denver.
“I think it is an iconic place, just because it lasted, really going on three generations when you think about it,” Dan said. “It's held its own for a long time and people have had a lot of good memories here.”
The 70-year-old bar had recently been on rocky legs. Longtime owner Jim Wiste decided to sell the Campus Lounge in 2016 so he could retire. Denver restaurateur Dan Landes took over in the hopes of saving a city legacy. After renovations, he reopened Campus Lounge in October 2017. But Landes took the neighborhood bar in a different direction from its DU hockey hot-spot roots. It closed in March, less than a year later.
That's where the Nickless family comes in. Father-son duo Dan and Jeff hope that reopening the Campus Lounge will be a way to follow in the footsteps of R. Walker, creating a business where customers can create memories.
Jim Wiste was a Pioneer. Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Wiste came to the U.S. to attend DU. He played on DU's hockey team until he graduated in 1968. He then played in multiple professional hockey leagues, including the National Hockey League, until 1976. That same year he purchased the Campus Lounge, which had originally opened in 1946 as the Bel-Aire. The business changed names to the Campus Lounge three years later.
Wiste died at the age of 71 in January 2018, shortly after Landes reopened the Campus Lounge Bar.
The Nickless family is paying homage to Wiste and the Campus Lounge's hockey roots throughout the bar. A plaque next to the front door dedicated to Wiste reads “A Denver legend. Gone but never forgotten.” A photo of Wiste in his number 14 DU hockey jersey can be seen in a mural dedicated to the sport on a wall in the bar.
“Jim Wiste … was just getting (Campus Lounge) up and going at the same time, so my dad and he were co-patriots, if you will, on the block,” Dan said. “It was kind of sad to see Jim close it down.”
For 56 years, the Esquire Market was owned by the Nickless family. For many of those years, Dan's father, R. Walker, could be found behind the counter, chatting with customers, and helping them pick out cuts of meat. Over the years, Dan spent more and more time in Esquire, working shifts in the summer and during other school breaks.
“It was a kind of traditional, counter meat market. It sold all kinds of different stuff, fish included,” Dan said. “I'm from a family of 10, so we all worked in the meat market at some point in our lives."
Although Dan said he never saw himself as an entrepreneur or in the restaurant industry, he's excited to carry on in his dad's footsteps. At the Campus Lounge, people have come in telling Dan they knew his dad back in the Esquire Market days. People have also come into the bar sharing their own family history with it, Dan said, adding “the stories go on and on.”
Getting to know his customers is one way that Dan hopes to be like his dad.
“That was one of the things that was instrumental to my dad's success for 50 years, was we knew most of the customers that came in to that store,” Dan said. “It's really been kind of cool to have those connections pop up.”
Both Dan and Jeff Nickless, as well as their partner Steve Bentley, have backgrounds in finance. Dan and Bentley have worked together as accountants and Jeff was in banking and real estate. Jeff helped Dan Landes get a loan for Landes' first restaurant, City O' City. After Landes closed the Campus Lounge, the Nickless family decided to jump on the opportunity. Because Landes had renovated the Campus Lounge prior to opening it, it meant the Nickless family didn't have to invest quite as much.
“God love him, he did a ton of stuff that we feel blessed to be somewhat of a benefactor of,” Dan said. “He literally re-did the whole building, from HVAC to new bathrooms to a new kitchen, a new walk-in cooler for the keg system. All of that stuff was in place, which was a real enticement for us.”
Jeff added that having backgrounds in finance has also been helpful. Each will continue working their full-time jobs, and they have hired a management team to take care of the restaurant's day-to-day operations.
Since taking over, the Nickless family has made some changes to menu options. They offer bar staples such as hamburgers, but also wanted to put some healthy options on the menu. Since the reopening, the most popular item has been a smothered burrito with house-made green chili, Jeff said.
The Nickless family hopes to make the Campus Lounge a place to go for all ages, even adding a kids menu to the lineup.
“We've tried to pay some homage (to Jim). It's grown, and we think it maybe, hopefully, it's matured a little bit into more than just a hockey bar,” Dan said. “Our goal is really to have a neighborhood hangout, where it's really family friendly.”
And, as at the Esquire Market, where generations of family passed through its doors, Dan hopes a similar tradition will take root at the Campus Lounge. Within the Nickless family alone, different generations have sat at the bar ordering drinks. Dan, who was born in the 1950s, and his son Jeff, born in the 1980s, are just one example.
“There just have been generations of people that have come through here,” Jeff said. “If you grew up in Denver, you know about the Campus Lounge. And I think that's what makes it so special to people — that it's been a mainstay in Denver and in this part of town for generations.”
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