Closing the iconic restaurant/bar, of course, didn’t impress me. It’s always sad when a business closes, especially a restaurant like the Campus Lounge. If its walls could speak, they would not only talk but also cry, squeal, bluster and tell the tale of Denver’s transformation over almost a half-century.
What impressed me about the Denver Post story about the demise of the Campus Lounge was the honesty of Daniel Landes, one of the owners of the Campus Lounge and the guy who came up with the failed idea to turn it from a sports bar into what he described to me as “a beautiful dive bar, with a gorgeous kitchen that serves great food.”
Nothing wrong with that concept, of course.
“A waitress at the Campus Lounge described it the best,” Landes told me.
“She said it was like, if you ordered a Coke and you were given an iced tea. You take a sip and go: Yuck. There is nothing wrong with an iced tea, but you were expecting a Coke.”
Landes, 46, and the father of four, didn’t mince words or try to spin why the concept didn’t fly.
“Basically, it was a failure,” Landes told the Post last month.
Landes said he ignored the legacy of the previous owner, Jim Wiste, an All-American University of Denver hockey player and a Chicago Blackhawks veteran.
Landes is a lot of things – restaurant owner, novelist and publisher. But one thing he is not is a sports fan.
He was already in discussions to buy the Campus Lounge, with partners including Charlie Woolley, owner of St. Charles Town Co., when Wiste died earlier this year after running the Campus Lounge for 44 years.
“The memorial service drew 500 people,” Landes said. “Five hundred people wouldn’t attend my memorial service.”
That should have been a clue how beloved Wiste was and how closely he was associated with the Campus Lounge, according to Landes.
“A legacy is real. Jim was a legend and well-loved, and I ignored that legacy. I took the TVs out of a sport bar. I’m an idiot,” said Landes, his string of straightforward honesty continuing.
How could he have made such a blunder?
“The thing is, I have no passion for TVs. I wouldn’t even know what sports game channels to put on. I did have a passion for this location, this beautiful dive bar and this incredible neon sign.”
He put the loss of the Campus Lounge into perspective.
“I’ll survive. People have gone through a lot worse,” he said.
Honesty was the only policy he ever considered when he admitted the Campus Lounge wasn’t making enough money to keep it afloat.
“I guess that is a rare thing these days,” Landes said. “It’s not getting any better. But in my world, transparency is efficiency. If you are transparent and honest, you can just move on. I took responsibility. I own it. That’s liberating. If I had tried to say something like Bonnie Brae wasn’t yet ready for our concept, people would have said, ‘Screw you.’”
Landes started in the restaurant business washing dishes at the Skillets restaurant at Interstate 25 and Hampden Avenue when he was 14.
At 26, he opened Watercourse Foods, perhaps the first vegetarian restaurant in Denver, which he sold two years ago. He also opened the City O’City vegetarian restaurant, the Make Believe Bakery and an eco-hotel restaurant and bar in Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“All of them are going strong,” Landes said.
Landes said he thinks President Donald Trump, a real estate developer, has sent a message from the top down that honesty doesn’t matter.
“I think we as a society, what our president has done for us, is tell us there is no reason to tell the truth,” Landes said.
“Everything is so toxic and so ugly now. But I can’t bitch about the president and be a scumbag myself.”
Landes’ honesty is not just for public consumption, and in his professional life, but perhaps, more importantly, sends an important message to his children.
“I was taking my little girl to school and she asked me about the Campus Lounge. I told her it was a failure. My 7-year-old told me the only failure is to fail to try.”
That touched him deeply.
“We can learn a lot from failure. Honestly, what I learned from the Campus Lounge failure is worth a lot more than making money.”