Michael and Ricky Dire [Photo: Grace Boyle]
One of the oldest family-run restaurants in Denver is the infamous, Bonnie Brae Tavern on South University Boulevard that has been open for 79 years, since 1934. Opened by Carl and Sue Dire, the tavern was maintained next by their sons, Michael and Hank Dire and now is co-owned by the third-generation of Dire's, cousins, Michael and Ricky. The tavern's interior and menu hasn't changed much since those early days with the vinyl turquoise booths, black and white photos of the Dire family dotting the walls and Sue's handwritten recipes which are still used to this day, kept in a tin box in the kitchen. Eater sat with Ricky and Michael to reminisce about their history, their reliable comfort food, their favorite customers who have been coming for decades and more.
Your grandparents Carl and Sue Dire opened the tavern in 1934. Tell us a little about those early days and the restaurant surviving the depression and all these years. Michael: My grandfather was a mechanic for a Chrysler dealership in Denver so he decided to open up his own gas station and he did mechanical repairs there starting in 1929. Originally, he thought this space [where the tavern is] was going to be a garage but prohibition ended and he decided to open up a tavern, which is how it started, even without any real restaurant experience. It was just a tiny place, with four booths and a couple tables then.
Ricky: We also used to have a drive-up window. You could get a bowl of spaghetti and beer right through the window.
Pizza was introduced in the 1950's and at the time, it was much more of a novelty food item than it was now. What drove the switch to the pizza you're so well known for now? Ricky:The food until then was pretty basic. It was Grandma's spaghetti, some sandwiches, and general home cooked food. In the 1950's, my dad used to frequent some places in North Denver and one of the places was doing pizza and he got to know them well. He then came in and told my grandmother, "We should try this!" We're still doing those pizzas almost 80 years later.
You both started working with your fathers when you were young. What was it like growing up in the restaurant and what kind of work did you find yourselves completing? Ricky: I started August 18th of 1978. I was 13 years old. Then I worked through high school and by then they said, "Well you better learn it all." I bussed tables, cooked the pizza and really did it all. I started full-time when I was about 20.
Michael: I started working here full-time in 1983. I had worked part-time here and there until then. I was the first person to take to-go orders on the phone because we started getting busier. My original cash box was a cigar box, not a register.
As a family run restaurant for 79 years, how do you feel you've stayed intact? What's the secret? Ricky: It's hard, but we do know our food is good. Every restaurant probably has an off day and it may not be perfect, but our food here generally is yummy. I'd say 99 percent of the wait staff has been here for such a long time too. We try to treat everyone like real people and that's why people keep coming back. As we're all in here each day, somebody is always hollering across the room, "Hi! How ya been? I haven't seen you in a while!"
Michael: We try to have a good product and treat our customers like we would want to be treated too.
A lot of the menu has remained the same. Is there reasoning behind the consistency and has any changed over the years food-wise? Michael: Most of the core stuff are the same recipes. We still have a tin can box upstairs with my grandmother's recipes in her handwriting.
Ricky: The only thing that's newer is our Mexican food. My dad teased me when we introduced it about five or six years ago. It started as specials and people kept asking for it on the menu. Now, we won an award from 5280 for Denver's Best Green Chile. We're pretty proud.
So many of your regulars have been coming for decades. What are some of your favorite stories or memories of longtime regulars? Ricky: Mr. Bunches owned a house just up the road and he had been coming in here really since the beginning. He passed away a few years ago but his whole family, children, and his grandkids still come in. They're such nice people.
Michael: There's a favorite story where a gentlemen who lived just up the way on Mississippi would be mowing his lawn on his sit-down mower and he would just take off and drive down here to get his food, on his mower [laughs]. His wife always knew where he was.
Do you have family members carrying on your legacy and working with you now? Ricky: My sister's kid works here; that's my nephew [points to him in the restaurant working]. Michael's two sons and daughter are all here too. So yes.
In terms of renovation, it has been fairly minimal. Is it in part paying homage to what your family has kept a tradition for so long? Michael: The dining area has been the same since 1950. There have been a couple updates like newer paint but that's about it.
Ricky: Yes, it used to be a lot smaller before the 1950 expansion. We made the kitchen bigger too and moved it. Again in the 1970's we expanded the kitchen again to what it is today. The décor hasn't changed much, which can be good and bad. There are people who say you need to be young and fresh, then there's old and familiar which is nice too.
Running a family restaurant and working alongside your family is challenging. Any tips on your survival? Ricky: You have to tell yourself, "We're all in this together." We want the place to do well.
Anything special coming up for Bonnie Brae? Or anything you think people don't know about that you offer currently? Michael: We're always open to having banquets as we're closed Mondays so we do a lot of fundraisers and private events here. We're busy around the holidays with those private parties. Also, people don't realize we have great brunches on Saturday and Sunday. And the most popular are these huge breakfast burritos; they're so good. It's one of our best kept secrets because people don't realize we serve breakfast.
Ricky: Michael and his kids have talked about redoing the bar, which is probably coming soon.
Michael: Well, we should really start planning our 80th anniversary on June 6th soon. D-day, it's a Friday.
Ricky: On that day, we will live here the whole day. On our 60th and 75th anniversaries we did a makeshift patio out front and had specials like 75 cent beers and plates of spaghetti for $1.75, which was fun. Trust me; in June, we'll be celebrating.