“It’s been a great run,” reflected Dave Lux, who opened the Ritz Grill at 15 S. Tejon St. in downtown Colorado Springs in 1987. “Thirty years — that’s a very long time for a restaurant.”
Lux was sitting at the quietly at the end of the horseshoe bar at the Ritz Monday evening, receiving condolences and thanks from a handful of patrons who had noticed the closure message on the doors of the establishment.
The rumors were true. On Saturday, Aug. 19, the Ritz will close forever. Its beloved interior would be gutted, the caricatures of regular customers taken down, the horseshoe bar replaced with something more to the taste of Millennials and the establishment’s longtime customers would be left in limbo.
The Ritz?! Closing?! To those of us who have patronized that cheerful establishment for decades, the closure seems far more significant than Monday’s total eclipse of the sun.
“First Southsides, and now this?” mourned one patron. “Where are we going to go? What’s happening to downtown?”
Where, asked one silver-haired patron seated at the bar Tuesday night, would we go to find $3 Happy Hour drinks?
To today’s young adults, the Ritz may seem stuffy, old-fashioned and boring, but to 20- and 30-somethings in 1987, it was revelatory. The food was fresh and inventive, the servers and bartenders were young and cool, and there were local bands on Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday night was server night, when bartenders and servers from every other restaurant in town got half-off (or, if they knew you, free) drinks.
The Ritz was more than a bar, more than a restaurant. It was a meeting place for young professionals married and single, for downtown businesspeople and for everyone looking for friends in a new city. It was open every day of the year, including Christmas and Thanksgiving, when it became a haven for holiday haters, loners and newcomers without local family.
“I first went there in 1988,” said Donna Shugrue, the owner of Perfectly Matched, a Colorado Springs dating service. “I was just starting to go out with Angelo Laforgia, and the Ritz was our go-to place. Every Friday evening Johnny [the bartender] would reserve the back two seats at the right side of the bar for us.”
Owners Lux and Luke Travins knew that they had something special. So popular was the Ritz that it attracted, promoted and supported a loyal cadre of employees.
One prominent example: Donna’s thoughtful bartender, Johnny Nolan, who went on to found Southside Johnny’s, renovate the Navajo Hogan and recently opened the N3 Taproom on West Colorado Avenue.
“After working at the Ritz for 10 years as a single mom and going to school,” wrote local professional, Becca Tonn, in an email. “I have so many fond memories of clientele and busy lunchtimes, fabulous food and much fun and laughter at the Ritz. My kids loved coming to the restaurant with me and they would refill the containers with straws and felt so important to be helping out. Since graduating, in 2005, I now work next door to the Ritz and have returned many times for lunch with colleagues.”
Tonn, who worked as a daytime bartender and key manager at the Ritz from 1996 to 2006, is now director of public relations for Blakely & Co.
By 2003, the city’s once-quiet central down downtown had become the club district. Three megaclubs brought thousands of young revelers downtown on Friday and Saturday nights, and the Ritz figured out how to accommodate the crowds.
“By 7 p.m. you couldn’t move at the Ritz,” Shugrue recalled. “Trying to get through the crowd was impossible — you didn’t know whether you were getting jostled or groped, but it was fun in its own way.”
Bands like local favorites Head Full of Zombies would start up around 9 p.m., the crowds would thin and the dancers would show off their moves. Closing time? Around 2 a.m., but the clubs brought a disorderly and intermittently dangerous clientele downtown that occasionally spilled over into the Ritz.
In recent years, as downtown has mellowed and gentrified, the Ritz customer base has aged and their tastes have changed.
“What I really like now is to go there with my daughter and my grandchildren for dinner,” said Shugrue. “The prices are reasonable and that big back booth is perfect for the family.”
What will replace it?
“I’m not going to tell you,” said Lux, but one of the servers was more forthcoming.
“It’ll be a locavore kind of place with a lot of craft beer taps,” she said. “But meanwhile, I’ll be out of a job on Saturday, and I need one right now! Any suggestions?”
While Baby Boomers tend to go home early nowadays, Millennials have different tastes.
“Live music isn’t as much in demand,” said Nolan. “Millennials aren’t like you guys were in the day — they don’t want to dance all night. At one time, we all competed for the best bands — but that’s not so anymore.”
“We don’t do live bands any more,” said Thunder & Button co-owner Heather Joffe recently. “We couldn’t make it work, so now we stick to Karaoke.”
And what about those caricatures, those treasured images that once constituted the downtown party animal Hall of Fame?
Dave Lux shrugged his shoulders.
“Come in on Sunday when the demolition starts,” he suggested. “If you can find yours, maybe they’ll let you take it.”