Has ‘Save the Onion’ cry been answered?
Aspenites who feared the Red Onion was about to breathe its dying breath, take heart. Plans are afoot to resuscitate the popular locals hangout.The building’s owners and the owners of Cache Cache restaurant have been working on plans to renovate and expand the restaurant while simultaneously restoring the historic components of the building, which has been a part of the Aspen landscape almost since the town’s beginning. They approached the Aspen City Council at a work session Tuesday seeking direction for how to proceed under the current building moratorium.”We are here tonight to ask you to help us save the Red Onion,” said Ron Garfield, who owns a controlling interest in the building with his law partner, Andy Hecht.Renovation details aren’t final, but the general plan is to expand the Red Onion into the retail space to the east (where there is currently a poster store), upgrading the building and restoring historic features in the process.”This is our effort to try and give you what we think the town wants,” Hecht said.At one time, the Red Onion actually occupied the spaces on both sides of the current restaurant.”We want to bring it back more to the way it used to be,” said Jodi Larner, who co-owns Cache Cache with Chris Lanter. “That’s what’s cool about it.”
The new plan would involve removing the booths but retaining the historic bar in its current location. “Banquettes” – essentially long benches allowing variable arrangements of tables – would replace the booths to allow more flexibility for the number of people seated in the area.Additionally, the landlords and potential restaurant proprietors would like to open up the wall between the current bar and the proposed dining area, most likely only in the area where the booths are, to create an open area that connects the bar and dining area.Lanter said they hope to offer some sort of bar fare that’s attractive to locals, much like the $14 bar menu at Cache Cache.”The bar will be the Red Onion bar, but it will be part of the dining room,” he said. “That’s what makes it a successful restaurant.”Larner and Lanter said the restaurant would be open for lunch continuously through dinner, encouraging an apres-ski crowd. They likely also would offer an abbreviated menu late into the evening and keep the bar open until 2 a.m.”People should be in the bar at 11 o’clock at night in their ski boots,” Lanter said.All the council members responded favorably to the plan to save both the historic use and structures of the restaurant. Garfield and Hecht are still in the process of working with Aspen Historic Preservation Officer Amy Guthrie to determine exactly what is historic, but they said the bar itself would remain, although it, as well as some other elements, likely need restorative work.
“We’re willing to work with staff to come up with a laundry list of what we’ll commit to do,” Garfield said, adding that he and Hecht are willing to following whatever process necessary to make the project happen.In addition to footing the bill for upgrading and restoring the building, Garfield and Hecht also will back the new restaurateurs to give them “a fighting chance to begin,” Garfield said, adding that the rent for Larner and Lanter “will be below market.”Dave Walbert, who has owned and operated the Red Onion business for almost 23 years, announced in late November that he would close the restaurant March 31 because the landlords were raising his rent. Walbert said Tuesday night that he had heard nothing about the landlords’ plans with Larner and Lanter.Moratorium speed bumpGarfield and Hecht said they need to begin renovations immediately after the current tenant’s lease expires in March if the new restaurant is to open for the winter of 2007-08.The problem: Just before Christmas, the council imposed a new building moratorium prohibiting interior renovations in Aspen’s commercial core.Community Development Director Chris Bendon said allowing the plans the group presented almost certainly means a “loosening” of the ordinance to allow such exceptions.
New Councilwoman Jasmine Tygre wasn’t comfortable with amending the ordinance without a better idea of the overall effect on the moratorium’s goals. She wanted to know more details than were available Tuesday night, and she favored looking for other ways to allow the plans to move forward without amending the ordinance. “I think that doing an amendment at this point is premature,” she said.But she stressed that she supports the idea itself and encouraged all the parties to proceed with discussion for the renovations and restoration.”This could actually be very helpful” to moratorium discussions, she said. “This could be a good test case.”All the council members encouraged the partners to keep talking, although they gave no formal approvals for renovation and restoration plans Tuesday.When Councilman Jack Johnson asked what the expanded restaurant would be called, Larner and Lanter answered in unison: “the Red Onion.”Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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