Boulder restaurants: Old dogs, new tricks

National attention and a changing local scene force Boulder’s famous bars to stay on top of the game

The West End rooftop patio
Photo courtesy of Big Red F

History bellows from the walls. It is told not quietly under some uniform wallpaper, but through a changing and gaudy array of expressive caricatures, balloon words and inscrutable signatures squished and folded over each other like imprints on soil.

Here at The Sink, local and national crowds gather within the recognizable walls that have sheltered everyone from the once-a-week regular to the president of the United States. Now celebrating its 90th year of service, food and drink endures in evolving ways to keep relevant and exceed near-mythological expectations.

After high-profile food shows have chronicled some of the town’s bars and restaurants, including The Sink, insistent crowds have descended upon them in a flurry. The Travel Channel and the Food Network have swept camera crews across town with popular programs like Man vs. Food and Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, catalyzing business and confirming belief in the long-running haunts that have been crucial to Boulder’s dining scene.

During the rowdier and grungier days when The Sink was the go-to, late-night drinking destination, the grandfather of Boulder bars relied on turning out standard bar food and easy drinks. Recently, the shifting business model has demanded more complicated menu items.

“Being in the business for 20 years, you can never just say you have it because the bar keeps getting raised,” says Chris Heinritz, who has co-owned The Sink with his brother Mark since 1992. “We’re trying to be a more thoughtful bar. For years we were a shot of whiskey or a Jack and Coke and a beer kind of place.”

Evolving is certainly key to any successful restaurant’s equation, but some of Boulder’s most iconic bars — The Sink, along with West End Tavern and Foolish Craig’s — are fortunate enough to have gained instant notoriety from the television age.

After host Adam Richman of Man vs. Food tried (and failed) to eat 50 wings in 30 minutes for the Wing King Challenge at West End Tavern, the bar, and the wings, have soared in popularity. A food challenge that was basically unknown before is now one of the draws bringing people to vacation in Boulder.

“Every time we have a re-run, you know, because tons of people want to come in and do the Wing King Challenge,” says Caroline Johnson, the bar manager at West End Tavern. “We’ve had people drive from Ohio saying, ‘Hey, we’re just here for the Wing King Challenge and then we’re heading back.’”

For years West End Tavern has been a Pearl Street sanctuary known for its impressive list of bourbons and its slow-smoked barbeque. But that trademark style was not instilled until Chef Chris Blackwood took the reins, following the same path set by The Sink in putting a prerogative on creative food, thus demanding widespread recognition as both restaurant and bar.

“It’s always held the essence of being the local watering hole,” Johnson says. “I think it used to be the place you came in to get drinks; a little shadier atmosphere maybe. Whereas now, it’s a place to actually come eat.”

Foolish Craig’s, the longtime café that was featured on the same episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives as The Sink, saw an immediate gain in sales from the TV spot. Keeping true to the Bohemian pedigree of Boulder, the 15-year-old bar has been hosting locals since day one and also relishes the responsibility of hosting vacationers who are stopping by after seeing the place on their televisions.

“It’s great for Boulder because it brings people here,” says Jimmy Fay, general manager at Foolish Craig’s. “When you have a couple locations featured on a show like they were in DDD, it makes it more of a destination after that.”

The now-famous crepes and BLT guacamole have been sought after by viewers from hundreds of miles away in an attempt to reproduce the experience seen on their TVs. No matter how well-known these restaurants and bars are in local circles, a television spot remains the most valuable tool in keeping the brand alive in diners’ minds.

“We got half a million to a million dollars in free advertising,” Heinritz says. “What’s a 12-minute spot on TV worth these days?”

The Sink’s menu sets aside those dishes featured in Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, highlighting the Buddha Basil pizza, the Texas Straw Burger, and the Cowboy Reuben. Ryan Ferrero, a regular at The Sink, says he was “not a fan” of Reuben sandwiches until he watched the episode and decided to order the Cowboy Reuben.

“I never even knew about it before. Now I order it every time,” he says.

The celebrated fare is part of the renaissance that Heinritz and his brother first depended upon to stay relevant. As regulations have tightened up the once-bustling Hill scene, late-night alcohol sales have dipped considerably, forcing Heinritz to adjust the bar’s niche and install a long list of sandwiches, burgers and pizzas.

“We’re still really wrestling with the conception that we’re a college bar, but the numbers tell us we’re a restaurant with a bar,” Heinritz says.

Today, roughly 35 percent of The Sink’s sales are from alcohol, and a minority of those sales occurs after 10 p.m. Ferrero, 44, has been a regular at The Sink since those crazier days when the bar was raking in much higher revenue during late nights. Since his first visit in 1990, while a student at CU, Ferrero has noticed a complete change in the culture of his go-to bar. Now, he says the party atmosphere has died down to give way to a heavier emphasis on dining.

“It’s still a college bar but I think the biggest surprise is that it’s got a lot of DNA from the foodie town that Boulder has become,” Ferrero says. “It’s high quality food in a setting you wouldn’t normally expect it.”

Still, Heinritz and other owners who have spent a long time in the Boulder restaurant business know to take nothing for granted. They’ve seen the closures of former favorites like Juanita’s and Daddy Bruce’s. From the perspective of a longtime resident and entrepreneur like Fay, Boulder’s rising real estate prices have funneled a select group of buyers onto the streets and limited opportunities for small business and restaurants.

“When you’ve seen Boulder in the past 10 years — you notice a creep towards gentrification,” Fay says. “You’ve got these sterile-looking, mixed-use development blocks going in. They all have their token coffee shop, their token ad agency, and the million-dollar condos.”

The pressure to stay relevant exists even among the old guard, who still keep conscious of the burgeoning competition. In the crowded marketplace of rising restaurants, the ability to stay fresh is synonymous with survival.

“That’s really been the focus, is how do we execute every time,” Heinritz says. “It’s a 90-year-old business, there’s things we do that are pretty entrenched and we don’t necessarily know why, so to reinvestigate all that and think about how can we do it better.”

Not only has this national spotlight reaffirmed residents’ taste buds, it has also permitted some of the town’s best local bars to continue growing and reinventing, while maintaining their core principles.

“We always want to stay fresh and on top of things, and that’s what makes West End successful, that we’re always going to the next level,” Johnson says from behind the long wooden bar. “Still at a core, we’re a bourbon bar and we’re a smokehouse. Stick to who you are.”