Editor’s note: Entrepreneur magazine contracted with me in the summer of 2015 to write this story, paid me in full for it and never ran it. The editor has left the publication, so I guess it’s in limbo.
By Rob Reuteman
Some of the best bars are dives, holes in the wall propelled to prominence by a mix of drinks, clientele, ambience or a distinct lack thereof.
Others benefit enormously from the advantage of being in the middle of a great place.
Such is the case for the Terminal Bar and Cooper’s Lounge, two new establishments literally on top of each other in Denver’s Union Station, which reopened last year after a three-year, $54 million renovation.
The 130-year-old landmark has been lovingly restored to its former glory as a modern transportation hub for the Denver metro area’s light rail and bus service, as well as Amtrak.
“The redevelopment of Union Station is one of the most ambitious transit projects in the world, said then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall at the project’s grand opening last summer.
“From Colorado’s earliest days through today, Union Station has played a vital role in connecting our people, businesses and economy to the broader world.”
A Public Centerpiece
The clear centerpiece is Great Hall, 12,000 square feet of public space that served as a waiting area for the 80 trains that once ran through Denver daily. It’s been transformed into a massive lounge served by the Terminal Bar.
Stylish couch arrangements with marble coffee tables populate the hall, as do picnic tables holding family gatherings and business meetings alongside long black-lacquered library tables filled with people working on laptops. A small performance stage sits in the middle of the hall, alongside a sawdust-covered shuffleboard table.
Many of the assembled are nursing beers or drinks; the liquor license for Union Station allows patrons to take their libations anywhere in the building.
Walk up to the old ticket counter facing the hall and order from a rotating menu of 30 Colorado microbrews. Telluride Brewery’s “Face Down” brown ale shares tap space with 4 Noses Brewing’s Cocoa Coffee Porter and Crazy Mountain Brewery’s Lawyers, Guns & Money barley wine.
“We treat Great Hall like a space that belongs to the public, not a bar or restaurant,” said Joe Vostrejs, a principal with the Larimer Associates, which owns and operates Union Station’s bars. “We wanted the ability to go up to a window and order whenever you feel like it, without being badgered by a waitress or bartender.”
The hall plays host to family gatherings, first dates and numerous business meetings daily, he added. “You can sit here for two or three hours and not order anything, and no one would care or probably even notice.”
Larimer Associates is a partner in the Union Station Alliance, a group of local businesses that took out a 99-year lease on the building from its owner, the Regional Transportation District. RTD operates the city’s bus and light rail systems.
Twenty years ago, Vostrejs was hired as general manager of Larimer Square, a downtown block of century-old buildings that became a showcase for the city’s extensive historic preservation efforts.
“Ten years ago, I became a partner, and we began doing projects in other neighborhoods,” he said. “I’m a Denver native and all our partners live here, so we’re only interested in doing things that make a neighborhood better. We take old, decrepit buildings, improve them and make them relevant again.”
Other developers are content with doing shopping centers that have Subways and Starbucks, he added. “Those are fine. I suppose the world needs them. But that’s not what we do.”
Great Hall may give people a reason to gather, but the Terminal Bar gives them another reason to linger, he said.
If you’re not in the mood for the bustle, step inside the Terminal and grab a stool or a seat in one of the dozen cushioned booths. If the weather’s conducive, enjoy a drink on the outside patio facing busy Wynkoop Street.
“The patio’s become the premier people-watching spot in town,” said Jon-Mark Larter, director of hospitality for Union Station.
The bar and patio serve more serious libations as well as the beer. A Corpse Reviver #1 blends Asbach Uralt German brandy, Coulard calvados, Cocchi di Torrino sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters. The craft cocktails complement expertly mixed old-fashioneds, kir royals or vespers.
“The Terminal Bar is the lubricant that makes it all work,” Vostrejs said. “Otherwise Great Hall becomes a more sterile space.”
Vostrejs researched train stations extensively before embarking on the Union Station project. He wanted it to evoke the late 1890s.
“It was a vibrant time,” he said. “Before then, nearly everyone died within 30 miles of where they were born. The railroad opened us up. We could buy a ticket and cross the country. The train station was the passage to all that, and it’s that era we wanted to capture.”
Evoking a golden era
His research introduced him to the other golden era of train travel, “the 1920s and ‘30s when waiters wore white coats and ties while serving elegant food and cocktails.”
And that’s where Cooper’s Lounge comes in. Step up a long stairwell off one corner of Great Hall, and traverse the stunning balcony that overlooks it, and you come to The Cooper Lounge.
The two bars represent opposite ends of the world, Vostrejs said. “The Terminal Bar supports the public area as an everyday bar. Up here, the Cooper is meant to be a retreat for serious conversation.”
A long marble bar rests opposite the balcony overlooking Great Hall and its 65-foot-high ceiling. Low couches and high-back upholstered chairs hold a capacity of 100. The views are stupendous. To the east, through two 25-foot-high leaded glass windows, you can look down Denver’s busy 17th Street financial district. To the west, through five such windows, the setting sun turns the room pink, pastel or orange for 10 minutes at a time.
The Cooper also serves the 112-room boutique Crawford Hotel, with some of its rooms modeled after luxury Pullman train cars.
The Cooper specializes in high-end cocktails. A simple order for a gin and tonic produces a silver tray with a highball glass of ice rimmed with a lime. Mini-carafes – one of gin, one of tonic – allow a patron to customize.
Too much work? Bartender Tony Meza’s favorite concoction is a Coloradier, Cooper’s take on the standard boulevardier, with local Breckenridge bourbon and bitter, blended with sweet vermouth and an orange twist.
Cocktails are accompanied by silver cups of nuts or chocolates. Food service is provided by a cart, just as it would on a luxury train car. Wagyu steak tartare is a favorite. Dessert? The cart attendee will blowtorch a bananas foster at your table.
“It’s a grand, opulent experience,” said Larter. “It’s become a premier date bar at night.”
By day, businessmen broker deals.
Vostrejs said he holds more meetings at the Cooper than in his own nearby office. “You’re comfortably seated in an environment quiet enough for conversation, with a service level that’s incredibly high,” he said. “Whenever I suggest it, I get an enthusiastic response.”
Revenue from The Terminal and The Cooper has doubled from initial projections, Vostrejs said. “People here have an emotional attachment to this building. The public enthusiasm has been amazing.”
Early next year, train service will commence between Union Station and Denver International Airport. The 23-mile ride is projected by 2030 to carry nearly 40,000 people daily to and from Union Station.
Currently, about 32,000 bus and light rail passengers go through Union Station, said RTD spokewoman Pauletta Tonilas. “Obviously, this will grow significantly next year.”
Vostrejs says he’s ready.
“Too much of historic preservation involves taking a place and putting it in amber,” he said. “What we wanted to do is put Union Station back into service in a way that is relevant today, and will be for 99 years.”