Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Neighborhood bids adieu to Fagan’s Restaurant

Fagan’s Restaurant, a popular Evans Avenue watering hole where rock star Tom Petty once lunched and DU students ate, drank and got engaged, has closed its doors after 34 years.

The vintage establishment will re-open Aug. 15 as Smugs and have a companion American-style restaurant named Red’s Express.

Steve Breslow, who operated Fagan’s since 1983, blames the bar’s closing on a changing clientele, the need for extensive remodeling of the 69-year-old building and the statewide restaurant smoking ban that went into effect July 1, 2006.

“[Closing] left a big hole in my gut,” Breslow says.

The loss is also painful to Fagan’s founder and DU alumnus Joe Blackman (MA ’71), who started Fagan’s with his wife, Melinda, in 1973 on the northwest corner of Evans Avenue and Downing Street. The site had been a bookstore and a doughnut shop previously. The Blackmans launched the tiny restaurant on one end before expanding to the entire site in 1976 when they bought the Silver Spruce bar next door.

The restaurant’s name came from the 1968 film Oliver, based on the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist. The couple thought actor Ron Moody, who played the sad-faced pickpocket leader Fagin, resembled their Afghan hound. When the dog, which they named Fagan, unexpectedly died, they called their new business Fagan’s Restaurant, deliberately misspelled, in honor of the animal.

“Fagin was a thief. We changed the name to an “AN” to make sure people didn’t think it was a place for crooks to hang out,” says Blackman, a teacher at DU’s Ricks Center for Gifted Children.

The Blackmans sold the business in 1983 after a run of popularity with patrons as diverse as Denver police academy cadets and hard-partying, ’60s-era DU students.

“I can’t tell you how many people got engaged in Fagan’s by the fireplace,” Blackman says. “Lots of romances, lots of relationships. It was the DU spot for 10 years.”

When Breslow took over the restaurant/bar, he emphasized a rustic “mountain bar” feel, resisting the trend toward a sports theme and trying to keep Fagan’s a “winter-style” neighborhood hangout.

“We were the first ones in Denver to bring chicken wings to the market,” he boasts. “We put them on the menu and they took off.” The move helped popularize Buffalo wings but failed to educate patrons, many of whom connected the wings with bison instead of Buffalo, N.Y., where the food concept originated and where Breslow was from.

Over time, DU student patronage declined, Breslow says, and the bar clientele shifted to “older folks who smoked.”

“The people are fantastic, and we had excellent clientele. I wish we had gotten more of the faculty-staff business,” Breslow says. “That’s a function of the distance. We were just a few blocks too far.”

New tenant Matthew Landy hopes to change that.

“I’d been looking for a place in the DU area,” he says. “It was love at first sight.”

Landy, whose sister Ellen earned a graduate degree from DU, said Red’s Express will serve casual American cuisine — sandwiches, pizza, wings, Mexican items — and will be alcohol-free in hope of luring students. It’s called Red’s because of Landy’s red hair.

The bar will be called Smugs, an adaptation of “smiling mugs.”

Breslow is OK with the changes, saying it’s time to “rename and re-concept and re-energize” the business. Even so, moving on is hard.

“I love the neighborhood,” he says. “It’s a whole sad process.”

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