Great expectations for Dickens Tavern in Longmont

LONGMONT  – In the late 1800s, if you wanted something done in Boulder County, you probably turned to William Henry Dickens. Not because of his relationship to Charles Dickens (his adoptive mother married the English novelist’s grandson), but because the Longmont rancher and freighter was one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the area.

“While thousands were investing almost fabulous sums in more or less doubtful mining ventures, in enterprises where great fortunes have been repeatedly sunk, he steadily pursued old and reliable methods of gaining riches, was conservative and wise in all his investments, and prosperity long ago came to him as his just reward,” according to Portrait and Biographical Record of Denver and Vicinity, published in 1898.

It should be no surprise, then, that the building he constructed as an opera house in 1881 still stands at the corner of Third Avenue and Main Street in Longmont, despite a long-ago fire that ravaged the city. Though it has served as a turnstile for many businesses over the past 128 years – most recently, as a barbecue joint – its current owners, Sean and Lynn Owens, hope its latest incarnation as The Dickens Tavern restores some of its earlier grace.

To that end, the Owenses scraped the popcorn texturing off the ceiling to expose its original woodwork and pulled up carpeting to reveal lavish tile flooring. They installed a marble bar top and etched glass in the doors.

“We definitely want people to walk in and feel like they’re stepping back in time – like they’re in an oldstyle tavern, not something Home Depoted to look that way,´ said Sean Owens, who is also the chef.

Owens also saw a higher use for the vault, left over from the building’s days as a bank. He converted it from storage for coats and umbrellas into a wine vault that also houses a secluded table for two – perfect for either romance or a confidential meeting.

The restaurant has banquet rooms available for larger gatherings, though. “We talked to local businesses, and (one of their complaints was that) there wasn’t a good private spot where they could hold meetings,” Owens said. He said it was a priority to “give something to Longmont we felt it needed – a decent restaurant with a good price range and a real comfortable feel. A goal of ours is to really help revitalize downtown.”

The tavern meets the needs of local businesses in other ways, too – most notably with its happy hour. For $2.50, worn-out workers can get a 21-ounce schooner (picture a giant margarita glass) of Bud Light. Every 10,000th person to purchase the special gets an engraved schooner for future use at the bar and a $100 gift card. The deal is popular; though The Dickens Tavern has been open only since April 15, it’s already sold 60,000 of the beer behemoths. There are also deals on other drinks and food, and news and sports on several flat-screen TVs, a modern upgrade from the town crier that would’ve stopped by in Dickens’ day.

The Dickens Tavern also provides a comfortable noontime respite. Its atmosphere welcomes solo diners, and the menu, oriented toward comforting, stick-to-your-ribs fare, like pot roast, meat loaf and mac-and-cheese, will take the edge off any work frustrations. “The Dickens Chicken – our beer-can-roasted chicken – is a shining star,” Owens said. The chicken, he said, is all natural. “We try where we can to use natural and organic, but it doesn’t work on the whole menu,” he added.

Owens noted that while the restaurant doesn’t advertise any sustainability initiatives, “We’re trying to be as green as we can.” He said he is working with PACE to get energy audits and qualify as a certified company.

Still, there’s one part of the tavern’s environment that Owens probably can’t do anything about: the ghosts. In a Dickensian twist, there are tales of revelers who were killed at parties in the opera house and continue to haunt the building, and patrons have reported sightings. But Owens said any spirits are more mischievous than threatening. “I was rebuilding the stairs at night before we opened,” he recounts. “I had a nail gun on a compressor. It’s really noisy. It started losing power – something or somebody turned off the compressor. I was the only person in the building, and you can’t accidentally turn it off. I yelled, ‘If you turn it off, it’s just gonna take longer.’ ” Owens said he turned it back on, and there was no further disruption of his work.

But there was another time, he said, when he smelled a sewery funk emanating from the basement. “I yelled, half-jokingly, ‘Spirits be gone, and take your smell with you,’ and 20 minutes later the smell was gone. They’re responsive – if there’s a problem, yell at ’em, and they’ll stop.” It seems that Dickens’ influence persists – even if it’s only in name.