July 9, 2023

Nicky’s town

Longtime Estes Park restaurateur’s legacy includes new businesses, old memories

ESTES PARK — Somehow, Berenice Nelson just knew.

For weeks, she and husband Tory had been carefully preparing to unveil their Wapiti brand in a new location at 1350 Fall River Road that they had purchased in April — a steakhouse along the river just upstream from downtown Estes Park that for more than a half century had been guided by a Greek-American force of nature, local icon Nicky Kane.

The Nelsons had owned the Wapiti Colorado Pub in downtown Estes Park for 18 years and still own The Mayor of Old Town in Fort Collins and Birdies Burgers and Brews in Loveland. 

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But on June 20, their timetable for opening in the former Nicky’s Steakhouse changed from slow and deliberate to urgent.

Suddenly, “about 3 o’clock that afternoon,” Tory Nelson recalled, “my wife was like, ‘We have to open now.’ I said, ‘We’re not ready,’ and she said ‘We’re going to open.’”

Nicky Kane
Nicholas “Nicky” Kane Sr. (1936-2023) Courtesy Allnutt Funeral Service

Tory knew better than to argue.

“We got a box, started clearing off tables,” he said. “There were tools spread all over the back bar. We cleared everything out. We took the ‘Closed’ sign down about 4 o’clock. We had a few tables (of guests) in pretty quickly.”

And then, “I got a text from Nick’s granddaughter about 7:30 telling us he had passed,” Tory Nelson said. Berenice “is very in tune with those kinds of things. Those coincidences are not unusual in our lives.”

The death of Nicholas “Nicky” Kane at age 87 closed a colorful chapter in the tumultuous history of the Larimer County mountain village at the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. But it also marks the opening of new chapters, steered by new entrepreneurs of whom Kane was proud and would have continued to be.

People such as the Nelsons and their sons, Wes and Avery, who have joined their parents in co-owning what was Nicky’s Steakhouse and now is Wapiti Pub and Steakhouse.

People such as John Roy, who bought the attached 28-room motel that had been part of the complex called Nicky’s Resort.

And people such as David Bard and his two partners, who took over the Nelsons’ old downtown space and are converting it into an authentic Irish pub.

“We had the reception here after his service,” said Tory Nelson, sitting in the pub portion of what had been Nicky’s as son Wes worked behind the massive bar. “There was hundreds of years of Nicky’s history out here, people who had worked for him in every decade — ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, before he sold it. His granddaughters and daughter wanted to do it out here, and we said, ‘Well, we’re open just enough.’ We opened The Mayor of Old Town late that day, so Avery” — frontman at their Fort Collins watering hole, which the Nelsons purchased in June 2020 — “came up along with a couple other Mayor staff members. It was a proud moment for me; both the boys were behind the bar taking care of everybody and letting us run around. A lot of really positive feedback. That was nice.

“We’ve had great feedback,” he said. “When word started to get out, we started seeing a lot of folks we hadn’t seen for awhile because the locals kind of avoid downtown in the summer. A lot of the people were really happy that we were the ones taking over out here.

“Nick was really excited,” Nelson said. “He was in maybe four or five weeks ago, feisty as ever, just being Nick. We actually sent him a Father’s Day message when we hoped we were going to be open that week, but his granddaughter said he was in hospice and not doing really well.”

Nick was born Nicholas Kanellos on May 15, 1936, in Lefkada, Greece, grew up on a farm and immigrated to Chicago at age 15, taking jobs at restaurants and attending school at night to learn English. He met and married his ex-wife, Penny, there, and they had two children, Nicky Jr. and Peggy Lee. Penny’s father owned a tract of land along Fall River in Estes Park and, knowing Nick’s growing love for the restaurant business, encouraged him and his family to move to Colorado. They opened Nicky’s Steakhouse on April 17, 1967, with coffee for five cents and a breakfast of steak and eggs for $4.75.

Nicky’s specialties were generous servings of mouth-watering prime rib roasted in rock salt, large cuts of steak, Colorado trout, seafood, northern Italian dishes and Greek specialties such as souvlaki and spanakopita. The food, beautiful setting and romantic ambiance developed a national reputation; talk-show host Dick Cavett was a frequent visitor, and actor John Ritter would dine there when he brought his children to nearby Cheley Camp.

Much of Kane’s fare was beef, and a salesman advised Kane to go to the National Western Stock Show in Denver and bid on a steer. He purchased one, and then more of them over the years, gaining notoriety that he was to say “put Nicky’s on the map.”

Kane took special pride in mentoring employees from other countries and helping them immigrate and become Americans. One of his enduring legacies is the town’s benefit Duck Race he co-founded and which started at his steakhouse; now run by the local Rotary Club, its 35th annual edition this year set a record with more than 10,000 sponsored rubber ducks floating down Fall River.

He expanded his complex to three dining rooms and an outdoor patio deck where diners could enjoy their meals directly over the rushing Fall River. But that setting would prove disastrous.

nicky's map
A map from when the motel and restaurant were under the same ownership shows the Fall River running through the property. Diners could sit outside at tables on a boardwalk over the river. Courtesy Nicky’s Resort

On the morning of July 15, 1982, an earthen dam built in 1903 — 12 years before the founding of Rocky Mountain National Park — by the Loveland-based Farmers Irrigation and Ditch Co. to expand a high-country lake failed, sending a 25-foot wall of water, trees and boulders down the park’s Roaring River into Fall River below, creating the “alluvial fan” still visible today. The surge of water and debris took out a series of dams along Fall River and created a hip-deep sea of mud in downtown Estes Park during the height of tourist season — and, in the process, nearly completely demolished Nicky’s Steakhouse. Kane and son Nick Jr. got out just in time, but the surge punched a hole “straight through my restaurant,” he said then, and trapped motel guests on the south side when the bridge and deck over the river were washed away.

However, even the flood helped cement Kane’s legendary status in Estes Park and set an example for resilience that persists to this day. He quickly rebuilt Nicky’s, and then bought the grand champion steer at the next January’s National Western Stock Show.

“He hadn’t done that (stock show) in a while,” Tory Nelson said. “Not many people are going to want to buy a $200 steak, because that’s about how that shakes out. That’s why he quit doing it, because they got so expensive.”

Floodwaters menaced Nicky’s again during the September 2013 deluge, Nelson said, but not so catastrophically. “I think there was just maybe an inch of water in here,” Nelson said. “There’s a little bit of water that might have made it in. The drainage system for the parking lot drains into the river, so the river came up through the drainage system.”

Nelson’s downtown pub, however, took on about three feet of water.

Tory met Berenice when both of them worked at Nicky’s in the late 1990s — he for five or six years and she for eight. “I kidded Nick for years and asked him when he was going to sell us this place,” Tory Nelson said. Instead, Kane introduced him to Dennis Roberts, from whom he learned about the downtown space that would become the Wapiti Colorado Pub, wapiti being the more correct name for elk in the Rockies.

Nicky's flood
Nicky’s restaurant was devastated on July 15, 1982, when the Lawn Lake dam broke in Rocky Mountain National Park, sending a surge of water, mud, boulders and debris down the Fall River. Courtesy Estes Park Museum

The Nelsons’ chance to buy Nicky’s finally arrived in 2018 when Kane “was kind of ready” to sell after 51 years, Tory Nelson said. Kane’s son Nick Jr. and grandson Bradley had helped Nicky manage the business, but Nick Jr. died in 2018. “Between Nick’s financial situation and ours, it didn’t quite line up, so a different family bought it,” Nelson said.

John and Lori Thomason closed their restaurant in Oshkosh, Nebraska, then purchased and opened at Nicky’s in 2019 along with John’s brother, Tom. John Thomason, an executive chef in his own right, was born in 1967, the same year Kane opened Nicky’s Steakhouse.

But bad luck plagued the Thomasons at Nicky’s almost from the start: first the restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, then the total evacuation of Estes Park in fall 2020 as wildfires menaced the town, then the declining health of John’s and Tom’s father, and finally a kitchen fire that kept the restaurant closed from February to September 2021.

“When their father died, they decided to move on from the restaurant business,” Nelson said. “I think they closed down last October with the intention to reopen, but various things happened.”

A guest at the Nelsons’ Wapiti Colorado Pub in January “asked if we had seen Nicky was selling some stuff on Facebook. We looked at each other and wondered what else they might be selling,” Nelson said. “So I called Nick. Nick’s been a great friend and mentor over the years. After he got done telling me he didn’t own it any more, he called the next day with Tom’s name and phone number. We got in touch with Tom, and the deal sort of came together.

“We’ve loved this place forever, and it was sort of a dream of owning it.”

The Nelsons closed on the purchase the first week of April. “It took a little extra time with the flood insurance, us being right here on the Fall River,” Nelson said. “No surprise there.”

The Nelsons didn’t buy the motel part of Nicky’s Resort, however. That was acquired by John Roy, who also owns some recreational-vehicle parks in Estes Park and recently purchased Idlewilde By The River from the Buehler family, who had run it for 10 seasons.

“He’s from Texas,” Nelson said of Roy. “He’s been super great to work with.”

The large sign along U.S. Highway 34 still touts Nicky’s Steakhouse and Resort, “so we’re working on getting the sign redone,” Nelson said, adding that Roy “probably is going to change the name of the motel away from Nicky’s, but last I knew, he wasn’t sure what he was going to name it yet.”

The sign along U.S. Highway 34, on the west end of downtown Estes Park, still advertises Nicky’s restaurant and motel. One of the Nelsons’ next jobs is replacing it. Dallas Heltzell/BizWest

However, a spokesperson who answered the motel’s phone said Roy planned to keep the name Nicky’s Resort.

Wapiti’s new location in the old Nicky’s Steakhouse has more than double the inside seating of his downtown pub plus the outdoor areas.

Some Estes Park restaurateurs over the years have opted to close rather than have new owners sully their brand’s reputation. A prime example was the Burgess family, whose Old Plantation restaurant in the heart of downtown was famous for its mint juleps and whose menu boasted, “The trout today you think a treat slept last night in Thompson Creek.” They closed that restaurant in the 1980s.

But the Nelsons want to keep Nicky Kane’s reputation alive, even under a new name.

“We did bring the Wapiti Pub brand out here. We went from the Wapiti Colorado Pub downtown to the Wapiti Pub and Steakhouse here,” Nelson said, but “we definitely want to honor what Nick had built and what he was doing out here” — especially when it comes to the menu.

“I was the bartender here and I used to listen to him talk to the meat guys, and I always paid attention,” Nelson said. “At the moment, we have four steaks, plus prime rib, trout and salmon. It’s kind of a small menu. We’lll grow that menu based on requests and input from our guest space.

“I don’t know that we’ll do the Greek and Italian food; there are a couple good Italian places in town, so we don’t need to double up on that, necessarily. The Greek food was excellent; I certainly enjoyed it. If people are interested in that, that’s certainly something we have the skills to bring back.

“I’m from Central Nebraska originally, so I’m a beef guy,” Nelson said. “When we opened the restaurant downtown, we said if we wouldn’t put it on our table at home, we won’t put it on the table at the restaurant. We’re buying certified Angus beef, it’s all upper-two-thirds choice. Nick’s daughter Peggy said that it tasted like she wanted it to taste. She was very happy with that when they came up, and that was maybe one of the best compliments we’ve gotten. She said the prime rib was right.

“We’ve had a number of requests for shrimp, whether it’s beer-battered or fried or cocktail. Burgers, sandwiches, pastas — those are things we’ve done for three years.

“We’ve got a pretty large Colorado and other whiskey selection. About 50 Colorado beers. We’ll probably grow that,” he said. “And we’ll definitely be adding more wines.”

One nod to Kane’s Greek heritage, Nelson said, is that “we’ll always have ouzo. The first time I ever had ouzo was with Nick at this bar.”

Some of Kane’s decor will remain as well, but some won’t.

“There used to be that Italian painted glass up over the bar. When we pulled that down, we saved a lot of it. We’ll probably do something with it. We’re not sure what yet,” Nelson said. “The grand champion steer stained-glass window that used to be there in the middle of the bar, we took those out. We wanted to join the two rooms a little bit, but in case we had a little ruckus in here, we didn’t want the noise to carry over into the dining room.”

Piano players who fielded customers’ requests had been a feature of the pub, but “we actually have the piano in the front lobby now,” Nelson said. “We took out part of the front desk, because that used to be the front desk for the whole resort. But once all the phones and everything moved over for the hotel as the two businesses sort of separated, we really didn’t need all that space. So we put the piano out there. We’re going to have piano music and we’re going to see what the feedback is — and if we need to bring it back into the bar area, we will.”

Nelson expects to have nearly 30 employees, he said, and “we have been doing a lot of training.”

Part of that training includes keeping alive another of the things Kane loved: mentoring youths from other countries.

“We’ve always enjoyed having the J-1 [visa] work-and-travel students out here,” Nelson said. “There’s been summers where we’ve had 13 or 14 different countries represented in our restaurant, which is always neat. Gosh, I couldn’t go to another country and work, especially in the hospitality industry. It’s something that is so cultural when it comes to food. A lot of the kids understand cheeseburgers and some of those things, but some of the items on our menu take a little more explaining because it’s just not something they’ve ever encountered.”

And what’s happening with the space that was the Nelsons’ former pub at 247 W. Elkhorn Ave.? It will take on an international flavor as well — not that of Greece but of Ireland.

The Twisted Griffin will open under the ownership of partners including David Bard, who in 2020 had opened a store he called the Highland Bard across the street at 238 W. Elkhorn Ave. in a building that had been built by dentist Dr. James Durward, founder of the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Festival and whose fourth wall is the side of a rocky cliff. 

Opening during a pandemic was challenging, Bard said, “but as an entrepreneur you play for slow growth anyway. And the first year we exceeded expectations by 30%.”

While living in Kentucky, David and Joan Bard had been visiting Estes Park for three decades with the idea of eventually making it their home. After a family trip to Ireland and Scotland, their daughter Morgyn decided that pursuing a business that celebrated the Celtic culture sounded more interesting than pursuing an education at Colorado State University. When they discovered that Highland Music, a store they’d frequented on their visits, was closing, the family jumped at the chance to buy the space. The store’s inventory includes Celtic leatherwork designed by David and Morgyn as well as other traditional Irish and Scottish apparel, and Morgyn has created flavors of “tea jelly” that she persuaded Lucky’s Markets to carry.

Bard wants the Twisted Griffin to be “an official gathering place for outside events” during the annual Highland Festival. He and his crew are “ripping out everything in here” in the 1,800-square-foot former Wapiti Colorado Pub location and redecorating. He’ll also have an outdoor patio.

Coffee will be supplied by Bard’s Highland Coffee Co., whose clients include the Trail Ridge Store next to the Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Bard had been a fleet marine force corpsman in the U.S. Navy, and his other partner, Brad Fonner, is an Air Force veteran.

“We want to do it up right, with the flair of authenticity,” Bard said. “We want people, when they walk in, to feel they’ve stepped into Ireland and forget the hustle and bustle of Estes.”

But the prime motivator for both the Bards and Nelsons is their love of Estes Park and its rich history, including community leaders such as Nicky Kane.

“We feel very blessed and honored to be taking the reins out here and continuing this legacy,” Nelson said. “We traded scared for excited. We got open. Restaurants are what we know and love.”

Dallas Heltzell
With BizWest since 2012 and in Colorado since 1979, Dallas worked at the Longmont Times-Call, Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Post and Public News Service. A Missouri native and Mizzou School of Journalism grad, Dallas started as a sports writer and outdoor columnist at the St. Charles (Mo.) Banner-News, then went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before fleeing the heat and humidity for the Rockies. He especially loves covering our mountain communities.
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