Funny thing about The Sink, the low-ceilinged, multi-hued, vividly illustrated bar across from the University of Colorado campus, talk to folks who hung out there in college and they have very fond memories of the place. The memories just aren't very specific.
It's as if once you pass under the famed angel-demon illustrations -- purported to show a student's journey into Sinkdom/world-wise adulthood -- and make your way into the sprawling main room, the fleeting brilliance of your youthful insights and jokes become as much a part of the place as the beatnik illustrations, circa 1952. What you take with you was that you had fun -- and maybe a headache later.
"It was just a good time old place. I came out to school in 1961 -- in a covered wagon," says Ron Littman with a laugh.
He's pretty sure he first visited in September of that year.
"I'm not sure I remember walking out," he says of the "big deal" era of 3-2 beer. He also remembers the burger, a Sink staple that continues to have fans, including the Food Network show, "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," which paid a visit in 2010.
Although Littman hadn't been to The Sink much since his college days, he elected to have his 40th birthday party there, and his 70th.
What makes the The Sink special?
"I guess just good memories, good times," he says.
Frat house to hangout
The building that houses The Sink was originally the Sigma Nu fraternity house. It opened as a restaurant in 1923. Summer's Sunken Gardens, which featured European food, was named after the Summers family who owned the restaurant. Their décor, which included a large sunken fountain in the middle of the dining room, left the restaurant with a nickname, "The Sink."
In 1940, the bar was bought by Joe Pudlick, who made the nickname the official and served beer there for the first time. In 1952, beatnik artists Mike Dormier and Llloyd Kavich began painting the illustrations.
The bar was purchased by Joe Beimford and Floyd Marks in 1954. At one point, food was no longer served. In 1955, Robert Redford worked at the bar as a janitor. Marks became sole owner and his son-in-law, Herb Kauvar joined him in 1958. The two introduced the Sink Burger, still the biggest seller on the menu, although now it can be ordered with grassfed beef. In the early 1970s, The Sink morphed into Herbie's Deli, and the famous artwork was covered with pine paneling.
Bonnie Dahl, owner of the Fitter retail store nearby on the Hill, first encountered the restaurant during the Herbie's Deli era.
"As far as memories, back in the 1970s, I don't remember much. It was in the Tulagi (music venue) era. We used to go in there and hang out in the bar and eat," she says.
John Lendhorff, former dining critic of the Rocky Mountain News, as well as former food editor at the Camera, credits The Sink with starting him on his food writing career, but not for the reasons you might think.
"It was tough work in a hot little kitchen at the front of the restaurant," he says. "It was among the experiences that convinced me I'd rather write about food instead of cooking it in restaurants."
When the state of Colorado raised the drinking age to 21 in 1987, Herbie's Deli added a full bar, rather than the 3-2 beer it had been serving. In 1989, the paneling was removed and Herbie's Deli once again became The Sink, with Kavich called back in to restore the artwork.
Pizza and better beer
In 1992, current owners Mark and Chris Heinritz, and at the time their brother, James, took over the business. The Heinritz brothers, then 24, 26 and 28, had been looking for a business opportunity and decided to try the bar business.
Chris Heinritz remembers when he first saw the place that had been scouted out by his brothers.
"I remember sitting in the front room with a pizza and a pitcher of beer," he says. "I'm 24. Sure I'll do that," he said of running the business. "I was young and dumb," he adds.
Although The Sink may seem dark inside to the untrained eye, the brothers added lighting to the place. Heinritz remembers the tables as previously being lit only by the occasional desk lamp. With smoking permitted at the time, it was difficult to see across the room as the night drew on. A significant remodel in 1995 added 16 beer taps and expanded the kitchen. The brothers introduced the Ugly Crust Pizza, the most famous of which is the Buddah Basil Pie, featured on Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."
Although the brothers showed savvy introducing pizza, Heinritz says the early days of running The Sink were a steep learning curve for all of them.
"We've always said if it wasn't The Sink with its history and built-in customer flow, we wouldn't have made it," he says. "On the other side, it was cheaper than an MBA, and it got us all to the same point."
He said one of the biggest lessons was understanding the pitfalls. "You can lose money 18 different ways and not know it," he says.
They also learned that things that seem cool to have might not make a lot of economic sense. Take the 150-gallon saltwater aquarium they installed in the office.
"I bet we put $10,000 into that thing," Heinritz says with a laugh.
Dahl of the Fitter, which is marking its 40th year on the Hill, says The Sink is successful because "they've kept the feel the same. Obviously, they've changed somewhat with the times. But they've kept the concept. It still works with every generation of students and alumni. It just evokes memories for people and they make memories."
For some people those memories may be a little less vague than they were in the past. The Heinritz brothers have worked to increase their food sales and spread out liquor consumption over the whole night.
"We tried to take the emphasis of late night," Heinritz says, adding that The Sink once did about 80 percent of its liquor sales after 10 p.m. Now, that portion of the business is 11 percent. Previously 60 percent of The Sink's revenue was alcohol; now it's 60-65 percent food sales, Heinritz says.
That's not to say that The Sink isn't a college bar, as well as a restaurant. Heinritz says the restaurant is the No. 1 confiscator of fake IDs in the city. He adds that staff members develop a quick bit of on-the-job expertise when it comes to uncovering the false licenses often made in China. Although, they're often quite real looking, one tip-off is that a new batch of fakes comes from the same state.
"There will be a whole group of girls, and they all have IDs from Indiana," he says.
Once the staff has an idea that the license is false, it's easier to spot the small flaws.
Yet, despite keeping a close eye on alcohol consumption, Heinritz wants The Sink to be a fun place to go. That's why the bar has mini-bike races, for example.
He also feels that as owners they are in essence keepers of the flame.
"(We want to keep) a level of irreverence that I think is being sanitized out of most places these days."
Heinritz has decorated the tables with pictures of the old days, both historical photos and more recent ones of customers. Not long ago, two couples who had gone to CU came back to the campus and decided to pay a visit to The Sink. They were reminiscing about the past when Heinritz went over to the table.
"As they were sitting at the table, they were looking at the pictures, (and they said,) 'That's us!'"
Heinritz says what impresses him is how much things stay the same.
"In some ways, there's a change in dress, activities, but at essence kids are still doing the same thing," he says. "You can take a picture from the 1950s or the 1980s. They're hanging out socializing, being goofy, silly and energetic. They're drinking some beers and the guys are chasing the girls. It's timeless stuff that doesn't change."
Although The Sink's 6 foot, 6-inch ceilings, scrawled with 25 years' worth of signatures and comments have stayed the same, the restaurant's profile has gotten a little taller. And not only from "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," which brings customers in from as far away as Texas. In April, President Obama paid a visit, leaving behind an autograph on the front wall. Heinritz says restaurant staff got about 20 minutes' notice when the Secret Service came in and secured the place.
Heinritz said it was interesting to watch Obama work the room.
"He was a master at making people feel at ease," he says, adding that Obama let each table he approached take a photo with him and made sure to meet the kitchen staff in the back of the house.
The restaurant has since seen a bump in business from former customers who have come back to take a look at the presidential signature.
In the meantime, the restaurant continues to stay the same, but also evolve.
On a recent weekday, CU faculty member James Green of the department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences was having lunch with some graduate students. Green, who says he visits The Sink about twice a year, picked the restaurant for one reason.
"If I say The Sink, I don't have to give directions," he says.
One of the students, Thomas Rogers, is a regular.
"I've been coming to The Sink since I was 5," he says. "The same thing I think now is what I thought then. They have some of the best french fries anywhere."
Now that's a specific memory.