Dino’s Italian Food is an open time capsule at 10040 W. Colfax Ave. A classic red sauce joint serving homemade meatballs and marinara you can practically taste when you pull into the parking lot. You can visualize its wood-paneled interior and checkered tablecloths before walking in the door.
The Lakewood mainstay opened in 1961. Founder Dino DiPaolo and his wife Jeannene established a menu of pizza, sandwiches and pasta that has gone largely unchanged (save for the addition of some Mexican fare at lunchtime) through 11 presidential administrations. Just about all the ingredients, from the pasta to the bread to the Italian dressing, are still made in house. Stick around for a piece of scratch-made pie or homemade ice cream for dessert.
As the closings of storied restaurants like Patty’s Inn and White Fence Farm in recent years have demonstrated, Denver’s dining scene is in a period of transition. It seems like a new hotspot opens every other week, but many longtimers, the places diners brought their kids and then their grandkids, are going away.
Judy Duren, middle daughter of Dino and Jeannene and the engine that has powered the business since her dad died in 2011, has decided the restaurant has run its course. Dino’s will serve its last piece of lasagna Sept. 30, almost 58 years after it opened.
“It is kind of sad,” the 67-year-old said Friday. “I was trying to go a couple more years. I not sure I’m ready to stop.”
She puts the decision primarily on rising costs. The restaurant’s expansive kitchen houses dozens of pieces of aging machinery including an imported Italian pasta maker and 100-gallon vat for making sauces. And the building itself, owned by the family for many years, has seen better days. Its roof has been battered by too many storms.
“We have two freezers. We have five walk-in boxes. An therein lies the problem: maintaining all of this,” she said. “A lot of it is old so it’s so costly … At the stage I am at in life, I am just not willing to take on all the debt and rebuild.”
Walking through the dining room and kitchen, as she still does five days a week, Duren has a story about almost everything in Dino’s. It is the only places she’s ever worked save for a stint at Mr. Steak in Boulder when she was in college.
The place is covered in her father’s idiosyncratic fingerprints. It has a meatball rolling machine custom built by a machinist to his specifications in 1969. It applies just the right amount of pressure for the perfect meatball. Just four tables when it opened in 1961, the building has been expanded seven times and now has space for 240 diners. That piecemeal expansion has complicated repairs over the years.
“He was always excited to do something else and to try a new thing. Not with the recipes and not our menu, but he would do it in another building,” Duren said. “He was the brains for sure, and we were the worker bees.”
For a time the family operated a mini restaurant empire that included neighboring Mexican restaurant Ramone’s (a property that is now home to a McDonald’s), Dino’s Other Place and a yogurt and sub shop.
For Duren, the hardest thing about closing is what it will mean for her staff. She hopes that the proliferation of restaurants that added competition for Dino’s will also provide job opportunities for them once it closes.
“I have a lot of people who have been here quite a while,” she said. “It’s a hard change for a lot of them.”
Of Dino’s 45 or so staff, 12 have been there more than 15 years. They include bookkeeper Karen Heller, with the business for 31 years, and Edna Sudek who stills puts in 40 hours each week prepping food in the kitchen at age 78.
When a longtime customer came in the door at lunchtime Friday, waitress/bartender/manager Trish Luna greeted him with a hug and said she had some bad news. The customer asked if her 100-year-old grandfather was OK before she told him the restaurant was closing.
“It’s pretty hard. It’s the people I’ll miss,” said Luna, with Dino’s for 20 years. “I’ll remember every single one of them. A customer gave me his email so we can keep in touch.”
Marty Majors’ first Dino’s experience came as a teenager in the 1960s.
“I just got my driver’s license and we used to stop at Dino’s to grab some pizza after we partied. You know, Dino’s was open till 3 o’clock in the morning. Dino would welcome us at any time as long as you behaved,” the 74-year-old remembered. “I never cry, but I might make an exception today.”
For Colorado Restaurant Association spokeswoman Carolyn Livingston, Dino’s closing hits close to home. A Lakewood native, Livingston first ate in the restaurant as a child.
“It’s so impactful when our longtime favorites close,” she said. “These are the places that help us celebrate our lives. We have our birthday parties there, family dinners, dates, many of our most memorable life events.”
Duren said she is not planning any special celebration, but she hopes to see lots of familiar faces in Dino’s over its last few months. She is clearing a spot on her back patio for the meatball machine but hopes to auction off a lot of the other equipment in the building.
She expects developers will start calling now that the closing news is out. She’s ready to listen to offers but doesn’t know what’s in the cards next, either for the Dino’s building or herself.
“I don’t know what I’m doing next,” she said. “I’m a mess. And I’m usually an in-control person and an in-charge person because you have to be. But right now? I don’t know.”
Visiting reporter Anna Clauss contributed to this story.