The air traffic controllers guiding planes in and out of the old Stapleton Airport couldn’t have imagined this new life for the building at the base of the control tower. And for years, despite committee meetings and brainstorming sessions, the committee searching for a reuse of the tower couldn’t imagine it either.
Then, almost two decades after the airport closed, Councilman Chris Herndon thought of Robert Thompson, who has made a commitment to saving and renovating old structures for his Punch Bowl Socials throughout the country. It was a match made in heaven as far as the community was concerned.
After three years of construction, the building in the shadow of the control tower now has a new life as Punch Bowl Social, an “Eatertainment” destination with 15,000 square feet inside and 14,000 outside—a southern-style restaurant with bowling, numerous games and activities, and space where customers can put their feet up and relax in a lounge chair.
The building’s aviation history dictated Punch Bowl’s design aesthetic. “We’re celebrating the 1950s’ golden era of flight,” says Thompson. “Think about those old Pan Am ads you see from the ’50s and ’60s—that was a lot of our inspiration for what we’re doing.” At the entrance is a hostess station made from an old trunk. A stair railing with mid-century modern, geometric laser cutouts of airplanes.
The Stapleton Punch Bowl Social is the first Punch Bowl to have an expansive outdoor space with games, a beer garden and unique lounging spaces. That includes a tongue-in-cheek, 18-inch-deep astro-turf-filled swimming pool with lounge chairs where guests can linger and, says Thompson, dip their toes “in the water that’s not there.”
The Stapleton location’s menu is the same as the Broadway location, which changes seasonally and is sourced from many Colorado vendors to support local business and reduce the company’s carbon footprint. At the helm of the culinary program is Hugh Acheson, a James Beard award-winning, Top Chef judge, cookbook author and restaurateur. Thompson says their histories and experiences make for an ironic pairing. “I’m from Mississippi originally but I like the modern stuff—I like what the South is becoming more than I like its history,” says Thompson. “Hugh is a Canadian who moved to Georgia and sort of adopted the South so he and I work really well together because we create these menu concepts that are some combination of what my view of what the South is becoming and his Canadian interpretation of what he thought the South was. It’s really fun.”
The concept of combining punch served in vintage punch bowls with southern-inspired cuisine and an entertainment venue came naturally to Thompson who opened a similar concept 20 years ago. Then, as a 25-year-old, he wrote a business plan, raised $2.2 million and opened a 22,000-square-foot upscale pool hall and restaurant. “For me, it started with being young enough back then that I was not risk-averse,” says Thompson. “I’ve always had a willingness to take some educated risks.” With the Punch Bowl Social concept, Thompson took a restaurateur’s perspective and applied it to the entertainment side of the business. “That’s what I saw was missing out there, and I had the background to accomplish it with Punch Bowl. I took those disciplines I used in the past and applied them to the restaurant space, understanding that the current generation of millennials really wants an experience.”
Thompson thinks the demographics for the Stapleton Punch Bowl Social won’t be all that different from the Broadway location. He thinks weekend brunches and early dinners are going to be extremely popular with families. Bowling, and other games, inside and out, will appeal to multiple generations. Private karaoke rooms will likely be popular during the day for tween and teen parties, but will be taken over by adults later at night. Because of the type of liquor license they have, after 10 pm, guests under age 21 are not allowed at Punch Bowl. Stapleton residents told Thompson they wanted a place where the whole family could go but that they also wanted a place they could go late at night.
“I think the profile of the location is going to act exactly like the local community wants it to—we can’t control that—they decide how to activate us.”
Thompson keeps his finger on the pulse of things from the company’s corporate offices on the third floor. Previously, the office was in Glendale but it helped justify the expense of the Stapleton renovation to get multiple uses out of the building. The shorter commute to work from his Park Hill home is an added perk for Thompson.
When asked if he’d do the whole Punch Bowl Social project again if he knew then what he knows now, Thompson says, “100 percent! We’d do it again, absolutely.”