Updated: April 23, 2014 at 1:30 pm
The former Dutch Mill Tavern was the second Colorado Springs bar I visited when I flew in from upstate New York for a job interview with The Gazette in October 2012.
A Springs friend chose the destination - open since 1947 at 503 W. Colorado Ave. - because it reminded him of the "local" we used to frequent a decade ago in Yakima, Wash.
The Dutch Mill was comfortable and familiar, an is-what-it-is working class watering hole built on the core concepts of cold beer and comfort food (albeit with a Korean twist). As one Yelp contributor wrote in a 2011 review: "The Dutch Mill is a cross between a dive bar and an American diner. Clean and well kept. Several pool tables, juke box. Blue collar."
That's where Nina Lee grew up, helping her mother, tavern owner Mi Lee - first behind the scenes and then in more visible roles out front.
"I was the bus girl, cleaning and doing dishes," said Lee, who's 27. "My dad personally didn't like me being around the bar so he tried to keep me out as much as possible, but eventually I ended up bartending, pouring beers, making cocktails."
Eight years ago, Lee left town to study graphic design and business at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. She then spent four years in Hawaii, where her boyfriend, Rollie Ortiz, pursued a master's degree, before returning to the Springs with Ortiz last year. The two expected the move would be temporary, just until they decided where to settle down next, but Lee's mother had another suggestion.
"She'd been in the industry for 18 years and was either going to sell the building or she wanted to do something completely different," Lee said. "She wanted change. She wanted something fresh."
Lee and Ortiz, 34, worked up a business plan inspired by their personal wants as young tavern patrons, as well as their tenures in Hawaii and "craft beer Mecca" Fort Collins.
"Despite the fact that they don't really have disposable income, we noticed the folks we went to school with were willing to spend more money on craft beer. Given that, we wanted to be able to be known as a place that has a great selection of craft brews," Lee said.
Aside from intermittent closures for major renovations, the establishment continued pouring and serving throughout the seven-month remodel, which included the removal of interior walls and the installation of a bar and glass bay door that opens to sidewalk seating in warm weather.
The reboot did not sit will with the Dutch Mill's old guard, who had to watch as their bar was stripped down and rebranded.
"When you're 60 and you just want to drink your Bud Light and we took it off tap, you're not happy. I get it. Change is hard for everybody," Lee said. "But we had the opportunity to change things, and we did."
The new restaurant, 503 West Open Kitchen + Craft Bar, celebrated a grand opening Jan. 9 with a standing room-only crowd. Lee describes the menu as "new American with Pacific Rim infusion" and of the 55 beers on tap, in bottles and cans, about half are brewed in Colorado.
"The feedback is really great now. It's so exciting that people who live on the west side, no matter their age, they come in and have a great time and enjoy craft drinks and brews," Lee said.
To keep things fresh, taps are rotated every six weeks. Also constantly in flux is the stock of seasonal 22-ounce bombers, limited edition craft beers with rarefied price points that could signal a sea change in how we view our brews.
"Normally someone wouldn't spend $30 on a bottle of beer, but it has become a more elegant experience," Lee said. "With a bomber, it's like ordering a bottle of wine at a fine restaurant, and people seem to really like that."