CAÑON CITY • Pete Santilli is not one to embrace change. He uses the same personal phone number as his late father, also Pete, once did.
How long has the number been in the family?
“Ah, since 1956,” Pete says with a laugh.
He’s standing in The Owl Cigar Store on Cañon City’s lively Main Street. Let’s get this straight first. It’s called a cigar store, but it’s not a cigar store. That was long ago. It’s now a straight-ahead, economical, friendly diner.
Best of all, it’s a destination where little changes, just the way Pete likes it. The sprawling dining room of the Owl has looked the same for decades, and you get the feeling it will have changed little when 2039, or 2059, arrives.
Santilli, Class of 1968 at Cañon City High, stands at the end of an old, long bar. It’s lunchtime, and The Owl is buzzing, with nearly every seat taken. Santilli has just said hello to a friend from grade school.
He’s been standing at The Owl his entire life. The Santilli family purchased the turn-of-the-century building in 1943 for $1,300. (The framed check used for the purchase is on the diner’s wall.) Today, Pete and cousin Rocky Mitchell are its co-owners.
“It was beautiful,” Pete says of the old days. “It’s always been great.”
Before Pete and Rocky bought the business in 1989, The Owl featured a vastly different atmosphere. Sales were 75% alcohol and 25% food. Men spent days and nights exuberantly shooting pool, and women were seldom seen. Before 1965, women were almost never seen in The Owl.
“You have no idea,” Santilli says, laughing. “Used to be fishing, hunting guys, old guys drinking beer, smoking, going crazy.”
“You ever see that movie ‘Goodfellas?’”
I have seen Martin Scorcese’s frightening look at Mafia tough guys who hung out in New York bars, where they went ultracrazy.
“It was like that.”
Those old, rowdy days are hard to imagine on this new day. The Owl is packed with a wide variety of Cañon City residents, with an emphasis on women and children.
The menu is basic. Burgers, fries, milkshakes and malts, made with two hefty scoops of ice cream. You could try, but it would be difficult to spend $10 on a meal. You still can purchase a tall, cold beer at The Owl, but most diners prefer the shakes. This is a family destination, through and through.
Rocky smiles, too, as he examines the diner, which has been a part of his entire life.
“There are no secrets,” he says. “There’s nothing exotic. A piece of meat and a bun, but it brings a lot of people a lot of joy, means a lot to a lot of people. This is a place where you will see someone you know.”
Well, maybe not if you arrive in Cañon City from out of town, but don’t let that stop you.
Here’s my strong suggestion: Next time you’re hungry and find yourself in Colorado’s ultimate prison town, drive past the Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Sonic on U.S. 50, take a turn on Seventh Street and park in one of the plentiful free spots in front of The Owl.
Relax in one of the booths, look at the photos of men with big fish and a scowling Goose Gossage at Yankee Stadium and a long line of Santillis.
Then, to top off the experience, savor a burger, fries and shake at an utterly authentic landmark that remains beautifully stuck in the past.