The End of an Institutional Bar

An elegy for O'Bannon's, a dingy, poorly-lit bar in Telluride

As each dark place disappears, each place where it’s OK to sit alone, where floor-length fur coats attract wary, side-eyed glances; as each of those places is replaced by a luxury blue jean store or even just a nicer, newer bar where beers cost more than $2 and credit cards are welcome, Telluride’s scuffed sheen is slowly buffed into an unrecognizable, and undesirable, aesthetic perfection. PHOTO: Stephen Elliott
As each dark place disappears, each place where it’s OK to sit alone, where floor-length fur coats attract wary, side-eyed glances; as each of those places is replaced by a luxury blue jean store or even just a nicer, newer bar where beers cost more than $2 and credit cards are welcome, Telluride’s scuffed sheen is slowly buffed into an unrecognizable, and undesirable, aesthetic perfection. PHOTO: Stephen Elliott

“This your first time at O’Bannon’s?” the bearded man asked. His name turned out to be Miguel.

“Oh no,” I said, though I can concede his skepticism was warranted. I had recently shaved and gotten my first haircut of the winter, and I was dressed in the remnants of the day at my office job.

Miguel lightened up a bit when the bartender addressed me by name, but he would have been happy to talk to anyone, local or otherwise, willing to saddle up next to him.

O’Bannon’s Irish Pub was the perfect exemplar of a genre—the ski town dive bar. Groups of wealthy tourists were laughed out of the place if they turned their noses up at the surroundings but welcomed with open arms and an overflowing pint of Rolling Rock if they didn’t seem to mind the wobbly stools or metal on the jukebox. The sagging flags that hung from the ceiling ranged from the expected—“Erin go Bragh” and “Don’t tread on me”—to the unexplainable—the European Union and a yacht club in Key West. The crooked, dusty floors and exposed, mossy stone masonry made drinking at the subterranean bar feel more like spelunking.

These past-tense descriptors are sad ones to write. O’B’s existed in the present tense until Monday. The bar was pushed out by the same thing that pushes out the unkempt places in ski towns across the continent: money.

The crooked, dusty floors and exposed, mossy stone masonry made drinking at the subterranean bar feel more like spelunking.

O’B’s did not glitter, it wasn’t neat, and they didn’t serve craft cocktails. But it did offer a place to sit alone, cheap beer, and a stunning view of Ballard Mountain’s snow-covered cliffs through its ground-level plate-glass window, if you picked the right stool.

The building’s owner wanted a nicer bar, one with right angles and sturdy floors and live music. So, basically, not O’Bannon’s. Supposedly, they didn’t look kindly on the lowlifes who frequented the bar, either, those tired people who took their seat—the same one each day—just after noon when the bar opened and left as the sun sunk below Coonskin Ridge, when the younger crowd arrived after their shifts on the hill to drink their sugary liquor and play their pop music—or God forbid, the equally and implicitly forbidden Phish—from the jukebox.

We started hearing the rumors that O’B’s would close just before the ski season began and they were more or less confirmed—through casual conversation with bartenders and more official conversation in local media—as the season continued. Eventually the closing date was slated for April 4, the day after the ski resort’s closing day.

O’Bannon’s opened in 1987, ancient history to my contemporaries, those who moved to Telluride last year or three years ago or even five to work in ski shops and restaurants. To them, O’Bannon’s has always been here. To those who’ve been around longer, it may not seem that way, but the bar still occupies an important place in this changing town, which has always clung to side-by-side comparisons with Vail or Aspen as a marker of its down-to-earth-edness. (Think: “Vail sucks” bumper stickers and a constant, near-obsessive claim that “at least we’re not Aspen.”)

But as each dark place disappears, each place where it’s OK to sit alone, where floor-length fur coats attract wary, side-eyed glances; as each of those places is replaced by a luxury blue jean store or even just a nicer, newer bar where beers cost more than $2 and credit cards are welcome, Telluride’s scuffed sheen is slowly buffed into an unrecognizable, and undesirable, aesthetic perfection.

On Monday the regulars headed to O’Bannon’s at their usual times to wish the bar a final goodbye. Even those who rarely stepped foot in O’B’s stopped in for a beer, like mourners at a wake for someone they didn’t much like but damn sure respected.

As the liquor’s haze descended, whispers of a reprieve circulated. Had O’Bannon’s found a new location? Maybe—maybe they would open in another bar across town. At least some people thought so.

But it wouldn’t be the same. The smell would be different, the rotting floorboards, too. The beer wouldn’t taste the same and the view of Ballard would be gone.

Even if O’Bannon’s can open in a new space, it’s going to be a long off-season without the only bar that stays open 365 days a year, the hole in the ground a respite from the cold or heat or crowds for many the anti-social boozers and darkness-loving degenerates.