JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
An old jukebox sits just inside the entrance to Virginia’s Steakhouse. Mounted deer heads hang on the walls, and photos show the restaurant from the 1970s looking much the same as it does now.
The restaurant has been a staple at Vallecito Lake for more than decades, but closed its doors about a year ago after being tossed from one owner to another.
Now, an Aztec man who owns property and has summered in the area for decades, is looking to revive the classic restaurant with a heavy serving of western charm and stick-to-your-ribs fare such as baked beans, prime rib and blueberry bread pudding.
“I couldn’t stand for it to be closed,” said Gordon Rasmussen, who bought the restaurant in April. “I want to put it back the way it was when the original Virginia had it – a quality old-fashioned steakhouse.”
But reviving the Vallecito Lake mainstay has presented its fair share of challenges, and while the Virginia’s sign provides welcome name recognition, it has created big shoes to fill.
“For many years, (Virginia’s) was very popular, one of the most popular places for dancing and eating,” said Ermalee Atkinson who has owned the Pine River Lodge at the lake’s edge since 1960.
“They’ve lost their reputation,” she said. “They have to do something to get business back.”
Rasmussen, who formerly owned a masonry business and did catering on the side, is well aware of the restaurant’s bumpy past.
Virginia Jackson bought the establishment in 1978 and made it the most popular restaurant in town, several locals said.
“She ran a good ship up here for a long time,” said Jerry McCoy, a real estate agent who has lived in the area since the 1980s.
Jackson sold the restaurant to her son in 1993, and a few years later, it began a downward slide. Steve Dudley, Jackson’s son, lost the restaurant to foreclosure in 2008, and after it went through two other owners, Rasmussen bought the building.
He opened the restaurant for business last week and hosted a grand opening on Friday and Saturday.
But getting the restaurant operating again wasn’t as easy as brushing away a few cobwebs.
The staff members spent weeks cleaning the kitchen while Rasmussen dealt with major plumbing repairs and brought the gas service up to code. Many of the current staff members who worked at the restaurant before it closed came back when they heard Rasmussen was reopening it.
Both owner and staff have high hopes for the new Virginia’s.
“It was the steakhouse of the area for many, many years,” Rasmussen said. “I want to restore it to its former grandeur.”
In the process, he will have to win over local hotel and lodge owners who have been turned off from the restaurant in recent years, Atkinson said. In a tourist town, the only way to guarantee a steady stream of tourist traffic is making sure locals recommend the restaurant, she said.
Other restaurants have taken Virginia’s place as a local favorite during the last few years, she said.
Successfully reopening Virginia’s would have an impact on more than just the local food scene.
When it comes to downtown revitalization and developing resort base areas, restaurants are “vitally important” in terms of creating a “viable economic mix,” said Gary Suiter, interim planning director for La Plata County. Rasmussen’s new restaurant did not go under review by the county because it was not a change of use of the property.
With the right combination of food, beverage and entertainment offerings, restaurants can contribute to a vibrant nightlife in a community, Suiter said. Restaurants also attract people to an area, which attracts more eyes and feet to surrounding retailers, he said.
In Virginia’s, locals are simply hoping to see a restaurant that once again fills a niche for quality food at reasonable prices, McCoy said.
“It’s so important up here to have a working, operating Virginia’s Restaurant,” he said. “I don’t see anything like it right now.”