Inside the Denver nightlife impresario's singular world.
I’m a newcomer to this country. I have only been here for 40 years. I always felt that I had to jump a little higher, which is OK.
This little greek guy is going to kill me. We’re dashing through The Church, his best-known nightclub, and I’m desperately trying to keep up. I’ve been hanging with Regas Christou, the club’s owner, since 6:30 p.m., when we drank the first of several bottles of wine at a dinner party at his house. Now it’s midnight, and I’m ready to conk out, while Christou—who, at 58, is old enough to be my father—is still going strong.
I keep losing sight of him in the crowd of jacked-up dudes hyper-focused on their Red-Bull-and-vodkas and their barely clad female companions. Christou is maybe 5 feet 8 inches, maybe a buck fifty, but instead of rolling through the club with an owner-worthy posse, he’s doing a solo speed-walking loop. If the dudes only knew that the little man responsible for their weekend enjoyment was right behind them, trying to get by, they would step aside. The Church, after all, was ranked the best club in the United States in 2003 and 2004, topping venues in hot spots like Las Vegas, New York, and Miami. Instead, Christou darts through his venue looking like a skinny freshman dodging upperclassmen to beat the bell.
The last few hours have been a whirlwind tour of the Christou empire. We’ve already hit the Living Room, his quiet wine bar, and City Hall, which was holding a fund-raiser for the burn center at the University of Colorado Hospital. Bar Standard is closed tonight, but shortly, we’ll be headed to Vinyl, a four-story megaclub owned by his sister Maria that’s hosted parties for everyone from Magic Johnson during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend to Rosario Dawson during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
This is Christou’s weekend routine. After he reads his two young sons, Nicos and Roman, a bedtime story and gives a goodnight kiss to Melissa, he heads out to survey his empire. At every club, we check in on each floor, knifing between the sweaty, dancing hordes to make sure everything is going smoothly. We talk to a bartender here, a manager there, and we eventually find ourselves on the rooftop patio of The Church. Ah. Deep breath. It actually smells like fresh air up here, not just Axe body spray, and the views of a lit-up Capitol Hill and downtown are striking. When Christou opened his first club here in 1992, central Denver was essentially one giant flophouse for the city’s homeless. Today, condo complexes have gone in, the Denver Art Museum has added a new wing, and there’s even an overhaul of Civic Center in the works. When we pulled up to 11th and Broadway a few hours earlier, Christou pointed to the Arby’s across the street. A parking attendant was waving people into the lot; with all the cultural diversions and nightclubs, parking can be as difficult to find here as it is downtown. “Fifteen dollars to park!” Christou shouted. “Can you believe that? Five years ago, it was too scary to park.”
It’s a neighborhood that has mostly transitioned from dangerous eyesore to urban destination. And whether the police, the public, or City Hall like it or not, it’s a neighborhood Regas Christou helped make.
Have you seen Slumdog Millionaire? That’s my life. I’m going to write a book about it someday.
The cyprus of christou’s youth tiptoed along the ragged edge between the Cold War East and West. He was the fifth of six children—four boys, two girls—born in 1952 to a woodworker father, Stavros, and a homemaking mother, Eleni. The family was relatively poor, a condition made worse when his father died of cancer in 1955. After the loss, Eleni maintained a stubborn pride in the success of her children. “I might only have had one pair of clothes,” Christou says. “But my mother made sure that they were the cleanest in my class.”
The small Mediterranean island finally received its independence in 1960, after more than 80 years under the thumb of the British. As with many former protectorates, independence revealed long-standing animosities. Pro-American Greeks (capitalists), pro-Russian Greeks (communists), and ethnic Turks were at each other's throats. Christou started getting into what he calls a “little trouble,” which includes the time he and his friends lit the car of a suspected communist on fire. They eluded authorities but were nabbed by his mother after she caught a whiff of gasoline on him. Soon afterward, she sent him to Danbury, Connecticut, to live with his aunt, uncle, and three cousins.
Connecticut in the 1960s was a rigid new world for Christou, and adapting was difficult. He didn’t speak the language. He missed his mother and siblings. And he didn’t get along with his aunt and uncle. On Christmas Eve, 1973, he got into a tense argument with his uncle about Cyprus, which was in the midst of a turf battle between Greece and Turkey.
The argument got so heated that Christou’s aunt threw her nephew out of the house. He hopped on a train, intending to head to New York, but he ended up in Newark because of a language miscommunication. He returned home the next morning, and passive aggression ensued, with the family trying to, as he says, “break” his famous stubbornness. They moved Christou into the basement and wouldn’t set a place for him at the table. Instead of fighting back, Christou says, he got a job at a gas station, worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and went to school during the day. He says he slept little and lived on Chips Ahoy cookies for six months. “I wouldn’t tell them I was hungry, because it would have been like begging,” he says, smiling. “Now you see where my stubbornness comes from.”
Christou was attending Western Connecticut State University, where he played soccer, kicked for the football team, and earned a degree in political science in 1975. Around this time, he says he played professional soccer for the Boston Astros and tried out as a field-goal kicker for three NFL teams. After leaving Connecticut, he says he worked as an intern at the United Nations and received a master’s degree in international relations at Long Island University. In 1978, he moved to Denver because he says he once saw a picture of Colorado and liked the way the mountains looked. He says that he pursued a Ph.D. in international relations at the University of Denver from 1979 to 1982 but didn’t finish his doctorate.
While at DU, Christou started picking up busboy shifts at the Olympic Flame, an eatery owned by Pete Contos, the Greek god of Denver restaurants. He went from busboy to waiter to bartender to manager, and by the early ’80s, he was eager to Be Like Pete and start his own restaurant. In 1982, Christou, his sister Eva, and her husband Jimmy pooled $12,000 and opened up the Regas Mediterranean Café on Colorado and Evans.
Even with Christou’s ambitious vision, running a restaurant turned out to be tougher than they thought, and after 10 years of razor-thin margins, they converted the Café into the Deadbeat Club in 1992. Named after the popular B-52’s song, the Deadbeat played alternative and rock music and became a rollicking DU bar. Bars, Christou quickly discovered, were easy: Play music, charge for booze, and let people dance. What happened after that was out of his control.
There were no people here; everyone was in the suburbs.
Inside the church, above the nave, is a stunning, 10-foot-tall stained glass window. Jesus, depicted in century-old stained glass, looks down every night upon the teeming crowds dancing and ordering drinks at bars that were built from converted pews. The Son of God is preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The meek will inherit the Earth, the mourning will be comforted, and the poor in spirit will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. Across the bottom of Christou’s window is a passage from the Book of Matthew: “Blessed are they which hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”
Jesus’ sermon instructs pacifism: If you put up with this world’s abuses, you shall be rewarded. Christou, though, left behind his Greek Orthodox upbringing a long time ago. He’s never learned to turn the other cheek, to take abuse. He’s more of an Old Testament kind of guy: An eye for an eye.
When Christou bought The Church in 1994, Capitol Hill was still run-down, like much of downtown Denver. The middle and upper classes fled the once-thriving neighborhood in the ’70s and ’80s, single-family mansions were converted into multi-unit apartment buildings, and Civic Center Park surrendered to the homeless population and drug dealers. The neighborhood was so downtrodden that Christou was able to buy the century-old building—formerly St. Mark’s Episcopal Church—for $275,000. The stunning limestone edifice hadn’t been used for several years, and there was talk of it being demolished. Instead, it would become the crown jewel of his growing empire. A dozen years after opening the Regas Mediterranean Café—now the Deadbeat Club—he also owned 1082 Broadway, another enormous nightclub in Capitol Hill. Like John Hickenlooper, who had begun revitalizing a run-down LoDo when he started the Wynkoop Brewing Company in 1988, Christou was planting the seeds for a vibrant nightlife district in central Denver.
Converting a century-old holy building into a modern nightclub took two years. Christou and his brother, Chris, removed and gave away the organ and retrofitted the church with a heating and air-conditioning unit. They built a wooden bar on the altar from discarded pews and added more bars beneath the arches of the side aisles. They kept the cathedral’s stained glass, including the window depicting the Sermon on the Mount. In October 1996, they ran out of money to finish construction, so they settled on an ingenious, if tenuous plan: They’d host a New Year’s Eve party—charging $50 to $100—to finance the rest of the work.
The tickets went quickly, but two days before the party, the construction crew was putting the finishing touches on the building when a worker set his torch down on the roof. When the fire department arrived to extinguish the blaze, their hoses flooded the basement. Christou sat on the sidewalk across the street, wondering if he was watching his nightclub wash away. “It was one of the hardest moments in my life,” Christou says. “But people saw it on TV and brought wet vacs down. We had 80 people in the church, mopping floors and cleaning the walls. And that was one of the highest moments in my life.”
The cleanup crew finished just hours before the sold-out New Year’s Eve party was about to start, while delivery trucks drove around, killing time, waiting for the club to pass its inspections so they could deliver their booze. Beth McCann, then director of the city’s department of excise and licenses, hung around to make sure Christou got his liquor license, going above and beyond to ensure that the young entrepreneur would be able to open on time. The party was a hit, until a police officer visited Christou in the downstairs cigar bar and issued a warning: Central Denver isn’t like southeast Denver, where your other clubs are, the officer said. Be careful.
Christou should have seen it coming. Nine months earlier, a man named Jeffrey Truax and his friends had gotten into a fight outside of another Christou club, 1082 Broadway. Truax got into his car and allegedly backed it into Andrew Clarry, an off-duty police officer who had been working security at 1082. Clarry, along with Kenneth Chavez—another officer working security that night—fired 25 bullets into Truax’s vehicle, killing him and injuring a passenger. Denver district attorney Bill Ritter eventually ruled that the use of force was justified, but Truax’s family sued the city and the officers in civil court.
In 1998, two years after the shooting, Christou testified against Chavez and Clarry, saying that the deadly force was unnecessary. In November of that year, the court found that the men had deprived Truax of his constitutional rights and ordered the city to pay $500,000 to the Truax estate. Christou remains unrepentant about his testimony. “They shot the kid 26 times from 12 feet away,” Christou says today. “I thought in the 20th century, you don’t shoot people 26 times from 12 feet away. If you shot a dog like that, you’d be in jail.”
They always accuse me of pushing the envelope, whatever the fuck that is. If black people didn’t push the envelope, they’d still be sitting in the back of the bus.
This past April 19, several dozen people file into the airy lobby at the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building. The space is aspirational and bright, with clouds pinwheeling above the four-story atrium. It instills a sense that city government can get things done—at least, until a hearing of the Excise and Licenses Department starts.
Christou had signed an agreement for the Living Room, a wine bar at 11th and Broadway, with several neighborhood groups. It said he could have a patio on the east side of the bar, facing Broadway, and if he wanted to open another patio, he needed the neighborhood groups’ approval. Instead, Christou built the patio first and then requested a modification to his liquor license, without asking the neighborhood groups.
And so, we’re here today for the license hearing. Most of the crowd is seated on Christou’s side, making it look like a lopsided wedding where he brought all the friends. His attorney, Adam Stapen, and Margie Valdez, the representative for the indignant neighborhood groups, spend two hours grilling witnesses before Christou finally takes the stand.
Valdez: “Did the original floor plan have both patios?”
Christou: “I don’t remember. I have so many floor plans, hearings, legal fees, I don’t remember, Margie.” He goes on to acknowledge that he asked neither the neighborhood groups nor the city before he enlarged the patio.
Valdez: “Did they cite you [for the violation]?”
Christou: “I don’t think so. I thought that reasonable people would not object to a patio in an alley.”
The problem isn’t really the patio. The Living Room is a wine bar, the least-rowdy property Christou owns. One Friday last summer, a jazz band of DU students played quietly on the small stage next to a white baby grand piano worthy of Elton John. The crowd talked easily over the low-key music. When Christou and I walked onto the patio, I didn’t see any residential buildings that might be bothered by the noise, just parking lots. The neighborhood groups are fighting the patio because Christou didn’t ask permission—and because they dislike every other business that Christou owns. Vinyl, The Church, and Bar Standard can host up to 4,000 customers, total, on a good Saturday night. When the bars empty, Christou’s patrons—some of them intoxicated—can get rambunctious and occasionally violent.
Revoking someone’s liquor license, though, is far more difficult than preventing them from expanding one to include a patio, which is why the neighborhood groups are challenging him on this apparent non-issue. To Christou, it’s further evidence that Valdez and her neighborhood groups don’t want younger, minority-heavy crowds to have fun. “We all live in America, but those who come from other countries have to work twice as hard and jump twice as high,” he said at the hearing. “The problem is part of the bigger picture. It’s obvious if my name was Jack Jones and I had blond hair and blue eyes, there wouldn’t be this problem.”
The neighborhood groups shouted, “No! That’s not true!” But Christou had gotten his shot in. After the meeting dragged on for more than three hours, the city sided with the neighborhood groups. The permit was denied; for now, no customers will be able to use the already-built patio. Christou has remained silent on the patio’s future, but he hasn’t taken it out, either.
How do you think you could fight with the police for 20 years and still be in business? If you’re clean! I’m legal! I’m clean!
Not surprisingly, the police department wasn’t too happy with Christou after the Truax testimony. He says that the police were already on his back, dating back to another incident: In the early 1990s, he says, his security team threw an intoxicated man out of the Deadbeat Club. On the way out the door, the man told Christou that he was a close relative of future police chief Tom Sanchez, and that he would “shut my ass down.” In August 1997, liquor enforcement investigators from the Colorado Department of Revenue showed up at the Deadbeat and told him that the Deadbeat’s hotel and restaurant license required that 25 percent of the bar’s revenues come from food sales. The Deadbeat was below that—somewhere around 24 percent, depending on who you ask. The revenue department shut down the bar for 18 days, prompting a scathing column from Christou’s friend Bill Husted at the Denver Post, about how few bars met the standard: “It’s an antiquated law that should be struck from the books—or ignored the way it is in every bar in LoDo. Get offa [sic] Christou’s back or get on the back of every club owner in town.”
Five months after the Truax court ruling, then-police captain Gerald Whitman sent a memo to Sanchez, which told the chief that off-duty officers would be prohibited from working at any clubs owned by the Christou family. Christou hired private security, and for almost a decade, his clubs avoided any headline-grabbing violence.
Then came New Year’s Eve 2007. The Nuggets’ Kenyon Martin threw a birthday party for himself at the Christou-owned Shelter, and several Broncos players, including Brandon Marshall and Darrent Williams, were among the guests. At some point during the evening, the group exchanged words with several men who turned out to be local members of the Crips street gang. At 2 a.m., eight blocks away from the club, an SUV pulled alongside the stretch Hummer carrying Williams and several others and sprayed it with bullets. The 24-year-old Williams was shot in the neck and pronounced dead at the hospital. In the months that followed, the police flailed, unable to find a suspect, let alone arrest one. With no one to blame for the tragedy, the focus—of the media, and of public opinion—began to zero in on Regas Christou.
There’s a concerted effort to ruin me.
Christou’s paranoia runs deep. In 2009, he opened City Hall, an open-air amphitheater at 11th and Broadway, hoping to lure bands—and an older, more affluent crowd—interested in a more intimate outdoor concert experience than Red Rocks. Almost immediately, he ran into trouble. Neighborhood groups were concerned about the noise from an outdoor venue, and according to Christou, the city got involved. “A person from city government told me that if I didn’t give my liquor license back to the city, they would put me out of business,” he tells me. “It was a very big guy.” When I ask him for a name, he refuses, saying only, “He is in the mayor’s inner circle.” During a later interview, he surrendered the person’s initials, and finally his name: David Fine, the city attorney.
This past summer, when the city requested permits to allow another company to show evening movies in Civic Center Park, Christou was incensed. “The city is bending over backward for amplified movies at Civic Center, but they haven’t been waiting for four years like me,” he argues in his apples-to-oranges logic. (Movies don’t exactly create the same noise levels as live bands.) “Why are they doing it? Because the city is going to make $100,000 more in taxes? We pay more than that in taxes: We have 250 employees!"
He sees the same double standard when the media attacks his clubs. Four days after the Darrent Williams shooting, the Post published a story titled “SoCo Illuminated: Shooting casts harsh light on area’s controversial club scene,” quoting neighbors critical of Christou. “How do you blame me for the Bronco guy when he goes into Standard and gets into an argument and then gets killed two hours later?” he wonders. “The same thing happens in Larimer Square and nothing was written. Know how big that story was?” He takes my notebook and folds a piece of paper into the size of a business card. “It was this big.”
After the Williams shooting, police chief Gerald Whitman explained the security ban to the Post. “[Christou] lost the right to hire any police,” he said. “It’s not a right. It’s probably a matter of the violence in the clubs.” Naturally, Christou has a different take. “If the police were [working security] at Standard, I’m not sure if Darrent Williams would be dead,” he says. “But because they were not there, he is dead.”
Last July, after the Arby’s parking lot shooting, police spokesman Sonny Jackson told the Post that, “There had been an incident in the nightclub—we know someone had a gun in there.” Christou denies this. “I have the tape,” he says. “I could prove that what the police said wasn’t correct. The real truth is that the guy never came out of the club with the gun.” I ask to see the tape. Christou refuses. “Go to them and ask them to prove what they say,” he says. “I don’t want you to say that you have a video. I want them to tell you the truth.”
Denver district attorney Mitch Morrissey actually confirmed Christou’s argument in a July report, which clarifies that the shooter got the gun from his car. However, Morrissey also laid into Christou, intimating that his nightclubs are a menace: “Club Vinyl, 1082 Broadway, and the surrounding area continue to consume police resources responding to criminal conduct inside and outside the establishment. This is presenting a significant recurring threat to both officers and citizens.”
“Their job is to serve and protect, not harass and intimidate,” Christou counters, pointing to the recent, controversial videotape that showed a Denver police officer beating a man in LoDo. (City safety manager Ron Perea resigned after the video went public.) “It’s nothing new. It’s just the invention of cell phones and cameras,” Christou says. “The police shot an 11-year-old boy with special needs! They used a ladder to climb up to an apartment and shot an old man in his bed! And nobody goes to jail. And none of you reporters ever pursued the story! They shot a kid 26 times and people who did it faced no consequences.” Christou won’t quite call it an organized conspiracy—rather, it’s just that everyone is out to get him, for their own reasons. And he’s the only one willing to tell it like it is. “There are always two sides of the story,” he says. “The police department side and the truth.”
I haven’t found a clear exit yet, but I’m searching for it.
Christou, you might notice, runs his mouth. Josh Hanfling, a well-connected Denver entrepreneur, defends his good friend while also admitting his shortcomings. “He’s a good businessman,” Hanfling says. “But is he controversial? Yeah. One time before a liquor license hearing, I called him up every day for two weeks, and just said, ‘Shut the fuck up’ and then hung up. He tends to speak his mind, and it pisses people off.” Others have tried to muzzle Christou, futilely. Before Christou testified about the Truax shooting, his brother Chris warned him: “I told him not to do it,” Chris says. “It would do no good.”
Even though Christou’s rags-to-riches story can stand on its own, he still feels compelled to embellish the truth, as with the provenance of the soccer picture or his college degrees. He changes dates and drops dollar amounts that rise or fall, depending upon whether he’s trying to highlight the reach of his success or the humbleness of his roots. He makes claims against the police; some check out, some don’t. In the end, he sounds like a politician exaggerating his service in Vietnam or padding his resume, hoping no one will take the time to verify his claims. Maybe he’s afraid that including the boring bits might deflate his self-created legend. After all, even Vito Corleone might downplay getting fired from his grocery-store job and pump up the account of how he and Clemenza took over the neighborhood. Yet despite his not-always-verifiable riffs, Christou still has the audacity to tell me, “Everything I’m telling you, you can double-check, triple-check. If you ever catch me lying, call me a fucking asshole.”
Despite all his double talk, Regas is charming and smart. He started a business from nothing that now employs somewhere between 150 and 250 people. He built the number-one nightclub in the country—in Denver. He picked a different area of town than John Hickenlooper did, and he opened a nightclub instead of a brewery, but he did essentially the same thing as our much-loved governor-elect. The main difference is the customers. Hickenlooper’s Wynkoop brew pub attracts mostly middle- and upper-class whites who drink craft beer and shoot pool. Christou’s nightclubs tend to draw a younger, less wealthy, and more racially diverse group that sometimes includes gang members and gang wannabes. But how accountable can any club owner be for the behavior of his customers after they leave?
If the city’s objective is safety, it’s in everyone’s best interest to let police work security at any clubs that are legal and licensed. “Regas’ staff has talked to me about off-duty officers, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” says Jeanne Robb, a Denver city councilwoman who represents part of Capitol Hill. “I never fully understood the reasoning, but I think it’s because the chief of police thinks his officers aren’t totally safe. Would people be safer with officers there? Yes. But with the liability from the Truax shooting, it’s a tricky business.”
If Christou’s clubs are that dangerous, then by all means, shut them down. But if Christou is running a legal business, then why can the police—who may harbor their own grudges—boycott his nightclubs? Young men are going to act stupidly, drunkenly, and violently. It’s happened all over town, in good neighborhoods and bad. The difference is that the owners of the Cherry Creek and Larimer Square bars, and their public relations teams, know when to keep quiet and when to push back. For all his purported education, Christou has never learned to speak out without being defensive—or offensive.
There are signs that he’s starting to chill out. “The city doesn’t know him,” says his partner, Melissa, who’s been with him for nine years. “A lot of what happened has been misrepresented, that he is this scary person who always fights. If they knew him, it would be different.” Every night in their tasteful Observatory Park home, Christou reads his boys bedtime stories. After staying out late at his clubs, he wakes up at 6 a.m. to help get his kids ready for school. And while he still grouses about the Living Room’s rebuffed patio, he hasn’t filed any more appeals with the city. He hasn’t received a late-night music license for his City Hall amphitheater, but he’s talking about turning it into a beer garden, something Denver sorely lacks. His brother Chris might retire soon, and Christou is talking about what he’ll do next. Earlier this year, Christou sold the space that once held Fat Daddy’s—a diner he ran on 11th Avenue, around the corner from Vinyl—to some younger Mexican guys who opened up Zocalo Restaurant & Bar. On his club loops, Christou stops in to banter, immigrant to immigrant, bootstrapper to bootstrapper. “It’d be ideal to have someone buy the business,” he says of his future plans. “I’d just keep The Church.”
Christou even seems to understand that maybe he needs to learn, as Hanfling put it, to shut the fuck up. “I suppose in retrospect that I would have been a better businessman if I had bowed down to other people,” he says. “It’s a character flaw. When I see something wrong, I have to say something. I’m stubborn. I got it from my mother.” m
Patrick Doyle is a senior editor of 5280. E-mail him at email@example.com.