For some restaurants, it is enough to pass another year.
The Colorado Springs restaurant makes it a point to celebrate its anniversary every year. Sometimes it calls for toast or special dishes.
It always calls for a new paint job.
It’s been a tradition since the beginning, in 2001, when Alexius Weston opened the eclectic little place in a former grocery store at Cascade Avenue and East Rio Grande Street. She filled Shuga with original, local artwork, including some of her own pieces, and with a crew of people who happened to be artists of some sort.
Artwork, from exterior murals to decorative details like origami cranes, has become just as important an ingredient at Shuga as what’s on the menu. So it made sense to celebrate having aged a year with art.
The paintings have been done by a range of artists over the years, most of them from Lindsay Hand. When she started serving as a bartender at Shuga in the early 2000s, the walls of her workplace served as the budding artist’s first exposure. Since then, she has exhibited her oil paintings in galleries, museums and cultural centers across the country.
Even when her career took off, she still made time for Shuga.
Past paintings have featured a cuckoo clock, a fortune teller, and a girl riding a crane holding two bottles of champagne. On each of them, you will see a number incorporated as a nod to this anniversary. You will find most of the paintings, each of which measures 24 inches by 48 inches, still hanging.
Kevin Dexter, who started working at Shuga in 2008 and is its new owner from 2020, says each room is inspired in some way by the specific and methodically maintained aesthetic of the place.
It’s a mix of moods: whimsical, bohemian, handmade and a bit vintage. Some items are too sacred to change, such as origami cranes and the presence of fresh flowers. These are just as iconic as the restaurant’s famous spicy Brazilian coconut soup.
Shuga’s is also always full of bold surprises. When restaurants added outdoor dining options in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shuga’s stood out by setting up a massive teepee in its backyard for dining.
It’s the kind of touches that made Brett Andrus a loyal Shuga fan. The artist rarely takes commissions, but said “yes” to the opportunity to create a recent birthday painting for his favorite hangout.
“I’ve been going since day one,” Andrus said.
He means that. He stopped by Shuga on the first day they opened in 2001. At the time, he had just returned here from New York and immediately loved the “little gem”.
“It’s not like anywhere else,” Andrus said. “And that’s why it’s become a staple in this community.”
To mark the 20-year milestone required special paint, he said.
For inspiration, Andrus turned to Shuga’s face: it’s a simple and well-known logo featuring a fully covered face except for a pair of black eyes.
Dexter said he had long wanted to see the mysterious figure transform into something more.
“It’s an iconic Shuga piece,” he said. “I always thought she should be on a poster as a real human being.”
This is what Andrus did in a painting unveiled in December.
“This year we have come together to bring life and body to our iconic Shuga spy, who for 20 years has existed only, mysteriously of course, as a graphic shoulder logo,” reads Facebook revealing the ‘attach.
“We see her here from head to toe, masked by the protective wings of her striking flock of cranes under a shower of twenty tulips, her favorite flower. So now that she has legs, where do you think they’ll take her?
The new poster was a hit. Since the snagging, customers have requested prints or T-shirts emblazoned with the image.
“I’m obsessed with it,” Dexter said.
Andrus said he was happy with how it went. And he feels honored to be part of the tradition.
“There’s no other restaurant in town that does anything like this,” he said. “Nothing screams ‘cool place’ more than an annual custom paint job.”
Comments like this remind Dexter of a kind of motto at Shuga: details matter. Visitors to Shuga notice more and more details every year.
“I think (the birthday paintings) add a lot more than I thought they would,” he said. “I thought it was just something we did for ourselves. I learn that he is bigger than us.