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Up our alley: For many years, the Oak Alley Inn (1301 South Pearl Street) was the watering hole of choice for residents of the West Washington Park/Platte Park neighborhoods, blue-collar strongholds in the days before the word "yuppie" was invented -- and, obviously, long before that particular species overwhelmed the area. During this golden era, the Oak attracted an eclectic mix of University of Denver students, Gates Rubber Company workers and the odd coke dealer, all drawn by the cheap beer, cheaper ambience and really cheap companionship.
Until closing -- and sometimes beyond -- denizens of the Oak would hold forth in those old wooden booths with butt-sprung seats, breathing in the hazy, bad air and letting the good times roll.
In the '80s, the mighty Oak toppled to the Margarita Bay Company, a sibling of the marvelous Morrison Inn(301 Bear Creek Avenue, Morrison) that never really lived up to that noble lineage. The new owners sanitized the space into dullness and made mediocre Mexican food in a kitchen where Benny Armas had once cooked up really good Mexican grub (more on this later).
But a new day's dawning at the corner of Pearl and Louisiana, with Hanson's Grill and Tavernnow scheduled to open on June 26. And while owners Herb Lee and Lorry Hansonhave plenty of experience at helping people party hearty (they founded Pitchers Sports Restaurants), Hanson's will be more in keeping with what residents of this neighborhood want now.
"It's about the food here," says chef Jackson Loos, formerly of Panzano Restaurant (1717 Champa Street) and Cafe Louie(825 Walnut Street, Boulder), among other spots. "I really want to wow the people with our impression of freshness, the presentation of plates, with everything made from scratch." But Hanson's doesn't want to wow people with the final check, so prices seem pretty comparable to those at the nearby Pearl Street Grill (1477 South Pearl Street), another neighborhood institution.
Meanwhile, any vestige of the Margarita Bay Club has disappeared, with a brand-new kitchen installed and the rest of the building updated, too. "In the downstairs, all the hardwood floors are redone, with a dark, cherry-stained bar, cherry-wood paneling and leather booths put in to give it a warm kind of feeling," Loos says. The upstairs has been reconfigured as a lounge, lined by new windows and boasting a couple of TVs, chess and checkers games and steel-tipped European darts. "It will be a neat place to hang out," Loos says.
And eat, of course. Food will be available thirteen hours a day, starting with a lunch that begins at 11 a.m. and features everything from the ten-ounce king burger to a yellowfin-tuna-steak sandwich. Dinner will be served until ten every evening, with "price-point appetizers so cheap I can't even believe it," Loos confesses. Fresh fish will be a mainstay, as will the hand-cut, grilled New York strip loin. A late-night menu should keep the kitchen jumping until midnight.
As proof that some of that convivial Oak Alley spirit still haunts the place, Loos promises a good happy hour -- "two for one, you call it." And Hanson's offers one other amenity that's sorely needed in this area: plenty of free parking.
The Hanson's deal was brokered by Shawn Sanborn, a restaurant expert who's watched the industry change considerably since 9/11 -- when the bar market turned "red hot" and interest in bigger, higher-priced restaurants decidedly did not. "It's a weird market right now," he says. "Two things are hot: smaller operations, and also bars and liquor stores. Bars because a) people want to control their own destiny after layoffs; b) they're a recession-proof industry; and c) owning a bar is something they've always wanted to do."
Of course, Lee and Hanson have already owned their own bars -- starting with the first Pitchers at 1670 South Chambers in Aurora, then expanding with two more Pitchers, as well as the Parker Station Grill, the largest restaurant in Parker. Lee and Hanson later sold their stores to Breckenridge Brewery, joining that company for a while. But then they decided to strike out on their own again, taking back the original Pitchers in Aurora and opening Hanson's.
"This building has a lot of history," Lee says of their latest venture.
And a lot of history still to come.
Bar none: Owning his own place was certainly something the aforementioned Benny Armas wanted to do. And after he left the Oak Alley, he did a stint in the kitchen of the Lancer Lounge (233 East Seventh Avenue) before he opened Benny's, a tiny Mexican place at 225 East Seventh. Fans of Armas's hot, sweet green chile and succulent sirloin burritos kept the joint jumping, and after expanding into the next-door storefront, Armas finally moved a block away to 301 East Seventh, the old home of Chef Henri, where his Benny's Restaurante & Cantinacontinues to draw the crowds day and night. (Benny's original spot is now occupied by Mizuna.)
Armas has tried additional ventures over the years -- including a northwest outpost, burrito stands and a Glendale nightclub -- but Benny's is still a mainstay. And to accommodate those food fans who've been with him since the Oak Alley days and now bring in their families, Armas recently cordoned off the smoking area by the bar, adding glass dividers to help clear the air.