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No, no...Jason, you gotta listen. This place, it's going to be great! We've got a chef coming in from Suriname. I don't even know where that is, and the guy doesn't speak a word of English, but he makes this yak-butter soup you won't believe!"
1301 S. Pearl St.
Denver, CO 80210
Region: South Denver
Bruscetta: $8, $11
Crab cakes: $9
Chicken salad sandwich: $8
BBQ ribs: $9
Veal and artichoke farfalle: $13
Salmon fillet: $15
I get calls like that a lot.
"Okay, the menu? Yeah, it's French-Asian, but...;"
But you read the menu description, then pay by the syllable.
But we strangle our own ducks at your table.
But all the sushi is made from poison blowfish liver.
But the chef was deported from Hong Kong for shanking a restaurant critic with a pineapple skewer and was smuggled into the country hidden in a case of microgreens, then spent two weeks in a cargo container on the Port Authority docks in New Jersey, living on baby frisée and a single bottle of Perrier-Jouet he had hidden in his chef coat, before he hitchhiked to Denver carrying only his knives and an antique stock pot that's been passed down through ten generations of his family that he uses to make deer-penis cassoulet from a recipe so secret that we've already had to kill one busboy who accidentally saw him working on it.
Restaurants sometimes seem to delight in making themselves deliberately complicated and difficult to like. They employ staff with all the charm of chain-gang con bosses; make you wait; make you pronounce words like kielbasa, bergoo and galangal in front of your friends; and have menus that read like multicultural SAT tests, requiring knowledge of several foreign languages, esoteric dining traditions and a comprehensive geographic understanding of the various culinary baronies of medieval Europe. So isn't it great when you find a place that makes itself easy to love?
For me, Hanson's Grill & Tavern is one of those places. One of the easy ones. A restaurant I can't help but like.
Hanson's interior, with its dark wood, rough brick, hardwood floors and exposed pipes painted café au lait, made a strong impression during my inaugural visit a year ago. I liked the booths -- deep and comfortable, cozy and widely spaced, seats covered in black leatherette, tables set with heavy silver wrapped in white cloth napkins. Even when Hanson's was in short pants, the entire space had a lived-in vibe, from the bar in the front to the warm-weather patio out back to the second-floor lounge with its couches, boy-toy video games and crooked pool table. For many years this building was home to the Margarita Bay Club and, for many years before that, the legendary Oak Alley Inn, but its newest occupant wears every inch of its inherited character well. This is a place rubbed smooth by age, with no sharp corners. Hanson's feels like a restaurant -- not an art gallery, not a movie set, not a fashion show.
More than that, it's got a boozy crowd of regulars who always seem to be shouting at something on the TV above the bar -- the Broncos, the Avs, C-Span, The Simpsons, doesn't matter -- and a warren of dining rooms that are quieter but still buzz with good energy. No matter who you are or when you stumble in, Hanson's feels like it's filled with your neighbors, good and bad. People you know but haven't met yet.
The service is friendly and competent, not overbearing, not excessively solicitous. The chalkboard menus are full of specials and neighborhood happy-hour deals: four-buck burgers on one day, half-price steaks on another, two-for-one beers from four till seven. Even free beer, if you happen to put away an odd number when the happy-hour twofer is on. Since I keep forgetting to bring in the wooden chips Hanson's hands out -- good for one on the house -- I have the metaphysical equivalent of a free sixer stacked on my desk. It gives me a sense of security, like money in the bank or a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Hanson's offers other pleasant surprises: live music on occasion, boxes of Trivial Pursuit Genus Edition cards always on the table by the bar. But the best surprise, by far, is the kitchen. Hanson's has a good team in back -- a good crew that's put together a good menu and, more important, a careful menu, well-balanced and just ambitious enough. The menu reflects a professionalism, an unspoken understanding of this kitchen's place in the hierarchy of cuisine, and it doesn't overstep those bounds.
So the kitchen serves simple food done well in tiny, tiny ways -- but ways that matter. An order of bruschetta brings fresh buffalo mozzarella and whole cloves of roasted garlic on bias-cut slices of baguette, toasted, then moistened with mild olive oil, all on a bed of field greens. Right there, it's a classic. But Hanson's takes this appetizer one step further by adding a cold, sun-dried-tomato and caper relish -- the tommies soft from steeping in oil, briny with the capers' bitter sting and deeply flavored with garlic because the roasted cloves had been left to marinate in the relish. Allowing agreeable flavors to mingle that way is a nice trick; even better, it's smart. A cook has to know a lot of other things before a gimmick like this occurs to him: how the acidity of the capers will affect the cloves, how the earthy musk of the cloves will bend to the sweetness of the sun-dried tomatoes, how the tommies will absorb the oil and bloom. Get a handle on the little things, and everything else falls into place.
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