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"Gastropub," Leigh Jones said.
400 E. 20th Ave.
Denver, CO 80205
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Downtown Denver
"Really?" I asked. "No." So she asked why, and I told her because I hate the term "gastropub" — seriously loathed it. It reeks of pretension, of culinary gamesmanship. To me, calling your place a "gastropub" is just a way of lowering expectations and admitting that your food is going to suck right out of the gate. It smacks of a certain kind of fatigued desperation. It means don't pay any attention to the food because, you know, there's BOOZE here. When you can't think of any other way to brand your combination bar/restaurant, you call it a "gastropub." When you have no faith in your kitchen's ability to hold up its end of the whole B&R formula, you start using the term "gastropub" and serve bar snacks, little nibbles, and whatever the cooks running wild in the kitchen feel like turning out. Gastropubs are stuck on tourist blocks and get $16 for a plate of potato skins because folks are paying for the "ambience," for the completely false feeling of being in a "real neighborhood joint" when they're just walking straight into the maw of a machine custom-designed for separating rubes from their greenbacks.
Gastropub. I hate the term. And I told Jones as much when she said she was opening one in the space where she'd just closed the Dish Bistro. At the time, she hadn't settled on a name, but she was toying with the idea of calling it Jonesy's...something. Jonesy's Restaurant, maybe. Jonesy's Eat Bar.
I liked that last one, mostly because one of my favorite weird little cafes is a neighborhood joint in Little Rock, Arkansas, called Doe's Eat Place. I'd been there a couple of times for chili, for cheeseburgers and beer, when I was out wandering. It's a place that locals flock to for cold longnecks and big steaks, for Southern-style hot tamales by the dozen — a place that has good food and good booze and serves both together without stooping to calling itself a you-know-what.
"I like EatBar," I told Jones. "But please, don't call it a gastropub. Don't call it anything. Just be an EatBar, you know?"
This past June, Jones unveiled her new place right next door to the Horseshoe Lounge, which she also owns. She called it Jonesy's EatBar, which made me smile all over again, thinking of Doe's. But she also advertised it as Denver's first "gastropub," much to my chagrin.
Still, an early version of the menu looked interesting; Jones and her chef, Mike Walden, had stuck fairly close to the "global comfort food" concept that she'd done at the Dish to good effect. Jones's notion of global comfort food has always appealed to me because it comes from such a pure place inside her. She's traveled a fair bit in her time. She's had good years and bad years and, like me, has a tendency to self-medicate with food and mileage and stamps on her passport. And she truly loves food with the passion of a born cook. At the Dish, she managed to lay down the basic framework of a completely wide-open and borderless menu, all "Things Leigh Jones Loves," and it worked; it really felt like the kind of board that an overserved and travel-worn wanderer might throw together for a last-minute dinner party. But it didn't work well enough to keep the Dish alive.
Her plan for Jonesy's was to do essentially the same thing, only pare the menu down even further. So as much as I hated the idea of her calling her new place a "gastropub," I felt fairly confident that she would be able to dodge one huge pitfall that comes with such a descriptor: the unfocused and ridiculously stilted menu, full of bizarre digressions and spreads of plates that simply cannot hang together. At Jonesy's, there would be lots of snacks. Lots of share plates. A few substantive entrees for those who can't live on French fries and sliders alone. And then the booze. Lots and lots of booze.
But a few months after the opening, I started to hear rumblings that things were not going well in the kitchen at Jonesy's. In December, Jones let Walden go and brought in a new team: Matt Brown in the big-hat position (Brown had worked sous to John Broening at Brasserie Rouge, the legendary crash-and-burn failure that Jones had owned with her then-husband, Robert Thompson) and Thomas Ayala, ex of the British Bulldog and therefore very comfortable working in the booze-and-grub milieu. With this crew, Jones focused on keeping things simple and spare and fun and casual. Although she was still describing Jonesy's as a "gastropub," it had a new tagline: "Comfort food with a passport" — a pretty good way to describe a board that ran the gamut from rumaki and coconut-curry mussels to Indian samosas, Thai salads and po' boy sliders.
Stepping through the doors for the first time — into the onetime soda fountain, now brushed and polished and kitted out as a very comfortable and welcoming neighborhood bar, with white-washed tin ceilings and chandeliers — I told myself that no matter what Jonesy's calls itself or its food, a galley ought to be able to stand on its own and cook the hell out of anything on its menu. Good food is good food, period.