I just can't help it, y'all. Just when I thought I had enough of these slick, modern pizza bars after my visit to Gozo, I found myself at Bar Dough, which is floating on a wave of good buzz and steady business. BD lost out on our Best of Denver award for Best Pizza, but nabbed awards for Best Octopus and a Readers' Choice nod for Best New Neighborhood Restaurant — which gives you a good idea of this eatery's identity. Happy hour and dinner both are split between creative small plates and pizza combinations that raise an eyebrow or two, and both attract a heavy crowd that's a microcosm of LoHi visitors and neighbors.
Bar Dough is owned by Juan and Katie Padró, the team that also runs Highland Tap & Burger next door, a perennial Readers' Choice for its afternoon and late-night happy hours. Naturally, the newer restaurant has a happy hour worth talking about. Max MacKissock is the executive chef here, which explains the menu's many eccentric ingredients and Italian deep cuts — or both at the same time, like vignarola with garlic panna cotta ($15). But if you limit yourself to eating dinner from the happy-hour menu, you're cutting yourself off from Bar Dough's most interesting offerings. Don't be fooled by the full sheet you're given: Pizzas, house cocktails, wines and beers aren't discounted.
But Bar Dough pulls off some sweet happy-hour chemistry with its smattering of drinks and bites. You can get Tivoli Brewing's special Bar Dough lager for $3 or glasses of house vino for $6, but the best way to start off is with one of the house spritzes ($6) with housemade limoncello. The orange-basil variety withheld sugar in favor of healthy slaps of tartness with every sip and an herby backhand. Immediately, another mouth smackdown arrives: fried shishito peppers ($6). Some are hot, some are not, each bite a spin of the cylinder, but a couple made my eyes water. The coating of montasio cheese fondue didn't do much to alleviate the pain, but it did bring the kind of fatty balance that makes shishitos great.
And take note that Bar Dough makes the best garlic bread ($5) I've ever tried — though this is coming from a guy who worships New York brand Texas Toast. Thick slices of focaccia are browned just a little on the edges, with butter sinking through the bubbles and a pile of parsley and Parmesan nuggets crowning each bite. It's a work of simple beauty, and an indication that the kitchen has its wood-fired oven tuned just right. Yet pizza is the ultimate test, and unless you're going to try one of Bar Dough's pastas or an entree-sized plate of meat, you should be getting one. The delivery of the Mountain Man pie ($14) is a turning point — like when Tupac gets the gun in Juice. This is a mess of a pizza, packing Gorgonzola and montasio cheeses, slices of guanciale, chunks of Calabrian chile honey and pistachios on a crust barely thicker than a coaster. Sure is pretty, though. And it somehow works, with the cheese locking everything down like a fine coat of resin, the guanciale asserting itself with confidence and lard, and shiny chunks of red honey bursting with heat.
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I sat down at Bar Dough to the sight of the loathsome Eddie Murphy flop The Golden Child on the overhead TVs and the sound of Nas's "One Love" booming on the speakers, the strangest food/background-noise combo since Adrift served Spam tacos alongside Tora! Tora! Tora! I wanted to draw a comparison, maybe paint Bar Dough as confused as poor Eddie, but the work here is focused and solid, even affordable in the late-afternoon hours. It's a very fine happy hour that just might have helped this place earn that Best of Denver award.
Perfect For: Grabbing dinner with your friends who live down the street — the ones who usually decline because they can't get a sitter. Appropriate for a restaurant in Denver's equivalent of Park Slope, Bar Dough seems to be popular with kids and their parents, thanks to solid pizza, tyke-appropriate dishes like wood-roasted carrots or meatballs and some cool Italian sodas. Be warned if older guests are coming along — much of the seating is at high-top community tables, and the volume can become punishingly loud.