Justin Cucci, perhaps more than any chef-restaurateur in this city, is full of surprises. Who would have thought, for example, that the New York native whose prominent rise to fame in Denver was the result of two citified restaurants in the hip Highland 'hood, would ever consider opening a restaurant -- in this case, Root Down -- at Denver International Airport, an airport that until quite recently was smack-dab in the middle of nowhere? Hell, even Cucci is surprised. "When I was asked to open a Root Down at DIA, I thought it was a terrible idea," he says. But the more he thought about the potential of being on a national stage, the more he was swayed toward the unthinkable. "After contemplating it, I thought it was an amazing idea -- that this was the new frontier and that people deserve to get great food in a cool setting at an airport."
And on Monday, following a romp of test brunches, lunches and dinners, he'll open Root Down on Concourse C at DIA, which, to its credit, has recently unleashed a swell of chef-driven restaurants, including Elway's and Udi's, much to the delight of sojourners who are welcoming the onslaught of choices that go way beyond the pre-made slop that airports are infamously renowned for.
"Generally speaking, who's excited about eating in a restaurant at the airport?" deadpans Cucci, whose Highland restaurants, Linger and the original Root Down, are smash successes. "We're going to change that perception," he insists, and that's a declaration that has a very real chance to become a reality. In fact, the space, in and of itself, should be on one of those top ten lists that every tourist must visit.
But that should come as no surprise, given that Cucci, whose crazy-creative brain is wired with genius atoms, came up with the idea to position a food truck and an RV on the rooftop of Linger. I mean, who does that? Justin Cucci, that's who.
And God only knows where he dreamed up the design scheme for the DIA Root Down, but it's a showstopper. "It embodies the same philosophies as Root Down," says Cucci, "but this space was was inspired by travel to fit within its surroundings." That translates into behind-the-bar vintage suitcases stocked with wine bottles; more vintage suitcases packed with necessities -- toys, shoes and even condoms, depending on the reason for your travels -- that lurk beneath the glass-topped bar; scrapyard airplane flaps; airplane gauges attached to pillars that will soon showcase moss; a chandelier created from 100 hollowed out globes; an entire wall devoted to miniature silver airplanes; and, of course, a floor-to-ceiling view to the runway, which services Southwest Airlines.
But while the decor is heavy on aviation details, the overall conception is still very much steeped in Root Down ideology. There's a wall, for instance...that's alive -- not with exploding suitcases but with plants, herbs and botanicals: anthemis, rockcress, stonecrop sedum, bluestar creeper, wire vine, Dutch clover, sweet potato vine, sweet woodruff, scotch moss, creeping thyme...the list goes on. The lids of recycled tin cans -- thousands of them collected from the Highland Root Down (which also has a wall devoted to lids), Linger, Project Angelheart, Frank Bonanno and Hops & Pie -- surround the foliage. And the menu, which will be executed by exec chef Shoni Jones, the former exec sous chef of Linger, is essentially the same as the original, although 25 percent of it is new -- a requirement of DIA -- including the addition of more burgers, tacos, salads and vegetarian dishes.
Still, the flight to get Root Down open has had its challenges, says Cucci. "To get the things done that we needed to get done to open has definitely been a heartache," he admits. "It takes a patient village to raise an unwieldy child like this, but I deep-throat the chaos and the stress, and I'm fucking psyched to open and engage people."
Root Down will open, beginning Monday, at 6 a.m. and will stay open nightly until 10 p.m. And in addition to the bar, dining room and lounge areas (by the way, there are plenty of outlets to plug in your electronics), the space will also have a grab-and-go counter with an abbreviated menu.
I was privy to a sneak peek of the space earlier this week. Behold the photos on the following pages.
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