First Look: Vital Root Sprouts on Tennyson Street

Vital Root is now open in the space that once held a Mountain Man Nut & Fruit outpost.EXPAND
Vital Root is now open in the space that once held a Mountain Man Nut & Fruit outpost.
Danielle Lirette

When chef/restaurateur Justin Cucci opened Root Down in 2008, guests were wowed by reclaimed gymnasium floors, a room divider festooned with old telephones, and remnants from the building's previous incarnation as an auto mechanic's garage cleverly given a second life. That year was the beginning of the Great Recession, though, and so upcycling, reusing and cutting costs on design seemed the thing to do. But over the years, as the chef added Linger, Root Down DIA and Ophelia's Electric Soapbox to his roster of Edible Beats restaurants, we learned that that's just what Cucci does. And his eclectic, joyous approach to restaurant design is bubbling up again at 3915 Tennyson Street, with the opening of Vital Root in what was was once a Mountain Man Nut & Fruit Co. outpost.

The idea for Vital Root took shape with the help of Desi Springer, founder of the Vital Center for Mind-Body Health, a yoga and wellness studio next door. Cucci and Springer worked together to create a menu based on Ayurvedic principles that would be both nourishing and delicious. That means you'll find dishes that are primarily plant-based, with some eggs, ghee and cheese, but no meat. "I feel better when I eat plant-based food, and this is a celebration of that," Cucci explains.

Beet "ravioli" with zucchini ribbons, peas and and radish.EXPAND
Beet "ravioli" with zucchini ribbons, peas and and radish.
Danielle Lirette

Additionally, the menu features ingredients with healthful or "superfood" status: medicinal mushrooms, turmeric, spirulina, seaweed and chia seeds, for example. But it's not Cucci's intent to be dogmatic or oppressive when it comes to food choices. "At the end of the day, it has to be delicious," he adds.

Flavors span the globe in much the same way as at the other Edible Beats restaurants; pho spring rolls, yuba noodles and avocado-and-sorrel hummus grace the appetizer list, while dashes of miso, sofrito, vindaloo and pesto perk up soups, noodle bowls, sandwiches and entrees. 

Vital Root opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast, which includes nutrient-packed smoothies and cold-pressed juices as well as more traditional quick-service options like breakfast burritos, egg sandwiches, granola with yogurt and a "no-grain" cereal made with quinoa, pumpkin seeds, almond milk, coconut and berries. Sugars are kept to a minimum and primarily come from maple syrup, honey and coconut sugar; for breakfast bowls and cereals, guests will be left to sweeten their dishes to taste. "Sugar is definitely one of the battles we're trying to fight here," Cucci notes.

Ciders, local beers, organic wine and low-alcohol cocktails made from fresh juices and house-grown herbs round out the beverage program.

Contrasting light and dark elements add focal points to the dining room.EXPAND
Contrasting light and dark elements add focal points to the dining room.
Danielle Lirette

For the decor, Cucci was inspired by the "gingerbread" style of the former Mountain Man nut shop. The rainbow-hued, scalloped shingles on the front awning were left in place, and the colors were carried through into the dining room. "I try to bring things together that have nothing in common," Cucci says. The space also reminded him of a treehouse, so he worked with his architect — Boss Architecture — to enhance that element. A third inspiration came from his collection of mid-century Bertoia chairs, the cup-shaped, wire-frame seats that add lightness and style to the space. The metal-grid pattern of the chairs continues through the dining room, with room dividers featuring panels reclaimed from a post office, and onto the front and back patios.

"I've never used a designer before, and I've been happy with the results," Cucci says. He admits to being a collector and likes to fill his restaurants with unique details, but just enough "so that it doesn't look like Sanford & Son."

A Korean breakfast bowl with cashews, crispy mushrooms, radishes and eggs.EXPAND
A Korean breakfast bowl with cashews, crispy mushrooms, radishes and eggs.
Danielle Lirette

One other feature of Vital Root combines design with the kitchen's mission: A "Vital Vitals" digital display that keeps track of the restaurant's statistics for customers to see, including monthly percentages of how local, organic and non-GMO the products brought into the kitchen are. "The transparency of food in restaurants is not happening yet," Cucci explains. "We're going to try to be incredibly transparent."

If the whole concept seems a little wild, a little overblown, a little trendy, just look to the successes of Linger, which turned a mortuary into one of Denver's top dining destinations, and Ophelia's, which celebrates downtown's sordid past in a building that once housed a brothel, peep-show arcade and adult bookstore.

Vital Root is now serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, using a fast-casual service model to deliver what the team calls "fast (slo) food." The restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 8 a.m to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Keep reading for more photos.

A rebar "tree" on the front patio will soon be covered in vines.EXPAND
A rebar "tree" on the front patio will soon be covered in vines.
Danielle Lirette
Devils on Unicorns, made with goat cheese, dates, smoked almonds and coconut "bacon."EXPAND
Devils on Unicorns, made with goat cheese, dates, smoked almonds and coconut "bacon."
Danielle Lirette
A view into the split-level space.EXPAND
A view into the split-level space.
Danielle Lirette
Devils on Unicorns are sweet and smokey bites.EXPAND
Devils on Unicorns are sweet and smokey bites.
Danielle Lirette
The front window of Vital root opens onto Tennyson Street.EXPAND
The front window of Vital root opens onto Tennyson Street.
Danielle Lirette
A crunchy kale salad.EXPAND
A crunchy kale salad.
Danielle Lirette
Fresh herbs on the back patio will be used by the kitchen.EXPAND
Fresh herbs on the back patio will be used by the kitchen.
Danielle Lirette
Chocolate pot de crème.EXPAND
Chocolate pot de crème.
Danielle Lirette
Like all the other Edible Beats projects, Vital Root is packed with reclaimed and recycled materials.EXPAND
Like all the other Edible Beats projects, Vital Root is packed with reclaimed and recycled materials.
Danielle Lirette
Looking from the order counter into the dining room.EXPAND
Looking from the order counter into the dining room.
Danielle Lirette
The beverage program comprises beer, cider, wine and low-alcohol cocktails.EXPAND
The beverage program comprises beer, cider, wine and low-alcohol cocktails.
Danielle Lirette
Vintage Bertoia chairs add to the light, hip vibe.EXPAND
Vintage Bertoia chairs add to the light, hip vibe.
Danielle Lirette
A room divider was built from cross-cut pine and panels reclaimed from a Cherry Creek post office.EXPAND
A room divider was built from cross-cut pine and panels reclaimed from a Cherry Creek post office.
Danielle Lirette
Can lids are used as table markers.EXPAND
Can lids are used as table markers.
Danielle Lirette
Light fixtures made from paint cans surround a vintage skylight.EXPAND
Light fixtures made from paint cans surround a vintage skylight.
Danielle Lirette
Behind the cash register at Vital Root.EXPAND
Behind the cash register at Vital Root.
Danielle Lirette
Contrasting light and dark elements add focal points to the dining room.EXPAND
Contrasting light and dark elements add focal points to the dining room.
Danielle Lirette
Cafeteria trays form part of the fencing surrounding the back patio.EXPAND
Cafeteria trays form part of the fencing surrounding the back patio.
Danielle Lirette
A vital root employee waters herbs on the back patio.EXPAND
A vital root employee waters herbs on the back patio.
Danielle Lirette
Young herbs grow on Vital Root's back patio.EXPAND
Young herbs grow on Vital Root's back patio.
Danielle Lirette
Berkeley neighbors enjoy lunch at Vital Root.EXPAND
Berkeley neighbors enjoy lunch at Vital Root.
Danielle Lirette
Light fixtures made from old paint cans.EXPAND
Light fixtures made from old paint cans.
Danielle Lirette
Open front windows add to the indoor-outdoor feel of the space.EXPAND
Open front windows add to the indoor-outdoor feel of the space.
Danielle Lirette
The menu is meat-free but not 100 percent vegan.EXPAND
The menu is meat-free but not 100 percent vegan.
Danielle Lirette
For non-alcoholic drinks, there are healthful juices, milks, smoothies and other beverages.EXPAND
For non-alcoholic drinks, there are healthful juices, milks, smoothies and other beverages.
Danielle Lirette
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Vital Root

3915 Tennyson St.
Denver, CO 80212

303-474-4131

www.vitalrootdenver.com


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