Hospoda, at 3763 Wynkoop Street, has a great little bar (upholstered in cowhide) that's more than capable of seeing to the hydration needs of its regulars, and in the tiny kitchen, owner Irene Lesner creates excellent green chile and potato pancakes and schnitzel. So is Hospoda a gastropub? No.
Fruition? No. Frasca? Hell, no. My Brother's Bar? No. Cherry Cricket? Well...no.
So what makes Jonesy's EatBar, reviewed this week, a gastropub? Here's how owner Leigh Jones explains it on the restaurant's website: "I began thinking about and researching new concepts, knowing that I wanted something warm and comfortable, small and manageable, with a focus on local craft beers, but still serving an exceptional list of wines by the glass with a menu of my favorite global comfort foods. About halfway through writing the business plan, I came across the term 'gastropub'...exactly my idea, all fleshed out and even defined in Wikipedia! Yay!"
An excerpt from that Wikipedia entry: "Gastropubs usually have an atmosphere which is relaxed and a focus on offering a particular cuisine prepared as well as it is in the best restaurants. Staying true to the format requires a menu that complements the assortment of beers and wines the gastropub offers." So according to Wikipedia — obviously the most trustworthy source in all of journalism — a gastropub is any four walls and a roof within which are served 1) food, well-prepared, and 2) drinks of an alcoholic variety. It is also important that there be no ascot or top-hat requirement at the door, no overt fussiness. And no jalapeño poppers, because, as Wikipedia states, the food is supposed to be better (or at least more complicated) than the average "pub grub."
By this definition (and according to some really bad math on my part), Denver's restaurant scene is made up of 94 percent gastropubs, 4 percent McDonald's and other fast-food outlets, 1.999 percent bars that serve no food at all (like the Lancer Lounge at the moment), and the Palace Arms. And it's even worse in Boulder, where fully 112 percent of the restaurants are actually gastropubs in disguise. Can this possibly be right?
No. Because there are a couple of points that Wikipedia (gasp!) fails to address. First, calling yourself a gastropub is tantamount to publicly admitting that you couldn't cobble four or five guys together into a kitchen crew and get them all motivated to cook the same thing — for example, French food (thereby becoming a brasserie), or Japanese (izakaya-style), or Italian (an osteria). When an owner uses the term "gastropub," it often means he's simply putting no restrictions on the kitchen and allowing the cooks to run wild and make all sorts of bad decisions (meaning worse decisions than cooks typically make when given even a bit of freedom — see my review of Root Down a couple weeks ago for a pretty good example), letting them just throw together what bizarre bullshit they've got knocking around in their heads or saw the night before on Good Eats.
To me, the term "gastropub" sounds like the invention of some devil-may-care marketing dick who's never eaten anywhere but the local bar and just loves to complain about the crappy food in his city. One day, this nimrod starts thinking: "Gee, I really wish there was a decent steak to be had somewhere in my town. And maybe some of those little empanada things I saw Rachael Ray make on TV last night. Some gumbo. Foie gras. A nice piece of fish wouldn't be so bad, either. Maybe with a fresh salad? Ooh, you know what would be great? If they served all that right here at my neighborhood bar!"
Bam: Motherfucking gastropub. Just another word for trying to be all things to all people — or, more accurately, everything to just one guy, the guy who never wants to go out and try anything new. Yes, I grant you that it's just a word. But it's one that really bugs me — kinda like the phrase "New American" or "foodie" or "last call." So I had to swallow hard before I went to Jonesy's EatBar, and then swallow hard again when I discovered I liked the place, even if it is Denver's first official gastropub.
And it won't be the last. On April 30, Robert Thompson opened Argyll at 2700 East Third Avenue, in the space recently vacated by the Squealing Pig. Thompson just happens to be the ex-husband of Jonesy's Leigh Jones. The two had worked together opening (and then closing) Brasserie Rouge, then went their separate ways. A few years later, Jones opens Denver's first gastropub, and then Thompson opens the second. That had to be...uncomfortable.
Last Friday I chatted with Jones about Jonesy's, about her ex, and about the gastropub fad in general. She was just back from a whirlwind tour of New York and Philadelphia, where she and her chef, Matt Brown, checked out some of those places that had started flying the gastropub flag even before Jonesy's. "You know what it was?" she asked. "It was like, there's all these other gastropubs opening. And I'll bet they've done some research. Maybe we should, too, right? Maybe we should do something more than just what Leigh thinks..."
They hit the Spotted Pig, of course. "I paid $17 for a grilled cheese sandwich at the bar," Jones told me. "And I was like, 'Well fuuuuuck me!'" In Philly, they did Standard Tap and Monk's and the Royal Tavern and Snackbar (a concept that has already moved on to L.A.). A major impetus for the trip (beyond being just an excuse for Jones to travel and eat at still more restaurants out of her own zip code) was that Brown "hadn't yet gotten it," Jones explained, adding that "he'd say things like 'Tonight we're a bar because we sold more drinks than we did food. Tomorrow maybe we're a restaurant.'" But Jones kept explaining to him that, no, Jonesy's was always both. It was both things, all the time. From the start, that's kinda what gastropub meant to her.
"Here's the funniest thing," she said of Jonesy's label. "It was stumbled upon, you know? It was going to be this concept, gastropub or no gastropub. That's why 'gastropub' isn't in our name." So it was just a happy accident that there was already a word being used to explain precisely what she wanted to do with Jonesy's — long before Jonesy's was anything more than a twinkle in her eye.
So, then, what about all these other places now coming up, proudly declaring themselves to be gastropubs from the start? More important, what about her ex, Robert Thompson, coming back to town and getting all up in her business by opening a gastropub of his own?
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"It's just a coincidence," Jones told me, artfully and politely dodging the meat of the question. "It's the hot trend right now. It's not surprising that there are other people starting to run with it." Then she laughed. "But it's not like I haven't been asked that question probably fifteen or twenty times by now."
Unlike Jonesy's, with its international comfort food and board full of French fries, sliders and samosas, Argyll is a seriously UK'd version of a gastropub, offering "Celtic oysters," English-pea salad and "Yorkshire" burgers at lunch, Scotch eggs, crisps, kebabs and hanger steaks at dinner, and a whole spread of "pub snacks" — which I thought were against the rules but look pretty goddamn tasty nonetheless. Especially the jars of pickles and the garlic-butter escargot. On the pub side, Thompson is running with twelve taps; countless import, craft and microbrew beers; and boutique wines by the glass and bottle.
Hot on Argyll's heels is Colt & Gray, a "farm-to-table" gastropub opening any minute now at 1553 Platte Street. Chef-owner Nelson Perkins has created what looks like a fantastic menu (osteria-style charcuterie and artichoke soup with watercress, terrine of foie gras, marrow bones, papillote of halibut and braised elk short ribs with neeps and tatties), paired with a serious bar (complete with more pub snacks), all overseen by a chef de cuisine — Brad Rowell — who did a year at the Spotted Pig in NYC (America's first gastropub, allegedly, and a West Village favorite backed by Mario Batali, among others). The space is beautiful (white on wood and looking for all the world like Fergus Henderson's St. John Restaurant in Smithfield, U.K.), and the menu, if properly executed, might just be enough to make me swallow every single bad word I've said about gastropubs this week.
Along with a nice pint and some roasted marrow bones, of course.