Linger, Ophelia's Electric Soap Box, Root Down and Root Down DIA are all operated under the umbrella of Justin Cucci's Edible Beats family of restaurants devoted to fun, sustainable food — and great happy hours. It's a supper syndicate, a culinary consortium, which sounds a little suspicious to me — a single restaurant group controlling approximately 21.6 percent of Denver's hipness quotient. Heck, the airport outpost could easily be seen as an addition to the headquarters of the New World Order that DIA has become. To discover the secret of Cucci's success, I headed to the original Root Down, where it all began on West 33rd Avenue in a converted gas station.
2008 seems like decades ago in the restaurant biz, but Cucci's vision still feels relevant. Environmentalists will praise the 75-percent reclaimed and recycled buildout, but I just dig the look; even sandwiched between confused old people and a flash-happy business outing, I felt ice-cool.
Happy hour takes place weekdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m. in the bar area only — not that anyone needs an excuse to stack up in there like so many cords of old bowling-alley wood. The happy-hour sheet has changed recently, but the prices remain mostly the same. You can select a crafted cocktail for $5 (and how I love that a Lincoln seems to be the default price for happy-hour cocktails these days), perhaps even a sloe gin Negroni. Many cocktail purists won't admit that the Negroni is fertile ground for experimentation, but this one is a well-measured start, if a touch too sweet.
Root Down is still clinging to the summer menu even as heavy clouds throttle the view beyond the patio, but the happy-hour food offerings today are a spread for all seasons. Despite the restaurant's vegan and vegetarian accommodations, there's a lot of meat to be had here: fried, on a bun, marinated in lime juice, you name it. And, as is the fashion among Denver happy hours, there's a strong Asian-fusion influence in these bites.
An order of duck wings ($5) flies from Kingston to Delhi, slathered in jerk seasoning and served with a mango aioli and sweet pickles. Compared to a similar plate at Vesta Dipping Grill, this fowl had better breeding in its short life, and was served well in death with thick spices and crackling skin. I ended up ingesting too many bits of bone and cartilage in my effort to strip them clean.
The arepa on the menu suffers from a little culinary confusion, though: The griddled morsel itself is crispy and satisfying, but a poblano-pistachio pesto soaks it in bland — one thing here that feels so very 2008. The beet salad ($5) is the most simple dish, despite having the most components, with lovingly marinated and roasted local beets, hazelnuts and the right amount of basil vinaigrette. On this plate is the ecstasy and agony of Root Down: richly dreamy goat cheese from Broken Shovel Farm, but also more pointless pesto made with beets and sunflower seeds.
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Root Down is no longer a place of "awful juxtaposition," as Jason Sheehan called it in 2009. It's a pleasant melting pot, a place of as many wonderful sights and smells as there are funky light fixtures. The flashy new Ophelia's overtakes it in ambition and execution, but the successes of Edible Beats can't be attributed solely to the Illuminati. It's perfectly calibrated to appeal to just about everyone — and Root Down's happy hour will surely continue to satisfy.
Perfect For: We don't lack for gluten-free accommodations in this city, but almost everything on the happy-hour menu is wheat-free by design or request. Whether the consequences of cheating are a night of colonic terror or a reprimand from your trainer, there will be no judgment here.
Don't Miss: You can smell the sizzle of the Colorado lamb slider ($5) before it gets to your table. It's a lovely lump of meat turned bright red from harissa seasonings and careful cooking, topped with a best-in-class aioli and garlic mint yogurt. Not to be missed.