Charlie Palmer wants to know how the weather is in Denver. "Is it raining? Snowing?" he asks. "No, it's beautiful," I tell him. "That's one of the reasons why I like Denver so much," says the New York-based chef and restaurateur, whose portfolio of restaurants, which spans the country, includes big names like Aureole, Charlie Palmer Steak, briscola, Astra and Dry Creek Kitchen. And come November, he'll expand his repertoire when he opens two new restaurants in Denver, in the former Big Game space at 1631 Wazee Street.
"The food scene in Denver is really burgeoning, and there's a lot of really neat, interesting restaurants there, which is a good sign in any city, plus I just really like Denver -- we don't go to places that we don't like," quips Palmer, adding that he's spent the past several years searching for the opportune space in which to open. "We've looked in Denver in the past, but either it wasn't the right location, the right situation or the right opportunity, but this space is great, and I love the idea of being in LoDo -- of being in a vibrant redeveloped neighborhood."
Big Game, a media and sports lounge that New York restaurateurs Zach and Jeffrey Chodorow opened last year -- and closed two months ago -- is more than 9,000 square feet, giving Palmer the opportunity to make the most of the plot, which he'll turn into two separate restaurants: District Meats and Wazee Wood-Fired Pizza. "We looked at the spaces separately," says Palmer. District Meats, he notes, will occupy the main dining room and have its own entrance on the street, and Wazee Wood-Fired Pizza, which is taking over the former Big Game bar area, will also have its own entrance, separate from the dining room.
District Meats, explains Palmer, will "emphasize off-cuts -- pork, lamb, beef, veal, you name it," and while those of you who still have an affinity for filet mignon won't be deprived, Palmer, thankfully, isn't focusing on prime cuts. Instead, he says, the menu will hustle inexpensive, underutilized (but flavor-bombed) cuts of meat like shanks, tendon and blade chops. "I call it connected cooking," says Palmer, who defines that as the "relationship with the people that grow our food and the people who eat our food." It's a Palmer philosophy that doesn't end there: "We want to focus totally on the plate and on our guests without any outside interference."
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Entrees, says Palmer, will run between $18 and $29, a price point that he insists is affordable. "There will always be occasions for high-end dining, but that clientele is limited, and people are looking for places where they can dine regularly, and that's the kind of restaurant that we want to be," he explains, adding that the menu will also include small plates, burgers and sandwiches. His exec chef, Jeff Russell, a six-year veteran of the Charlie Palmer empire who's currently at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, D.C., is relocating to Denver next week. "He's super-talented," promises Palmer.
As for Wazee Wood-Fired Pizza, which will sling whole pies and pizza by the slice, Palmer says we can expect New York-style pizza "made with high-quality ingredients, Caputo '00' flour, fresh herbs, San Marzano tomatoes and housemade mozzarella." The open kitchen, which will pimp a high-class pizza oven, will also turn out hot sandwiches and salumi. "We've stripped the space down to the brick, added old tractor seats, and we're lining the shelves with the products we're using," he says.
Palmer's timeline is to have both restaurants up and running before Thanksgiving. "It all depends on the powers-that-be, but the plan is to open District Meats first for dinner, then the pizzeria, and then we'll add lunch service to District Meats," he says. "I'm spending a lot of time in Denver right now, and I'll continue to do so until we get it right."