Families comprise a big part of the clientele at Four Friends Kitchen, a breakfast-and-lunch spot that opened in Stapleton this spring. That’s why the eatery hands out retro Etch A Sketches, crayons and activity books by the armful, and why banquettes are lined with jokes such as “Why was the broom late? It over-swept.” But the food here is no laughing matter: Try as you might to dismiss Four Friends as a place where other people eat — people who live in the neighborhood, say, or people with young kids — this Southern-style eatery deserves a closer look.
When you decide to give it that look, however, you might need to look hard just to find it. The restaurant and its signage face Roslyn Street, but many people approach from the back, coming from a lot that feels like overflow parking for nearby stores. The hidden side entrance makes the restaurant hard enough to find when you’re seeking it out and nearly impossible to stumble across, but that hasn’t prevented Four Friends from being discovered. Word has definitely gotten out in the four months since it opened, and waits — even mid-week, mid-morning — can stretch to forty minutes. At brunch, waits often run longer than that, and kids aren’t the only ones reaching for toys. “I was better at this when I was a kid,” chuckled a guy using an Etch A Sketch while he waited for a seat. When his group was finally called, I saw that he’d given up trying to make curvy designs: His gray-on-gray creation simply said “EAT.”
Four Friends serves breakfast and lunch during the week and brunch on weekends. (Due to popular demand, the restaurant will also stay open for small plates and cocktails on the rooftop patio only, from 4 to 10 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays throughout the summer.) All of the menus have a distinctly Southern flair, courtesy of Genefer Thornton, who founded the restaurant with her husband, Tim, and neighbors Kurt and Sarah Pletcher. “We were talking about getting together for breakfast the next day,” she recalls, “but there weren’t a lot of places to go with families.” The foursome decided to change that, drawing upon Thornton’s experience in restaurants owned by her parents and grandparents. Those eateries were in Idaho, not the South, but her grandmother was originally from Georgia, and “I was raised on Southern cooking,” explains Thornton, who left a career as a financial analyst for the Navy and Air Force to work as general manager at Four Friends. But family history isn’t the only kind of history with a presence here: Amid such contemporary touches as wood paneling and mod white chairs, the stairwell leading to the rooftop deck boasts a mural-sized black-and-white photo of a pilot by a prop plane, a nod to Stapleton’s past.
None of the recipe s come from family members, but chef Larry Shore — who worked under acclaimed chef Charles Wiley at the Boulders Resort in Arizona — capably fleshed out Thornton’s vision, and Southern touches are everywhere. Crusty-edged drop biscuits are loaded with butter and served with fresh berry compote. Cheddar biscuits form the topping of a savory cobbler loaded with chicken and house-roasted Anaheims and poblanos. Pimento cheese, a classic spread that tastes predominantly of cheddar, mayonnaise and red pimento peppers, comes atop burgers and as a dip for house-fried chips. Common Southern sides of macaroni and cheese and collard greens meet up in the craveable Down South Trio: Bacon, tomatoes and green chiles are folded into cheesy cavatappi noodles, and collards that aren’t too vinegary or too sweet accompany not ribs, but peanut-crusted chicken tenders, which taste faintly sweet, like coconut shrimp. The same chicken stars in the open-faced chicken-and-waffle sandwich, with scallion-cheddar waffles strong and savory enough to hold their own under the chicken and apple slaw that top them. Beignets make an irresistible dessert, flush with powdered sugar and dunked into crème anglaise and berry compote.
Then there are grits, of course. If you didn’t grow up on grits, as Thornton did, the thought of this white, grainy porridge might make you grimace. But these grits are nothing like the bland, instant stuff often served at diners. Sourced from Georgia, the coarse heirloom grits are cooked overnight, giving the ground hominy ample time to fluff into a dish as smooth as pudding. Butter and cream help things along, too.
But Four Friends doesn’t offer just pork- and cream-centric Southern fare; the menu also makes an effort to cater to vegetarians and vegans. Brisket-less hash is served with sweet potatoes and mushrooms. Tofu is crusted in peanuts and sided by succotash and vegan grits. Those same grits — finished with coconut milk, not cream — appear at breakfast, too, topped with fruit and candied pecans. House salads with pickled vegetables and scratch dressings — including a fine coconut-lime — are far more than token gestures. Coleslaw is made in two versions: one with apples and mayonnaise, and another with honey-citrus vinaigrette. The latter — a crisp, limey mix of jicama and cabbage — was a table favorite.
Despite the restaurant’s Southern roots, the dish that most charmed me was Southwestern in style: huevos rancheros. After one forkful, the lasagna-like stack of corn tortillas, refried beans, avocados, cheese and eggs shattered into a crispy blend of flavors that go so well together, united by a housemade ranchero sauce with the earthiness of arbol and guajillo chiles. Creamy tomato soup — made with grilled, whole tomatoes, sour cream and a bit of sugar — was also a hit, even if it didn’t come with the promised cornbread croutons.
The dishes that disappointed did so more because of failed execution than flawed design. Brisket hash was short on brisket. Bacon-studded pancakes came drenched in bourbon-pecan-praline sauce; as with the quintessential Southern confection that inspired it, one bite was divine, but two bites were too much, especially when the sauce was grainy, as it was on one occasion. Salt can be applied too generously, adversely affecting everything from collards to green-chile cobbler. Servers, sporting blue, orange and green T-shirts that match the mugs hanging on the wall, were friendly and efficient, not afraid to speed-walk to rush dishes from the kitchen to the table. But more training is in order: One server couldn’t tell us anything about the peanut-crusted tofu because she’d never had it; another assured me that the hash in front of me was made with brisket, when it was the vegetarian version. I flagged another server, who recognized the error and quickly replaced it. Another time, a vegan friend was assured that a dish was vegan when in fact it was only vegetarian.
Four Friends Kitchen isn’t a place to see and be seen. It isn’t around the corner from the Denver Art Museum or Union Station or anyplace you’re going to spend the rest of your day, unless you’re headed to your kid’s soccer game on a nearby field. The food is the draw here, and it won’t disappoint — even if you’ve come across town to find Four Friends.
Once you do find it, that is.
Four Friends Kitchen
2893 Roslyn Street
Peanut-crusted-chicken-waffle sandwich $10.50
Down South Trio $12.50
Sweet Heart Healthy
Huevos rancheros $9.50
Smoked brisket hash and eggs $10
Bacon-praline pancakes $10.50
Green-chile-chicken cobbler $12.50
Four Friends Kitchen is open 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily. Learn more at fourfriendskitchen.com.