Up our alley: For many years, the Oak Alley Inn (1301 South Pearl Street) was the watering hole of choice for residents of the West Washington Park/Platte Park neighborhoods, blue-collar strongholds in the days before the word "yuppie" was invented -- and, obviously, long before that particular species overwhelmed the area. During this golden era, the Oak attracted an eclectic mix of University of Denver students, Gates Rubber Company workers and the odd coke dealer, all drawn by the cheap beer, cheaper ambience and really cheap companionship.
Until closing -- and sometimes beyond -- denizens of the Oak would hold forth in those old wooden booths with butt-sprung seats, breathing in the hazy, bad air and letting the good times roll.
In the '80s, the mighty Oak toppled to the Margarita Bay Company, a sibling of the marvelous Morrison Inn (301 Bear Creek Avenue, Morrison) that never really lived up to that noble lineage. The new owners sanitized the space into dullness and made mediocre Mexican food in a kitchen where Benny Armas had once cooked up really good Mexican grub (more on this later).
But a new day's dawning at the corner of Pearl and Louisiana, with Hanson's Grill and Tavern now scheduled to open on June 26. And while owners Herb Lee and Lorry Hanson have plenty of experience at helping people party hearty (they founded Pitchers Sports Restaurants), Hanson's will be more in keeping with what residents of this neighborhood want now.
"It's about the food here," says chef Jackson Loos, formerly of Panzano Restaurant (1717 Champa Street) and Cafe Louie (825 Walnut Street, Boulder), among other spots. "I really want to wow the people with our impression of freshness, the presentation of plates, with everything made from scratch." But Hanson's doesn't want to wow people with the final check, so prices seem pretty comparable to those at the nearby Pearl Street Grill (1477 South Pearl Street), another neighborhood institution.
Meanwhile, any vestige of the Margarita Bay Club has disappeared, with a brand-new kitchen installed and the rest of the building updated, too. "In the downstairs, all the hardwood floors are redone, with a dark, cherry-stained bar, cherry-wood paneling and leather booths put in to give it a warm kind of feeling," Loos says. The upstairs has been reconfigured as a lounge, lined by new windows and boasting a couple of TVs, chess and checkers games and steel-tipped European darts. "It will be a neat place to hang out," Loos says.
And eat, of course. Food will be available thirteen hours a day, starting with a lunch that begins at 11 a.m. and features everything from the ten-ounce king burger to a yellowfin-tuna-steak sandwich. Dinner will be served until ten every evening, with "price-point appetizers so cheap I can't even believe it," Loos confesses. Fresh fish will be a mainstay, as will the hand-cut, grilled New York strip loin. A late-night menu should keep the kitchen jumping until midnight.
As proof that some of that convivial Oak Alley spirit still haunts the place, Loos promises a good happy hour -- "two for one, you call it." And Hanson's offers one other amenity that's sorely needed in this area: plenty of free parking.
The Hanson's deal was brokered by Shawn Sanborn, a restaurant expert who's watched the industry change considerably since 9/11 -- when the bar market turned "red hot" and interest in bigger, higher-priced restaurants decidedly did not. "It's a weird market right now," he says. "Two things are hot: smaller operations, and also bars and liquor stores. Bars because a) people want to control their own destiny after layoffs; b) they're a recession-proof industry; and c) owning a bar is something they've always wanted to do."
Of course, Lee and Hanson have already owned their own bars -- starting with the first Pitchers at 1670 South Chambers in Aurora, then expanding with two more Pitchers, as well as the Parker Station Grill, the largest restaurant in Parker. Lee and Hanson later sold their stores to Breckenridge Brewery, joining that company for a while. But then they decided to strike out on their own again, taking back the original Pitchers in Aurora and opening Hanson's.
"This building has a lot of history," Lee says of their latest venture.
And a lot of history still to come.
Bar none: Owning his own place was certainly something the aforementioned Benny Armas wanted to do. And after he left the Oak Alley, he did a stint in the kitchen of the Lancer Lounge (233 East Seventh Avenue) before he opened Benny's, a tiny Mexican place at 225 East Seventh. Fans of Armas's hot, sweet green chile and succulent sirloin burritos kept the joint jumping, and after expanding into the next-door storefront, Armas finally moved a block away to 301 East Seventh, the old home of Chef Henri, where his Benny's Restaurante & Cantina continues to draw the crowds day and night. (Benny's original spot is now occupied by Mizuna.)
Armas has tried additional ventures over the years -- including a northwest outpost, burrito stands and a Glendale nightclub -- but Benny's is still a mainstay. And to accommodate those food fans who've been with him since the Oak Alley days and now bring in their families, Armas recently cordoned off the smoking area by the bar, adding glass dividers to help clear the air.
Armas's efforts pale, however, compared with the cigarette-banning lengths taken at the newest Stuart Anderson's Black Angus (9045 Forsstrom Street, Lone Tree), the first completely smoke-free Black Angus in the state. Don't ask for that beef charred!
Cook books: The Fourth Story (2955 East First Avenue) is about to start another chapter. Chef Brian Sack disappeared last month (with an assist from the management), which means the restaurant atop the Tattered Cover is about to get its seventh chef in as many years.
Original chef Terri Rippeto, who opened the Fourth Story's kitchen to raves in March 1995, left after three months to open Potager (1109 Ogden Street); her replacement didn't work out, and his replacement, Jess Roybal, was tragically killed by lightning. Roybal was followed by noteworthy chefs David Steinmann and Chris Cina, who left with excused absences (Steinmann wanted to work with his family; Cina wanted to work in Switzerland).
General Manager Michael Smith is currently interviewing for Sack's replacement. But in the meantime, he isn't worried: Two longtime employees, Kevin Savoy and Michelle Leslie Brown, have been co-managing the kitchen and doing just fine.
"We've kept things as normal as possible, gone on with our events -- that was very important," Smith says. "We got through a week, and then we made some decisions. Kevin and Michelle were really excited about doing the events, and we've been working together to create menus that go with the wine, dinners and whatnot. They're really running the kitchen in the absence of an executive chef."
One of the events coming up features Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors, a book on farmers' markets -- and the dishes you can make from ingredients picked up there. At a dinner on Thursday, June 27 ($60 per person), Madison will show slides, sign books -- and, along with the rest of the guests, enjoy the bounty coming out of the Fourth Story kitchen. The roster that evening will feature "as much local produce as possible," Smith says, and probably take advantage of the nearby farmers' market in Cherry Creek.
Some of that fresh produce is already showing up on the Fourth Story's menu, to make it lighter for the summer. That way, "when the new chef comes, we'll let him/her come in and get comfortable," Smith says. "We won't be at that point where we need a new menu today; we need a new menu yesterday. Instead, it will make a good transition for our new chef, and we can do what we think is important -- be seasonable and be fresh." The decision on that new chef could be coming any day, Smith adds.
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Rialto Cafe (934 16th Street) now has a new executive chef in residence: Theo Roe (not Rock, as reported here last week). He's cooking off an updated menu that includes specialty drinks (see Drink of the Week, page 70).
Marczyk Fine Foods (770 East 17th Avenue) celebrates the longest day of the year and the start of the summer season with a party and picnic ($5 if you eat) from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, June 21. Owner Pete Marczyk will be grilling Niman Ranch burgers and summer vegetables; the Marczyk staff will be scooping ice cream for dessert; and the bluegrass band High Street will be playing for free in the parking lot. Denver may not be burning, but this place is hot!
And Marczyk's will add more fuel to the fire from 4 to 6 p.m. June 24 and 25, when its series of "Rush Hour Tastings" features close to a dozen hot sauces that the market stocks.
One more smokin' deal: The Gold Hill Inn marks its fortieth birthday this weekend with a Friday-night dance party, a Saturday-night dinner featuring roast suckling pig as an entree and more bluegrass music by Open Road, and a Sunday clambake with still more bluegrass music by Tall Trees Grove. For details, see www.goldhillinn.com -- and then head for the hills.