The "gastropub" label aside, Jonesy's EatBar is great
"Gastropub," Leigh Jones said.
"Really?" I asked. "No." So she asked why, and I told her because I hate the term "gastropub" — seriously loathed it. It reeks of pretension, of culinary gamesmanship. To me, calling your place a "gastropub" is just a way of lowering expectations and admitting that your food is going to suck right out of the gate. It smacks of a certain kind of fatigued desperation. It means don't pay any attention to the food because, you know, there's BOOZE here. When you can't think of any other way to brand your combination bar/restaurant, you call it a "gastropub." When you have no faith in your kitchen's ability to hold up its end of the whole B&R formula, you start using the term "gastropub" and serve bar snacks, little nibbles, and whatever the cooks running wild in the kitchen feel like turning out. Gastropubs are stuck on tourist blocks and get $16 for a plate of potato skins because folks are paying for the "ambience," for the completely false feeling of being in a "real neighborhood joint" when they're just walking straight into the maw of a machine custom-designed for separating rubes from their greenbacks.
Gastropub. I hate the term. And I told Jones as much when she said she was opening one in the space where she'd just closed the Dish Bistro. At the time, she hadn't settled on a name, but she was toying with the idea of calling it Jonesy's...something. Jonesy's Restaurant, maybe. Jonesy's Eat Bar.
I liked that last one, mostly because one of my favorite weird little cafes is a neighborhood joint in Little Rock, Arkansas, called Doe's Eat Place. I'd been there a couple of times for chili, for cheeseburgers and beer, when I was out wandering. It's a place that locals flock to for cold longnecks and big steaks, for Southern-style hot tamales by the dozen — a place that has good food and good booze and serves both together without stooping to calling itself a you-know-what.
"I like EatBar," I told Jones. "But please, don't call it a gastropub. Don't call it anything. Just be an EatBar, you know?"
This past June, Jones unveiled her new place right next door to the Horseshoe Lounge, which she also owns. She called it Jonesy's EatBar, which made me smile all over again, thinking of Doe's. But she also advertised it as Denver's first "gastropub," much to my chagrin.
Still, an early version of the menu looked interesting; Jones and her chef, Mike Walden, had stuck fairly close to the "global comfort food" concept that she'd done at the Dish to good effect. Jones's notion of global comfort food has always appealed to me because it comes from such a pure place inside her. She's traveled a fair bit in her time. She's had good years and bad years and, like me, has a tendency to self-medicate with food and mileage and stamps on her passport. And she truly loves food with the passion of a born cook. At the Dish, she managed to lay down the basic framework of a completely wide-open and borderless menu, all "Things Leigh Jones Loves," and it worked; it really felt like the kind of board that an overserved and travel-worn wanderer might throw together for a last-minute dinner party. But it didn't work well enough to keep the Dish alive.
Her plan for Jonesy's was to do essentially the same thing, only pare the menu down even further. So as much as I hated the idea of her calling her new place a "gastropub," I felt fairly confident that she would be able to dodge one huge pitfall that comes with such a descriptor: the unfocused and ridiculously stilted menu, full of bizarre digressions and spreads of plates that simply cannot hang together. At Jonesy's, there would be lots of snacks. Lots of share plates. A few substantive entrees for those who can't live on French fries and sliders alone. And then the booze. Lots and lots of booze.
But a few months after the opening, I started to hear rumblings that things were not going well in the kitchen at Jonesy's. In December, Jones let Walden go and brought in a new team: Matt Brown in the big-hat position (Brown had worked sous to John Broening at Brasserie Rouge, the legendary crash-and-burn failure that Jones had owned with her then-husband, Robert Thompson) and Thomas Ayala, ex of the British Bulldog and therefore very comfortable working in the booze-and-grub milieu. With this crew, Jones focused on keeping things simple and spare and fun and casual. Although she was still describing Jonesy's as a "gastropub," it had a new tagline: "Comfort food with a passport" — a pretty good way to describe a board that ran the gamut from rumaki and coconut-curry mussels to Indian samosas, Thai salads and po' boy sliders.
Stepping through the doors for the first time — into the onetime soda fountain, now brushed and polished and kitted out as a very comfortable and welcoming neighborhood bar, with white-washed tin ceilings and chandeliers — I told myself that no matter what Jonesy's calls itself or its food, a galley ought to be able to stand on its own and cook the hell out of anything on its menu. Good food is good food, period.
And, man, did this galley start off strong. Want to know the quickest way to win diners over to your side? Offer them a gigantic bowl of perfectly cooked fries drenched in a macaroni-and-cheese base béchamel and detailed with chives and chunks of bacon. Instantly, this shot to the top of my guilty-favorites list — a pure kick to the animal pleasure center, involving three of my most beloved things in the world: bacon, cheese sauce and deep-fried anything. With two Great Divide Samurai rice beers, it was a meal. For anyone else, it would've been enough.
I was just getting started.
I took a right at the Belgian-Midwestern fusion and headed South, for the subcontinent. Samosas off the apps board, showing off the Indo-Pakistani muscle on the line, then bounced back into Europe for the "French" mussels that really weren't at all: steamed in a straight white-wine beurre blanc, sure, but then jumped up with capers (weird) and pancetta, making for a kind of nouvelle Frog-Mediterranean groove. They were delicious, regardless. And the service, though a bit scattered (my table was seen to by no fewer than three servers), was charmingly so.
It took me less than 24 hours to return to Jonesy's. The bar was full — of neighbors, friends of the house who knew all the waitresses by name, grubby poets in sandals, and couples on dates feeding each other bites of rumaki — so I took a seat in the dining room, where I started off with another big-ass bowl of fries. As it turned out, I should have stopped there. Instead, I went for an old standby: the lamb, which Jones did very well at the Dish. Jonesy's menus, too, have always included lamb (including Lamby Joe sliders, a direct reference to a Dish dish); this time around, I went for the shredded lamb with green-onion gnocchi.
The lamb itself was fantastic: shoulder, slow-cooked, so tender it almost tasted fat-poached, and swimming in a broth of pan jus and soft caramelized onions. But the gnocchi were nothing but trouble: each one big as two thumbs put together, squishy and mealy and undercooked — like raw dough soaking in lamb jus. Gnocchi are difficult, because the line between perfectly cooked and completely, grossly undercooked is razor-thin, but Jonesy's gnocchi fell well short of perfect. I ate the lamb, dredged fries through the jus and just tried to hide the uneaten gnocchi like they were evidence of a terrible crime — stuffing them beneath bowls, hiding them in napkins.
I returned again on a Sunday night, when I had (wait for it...) another bowl of fries (and found out for the first time that they come in two sizes, large and small, and that I'd been eating the size meant to feed entire tables); some of Brown's blade steak, bias-cut (and overcooked viciously at the surface, nicely rare within), fanned out against a mound of butter-shot mashers with sautéed spinach; and the carbonara. That plate was an Italian diversion on a beautiful evening, and I picked through the al dente penne and runnels of egg-thickened cream sauce for bits of pancetta like a truffle-hunting pig going after mushrooms. I talked with a young couple next to me about real estate and listened to the Violent Femmes on the bar radio while pretending that I really like my brandy snifter full of Oskar Blues Ten-Fidy stout matured in a Stranahan's whiskey barrel. One of those things that no doubt sounded better on paper than it tasted in real life, it was like drinking all the leftovers of an Irish wake mixed together in one glass: bitter stout and cold, sugared coffee and whiskey and smoke like a hundred wet cigarette butts.
Still, I was having a good time, relaxing into the comfort of a place filled with the scattershot offerings of owners, cooks, chefs and bartenders coming at their vision of the place from all over the map. It was, as Jones had promised more than a year ago, the Dish made simpler, more basic, more heartfelt. It was a couple of comfy rooms filled with (mostly) good food and (mostly) good booze, loud conversation, fun and laughter, samosas and mussels and French fries covered with cheese and bacon. It was, in the final accounting, a great neighborhood bar and restaurant.
But I'm still not going to call it a gastropub. Frankly, it's just too good for that.
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