When people find out what I do for a living, they get nervous about inviting me over for dinner. I do my best to reassure them; after all, it's not like I'm going to take notes and send out a critique of their chicken. If they still don't believe me, I tell them about the time I served tater tots. To company. On Easter. That always does the trick: It's proof-positive that I'm a real person, a busy mom who doesn't always (read: almost never) have time to spend hours in the kitchen, and doesn't judge home-kitchen efforts when what really counts is friendship and hospitality.
See also: A closer look at Vesper Lounge
There's a backstory to that Easter meal, but what's important here is that I love tater tots — the frozen kind that come in the red bag and take about twenty minutes in a hot oven. Until recently, though, I'd never found them all that appealing in restaurants, either because they're usually served lukewarm, too oily or not crispy enough. But not long ago at brunch, I found myself popping every tot at the table. And in a dive bar, at that.
Actually, a former dive bar. At this time last year, five-time James Beard semifinalist Frank Bonanno took over the bar space right between his flagship Mizuna and Bones when the previous tenant, the Lancer Lounge, was seized for non-payment of taxes; he quickly reopened it as Vesper Lounge. Some people weren't happy about the change, especially since it came at a time when Denver was losing many of its old dive bars. But although Bonanno and his wife and creative director, Jacqueline, ripped out the old carpeting to reveal hardwood and tile floors, added a coat of paint and installed red-and-gold booths with a Moroccan feel, the place still feels like a dive bar. And I like that, for much the same reason that I liked those cayenne-and-chile-powder-spiked spuds: Vesper offers comfort with a twist.
Unlike Bonanno's other bar, Green Russell, and many other craft-cocktail hot spots that have popped up in the past few years, Vesper isn't a scene. There's no fuss over housemade bitters, no two-hour waits, no specially chipped ice. There are, however, reasonably priced drinks, including a terrific Dark & Stormy with housemade ginger beer, and cocktails on tap (my vote: the Old-Fashioned) all designed by beverage director Adam Hodak. On one visit, the friend I was with immediately turned and said, "This place reminds me of Cheers" — which is the same image Bonanno used when describing what he and Jacqueline were going for. Vesper is a neighborhood bar, with three TVs (not big-screen) for game-watching, trivia night on Tuesday, and lots of laughter. Sure, the quality well spirits — Skyy vodka, Tanqueray gin, etc. — help to shake off the day's tension and spark a smile, but you get the sense that when people come here, they're focused on enjoying each other's company, not on what they're eating or drinking.
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Not that the food and drinks are forgettable, the way so many bar orders of wings and burgers and fries are. How could you forget a bar that shaves lamb for its best-selling Colorado lamb pita, dehydrates and then deep-fries chickpeas as bar nuts, and makes such a nice, citrus-laced tzatziki that a person two tables down exclaimed, "This tzatziki is so good, I could eat it with everything." I agreed, and enjoyed the yogurt-based sauce not only on the lamb pita, chicken kebabs and lamb burger stacked with gyros and feta that it came with, but also as a condiment for thin, straight-out-the-fryer fries tossed with baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend heavy on cumin, cinnamon and paprika. The blend is pervasive at Vesper, so if you're not a big fan of its taste, talk to your server as you go through the limited menu. Ours were helpful guides, friendly without overstaying their welcome, as capable of explaining the spices in that baharat as the Lillet Blanc and grains of paradise in the signature Vesper, a lemony gin-and-vodka libation once ordered by James Bond.
Helmed by executive chef Ryan "Nascarr" Higgins, a former sous-chef at Bones, Vesper features a food menu designed — as all of the Bonanno restaurants' menus initially are — by Bonanno himself. That explains why even straightforward Middle Eastern fare has a chef's twist, with hummus light on tahini but strong on lemon and baharat, and baba ganoush accented with dark sesame oil and sprinkled with two kinds of sesame seeds. That's also why the pillowy pita, which come warm from a stint on the griddle with any of the six dips, are unusually good. Bonanno, who admits he can get a little "ingredient neurotic," has used this particular brand (Greca, for you curious types) at home for years, and decided to build Vesper's Middle Eastern food concept around it.
Sometimes the twist goes too far, as with the orange-scented tabouleh, which was made with couscous rather than bulgur and basil rather than mint, and the soggy, meatball-sized falafel. I'd been looking forward to the fattoush, a classic Middle Eastern salad made with toasted pita that supposedly came with the pita sandwiches, but it turned out to be just cucumbers, onions and tomatoes tucked inside. For the most part, though, the food at Vesper does what it's supposed to do: soak up alcohol. And it does so quite well, whether you've ordered those housemade tots or eggs Benedict with mint-specked hollandaise, a fun sidekick to the shaved lamb standing in for ham.
Despite what you'd expect from a Bonanno establishment — and what fans of the old Lancer feared — Vesper isn't a destination the way Green Russell is. It's not a place for birthdays or clever cocktails or where you'd want to take out-of-town friends. But it isn't trying to be, and that's part of the charm. And you just might find yourself having such a good time here that you're late for your reservation at the Bonanno restaurant next door.