When Ernie's Bar & Pizza closed at 2915 West 44th Avenue in June 2018 to repair hail damage to the roof, the neighborhood lost a gathering spot for food and drinks with family and friends, but folks weren't worried, because they assumed the place would soon reopen. But the months wore on and no signs of construction emerged — and then the name Earnest Hall became public, and panic began to spread on social media.
Was a beloved neighborhood pizzeria, named after Ernest Capillupo, who had run the place as a bar decades earlier, about to be replaced by some trendy new food hall? Would pizza ever return? What would become of the old-school Italian ambience that customers of 3 Sons Italian Restaurant, which moved in after the original Ernie's closed in the mid-1980s, recalled so fondly?
Yes, Ernie's is gone, and with it the classic vertical sign that graced the south side of the building. The place will reopen as Earnest Hall on Tuesday, February 25, but the changes aren't as scary as you might imagine.
First, the restaurant didn't change hands; it's still being run by owner City Street Investors, the group that originally opened Ernie's Bar & Pizza in 2009 (after 3 Sons moved to Arvada and it bought the building). And the restaurant operations are in the capable hands of chef Sterling Robinson, who has lived in Denver since he was a kid and landed his first restaurant jobs in this part of northwest Denver when he was still a teenager. The chef is also in charge of Billy's Inn, North County and Officers Club, and most recently oversaw the opening of La Loteria Taqueria on Broadway. The common thread through all of these eateries is that they're City Street properties, run by Joe Vostrejs, Pat McHenry and Rod Wagner.
"We got hit with hail and knew we had to shut it down, but then Joe and Rod got a serious offer on the building, so we had to wait for that to play out," Robinson explains. The sale never happened (the owners ultimately nixed selling it to a developer who wanted to build an apartment complex), but it put the renovation plans several months behind schedule.
The other things that haven't changed (much) are the pizza and the bar. The bar itself is exactly the same as it was back in 2009, with a long row of more than thirty tap handles and enough shelf space to allow for a revamped cocktail menu. But the ceiling above it has been stripped back to the original joists and rafters that arc over the entire open dining room, originally an auto dealership showroom before Capillupo turned it into an etery in 1943.
The pizza recipe is mostly the same (with just a hint more spice and seasoning added to the original New York-style recipe created by chef Sean Kelly, who now runs his own SK Provisions), although the production method is a little different. Robinson points out that two new Hot Rocks stone ovens (which convey pizzas on a system of moving granite slabs, and cost $35,000 each) will speed up production, cutting down on wait times and making pick-up and delivery more efficient. But old favorites are back, including the Pineapple Express, an Ernie's bestseller topped with pineapple, jalapeño, bacon and onion.
The biggest differences, then, are the name, the wide-open layout and the new coffee bar where the Skee-Ball machines once stood. Robinson says that the name and dining room configuration are interlinked, since the restaurant now comes across as more of a beer hall (or "birreria," as the outdoor sign boasts) than a series of segmented dining spaces. "Really, this building functions almost as a park or a public space," he notes. "And we chose 'Earnest' as an homage to Ernie, but also because of the idea of being true to the neighborhood."
The new incarnation is a hall in the sense that it's wide open and filled with rows of communal tables, though there are still cushy booths in one corner and smaller tables in the newer east wing of the building. It's also somewhat of a micro food hall, since you'll be able to show up at 6 a.m. for coffee drinks (made with Conscious Coffee beans), pastries and grab-and-go breakfast items such as burritos and sandwiches. And all the tables and lounge areas are wired with USB connections, so you can plug in and work, if that's your style.
Beyond pizza, there's Rhode Island-style calamari (fried and finished with sautéed tomatoes and peppers), meatballs in red sauce, chicken parmesan with fettuccine Alfredo, a classic Caesar salad made with real anchovies, and fried ravioli as big as drink coasters. At the bar, cocktails run from trendy Negronis to retro Harvey Wallbangers to a Dark & Stormy punched up with housemade ginger beer, which general manager Brian Mantz says is a signature drink.
"We understand the memories shared here," Robinson states. "But this is no longer just an Italian neighborhood. There are still lots of blue-collar people, but there are also young, affluent families with kids."
Earnest Hall hopes to appeal to everyone in the neighborhood, whether you're stopping in for a happy-hour slice (the only time the pizza will be sold by the slice), settling in for coffee and co-working, or bringing in the whole gang for a celebration (Robinson promises you won't need to push tables together to accommodate big groups). The Ernie's sign is gone (it's been donated to a sign museum), and the new name feels perhaps a little too modern for an old neighborhood. But nobody's going to hold it against you if you still call Earnest Hall Ernie's — or even if you order your pizza with pineapple.
Earnest Hall's coffee counter will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, with the full menu available for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Call 303-955-5580 or visit the restaurant's website for more details.