Now that we've put 2020 to bed (too bad we couldn't smother it with a pillow), it's time to start thinking about brighter days ahead. Things will still be tough for the restaurant industry in 2021, since the rollout of vaccinations will be slow and large gatherings will likely be limited for at least the first half of the new year. But warmer weather and relaxed COVID restrictions should get Denver diners out of their hibernation dens and back onto patios and into restaurant dining rooms by summer. The dining rooms that have survived the pandemic, that is.
In order to survive, restaurants will still have to work hard and do plenty of rejiggering of old business models to take a post-COVID economy into account. But in the meantime, the news that dining rooms can reopen on a limited level in metro Denver got the year off to a brighter start than it might have had otherwise; maybe the annual January-to-March restaurant doldrums won't seem quite as bad this year.
Here are five other predictions for Denver's food and restaurant scene for 2021:
Street Food Will Be Huge
While many people will continue to feel apprehensive about sharing indoor space with strangers, Coloradans have proven willing to take dining outdoors. Last summer saw a proliferation of outdoor markets, pop-ups and food truck gatherings in previously untapped locations, and the trend should only increase with a sunny spring.
Last fall, newcomer Oh Golly Dumplings sprang up at multiple locations, including the Alley at the Dairy Block, Pony Up and the Way Back, and in Aurora, the Esquina Del Sabor food truck group at the corner of Chambers Road and East Colfax Avenue added a wide variety of Latin American eats. Night Market was a favorite, too, serving street food and peddling locally made products at Fort Greene in Globeville and other locations.
Look for more unique and innovative offerings at farmers' markets, bars, suburban rec centers, plazas and other public spaces in 2021. And keep an eye out for brick-and-mortar eateries cooking on their patios, adding walk-up windows and spilling out into the streets.
DIY Decor and Comfort Food Will Return
Sadly, scores of vacant restaurant spaces sit unused because so many businesses shuttered in 2020, while other empty spots from previous years' eatery closings went unclaimed. The result is a big inventory of available space for rent, and the Denver restaurant scene abhors a vacuum. As the economy improves, young and energetic chefs and restaurateurs will jump in, many of them hungry for work after months of being unemployed.
But money will be tight, so we may not see the gleaming finishes and high-end furnishings that have marked lavish openings over the past several years. Instead, look back to the Great Recession of 2009 and 2010, when entrepreneurs built their dreams from reclaimed materials, beetle-kill pine and elbow grease. And rather than indulge in flights of fancy, kitchens will turn out the foods that make us feel warm and safe but aren't necessarily easy to replicate at home.
Will that lead to more fried chicken, pizza and burritos? Probably, but creative thinkers will breathe new life into familiar foods — like Danger Zone Calzones, which converted a Broadway storefront into an homage to Top Gun. The calzone specialist opened its doors today, January 4, giving us fun and entertaining things to look forward to in its new location at 32 Broadway, while continuing to schedule appearances with the Danger Zone food truck.
International Cuisine Will Surge
Many vacant restaurant spaces are in the suburbs, where rent is cheaper and immigrant communities have settled. That's where you'll already find great food from all over the world, but more international eateries will open in 2021 as recent arrivals from Southeast Asia, Africa and China look to feed their communities while offering something new in the city.
Portico Eritrean and Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar recently opened at 1050 South Havana in Aurora, in the former home of El Jaripeo. Look for more like this in the coming months.
Side Hustles Could Turn Into Long-Term Businesses
Many chefs and other professionals in or adjacent to the restaurant industry found themselves out of work in 2020 — but rather than give up, they started their own businesses making food from cottage kitchens and commissaries. One of the first was Pandemic Donuts, which began life as a delivery-only doughnut bakery last April and is now in the process of moving in with Queen City Coffee Collective in Five Points. KREAM Kimchi started out as a project to hand-deliver free kimchi to friends of founder Virgil Dickerson and is now a going concern that has grown by leaps and bounds. Chefs Eric Chiappetta and Dave Hadley launched Minga Provisions and the Samosa Shop, respectively, and pasta-delivery companies such as Fantasioso Foods and Casa Crobu also debuted, giving folks stuck at home ready-to-cook alternatives to takeout food.
Will we find some of these products on grocery store shelves in 2021? It would be great to see more locally made food products next to national brands.
Bars Will Be Last to Recover
The State of Colorado's color-coded COVID dial doesn't leave much room for watering holes that don't serve food or haven't found a way to partner with food trucks, neighboring restaurants or other food producers. Bars with no form of food service can't open under current Level Red or Orange restrictions, and even as we slide into Yellow and Blue, they will not be able to open.
It's not until we hit Level Green (or Protect Our Neighbors, the lightest level of restrictions) that bars can reopen at 50 percent capacity. Why? "We don't want Colorado to become a mecca of nightlife in the pandemic," said Governor Jared Polis back in June. And while some of us are perfectly content sipping whiskey sodas solo in a half-empty dive bar, most drinking establishments exist for the purpose of socializing — and socializing will be one of the last milestones of a return to normal.