I can trace most of my life back through memories of food — probably because I tend to mark most occasions, good or bad, with a meal. Last year, before restaurants shut down but after my daughter found out that her senior-year trip to Europe had officially been canceled, we got angry at COVID together over pasta and garlic bread at The Saucy Noodle. When indoor dining came to a halt a week later, I drove to La Fogata for a Mexican hamburger to go and ate it in the park near my first apartment in Denver while I wondered what the hell this all meant for an industry I love and that I’ve worked in for over eight years through my writing and marketing career.
And last week, when I found out I’d landed the role as Westword’s new food editor, I slid into a booth at Sam’s No. 3 in Glendale to celebrate over chili cheese fries with the largest group — six people — I’ve dined with in over a year.
All three of those restaurants managed to pivot their way through COVID (though many others didn’t fare so well), and now that the mask mandate has been lifted and occupancy is back to 100 percent in Denver, things largely appear to be going back to normal. But dining out shouldn’t be the same as before.
As my predecessor, Mark Antonation, wrote in his farewell, “The food isn't the entire story; the people who make the food and run the restaurants are equally, if not more, important.” Those people have spent the past year navigating ever-changing restrictions and rules with the goal of doing what they’ve always done: providing us the experiences that memories are built around.
Now that diners are filling seats again, new challenges are arising. Conversations have turned from disinfectant and masks to a trio of related issues: staffing shortages, an overdue overhaul of compensation structure, and addressing the toxic elements of restaurant culture (none of these are new conversations, just the most urgent at the moment). Then throw in supply-chain issues leading to increased food costs. And oh, yeah, back to masks again because now restaurants have to decide on their own whether they feel ready to face the public (literally) full-on again.
It’s a lot, especially when, ideally, dining out should feel like an escape. When the dishes were piling up at home during peak quarantine, we all longed for a meal out where all we had to do was order, eat and leave. But dining out should also come with a side of acknowledgment and appreciation for the challenges of the past year and what we nearly lost — and a more critical eye toward what Denver’s culinary scene is going to become in this post-COVID era of restaurant revival.
As new spots open, I find myself wondering not just about what’s on the menu and how it tastes, but how it contributes to defining Denver’s food culture. This city doesn’t have a nationwide reputation as a food destination — yet. But the potential has been simmering for a while now; we just turned the burners down for a bit.
So I’m starting this (very big) job at an exciting time. And by exciting, I mean complex and sometimes confusing and bursting with anticipation. Yes, Westword will still have plenty of coverage of the best spots, the new spots, the under-the-radar spots, and the delicious things you should be eating and drinking. We’ll keep sharing the stories of the people making those delicious things, too. We’ll also follow the innovation sparked by the challenges of 2020 and the industry changes that seem necessary and inevitable.
And I know we’ll make memories over some really great meals, too. Let’s eat.
Reach Molly Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.