What: Little Finch
Where: 1490 16th Street Mall
When: Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
For more info: Visit oliveandfinch.com/little-finch
Olive & Finch, the fast-casual eatery launched by chef Mary Nguyen in 2013 that now has locations in Uptown and Cherry Creek.
Nguyen, a Denver native, started her career in finance working as an investment banker. "I structured the bonds for DIA, Coors Field, E470," she recalls. "But I always loved serving. ... I realized I was more concerned about cooking than about making a ton of money for other people."
And so she left finance and took on three new jobs. She joined the team at Starbucks, helped open Hapa Sushi in Cherry Creek because she wanted to learn how to make sushi, and worked for the Beehive, which at the time was one of only two female-owned restaurants in Denver.
Those experiences led her to open her first restaurant, P17, in Uptown, and later, Street Kitchen Asian Bistro. But by 2016, Nguyen was fully focused on Olive & Finch, a "passion project" that was inspired by her personal desire for easier access to healthy food. "I'm a busy professional; I enjoy food," she explains. "I wanted something chef-driven and I wanted something scratch-made, but I didn't want it to become such a commitment and time and diet and money. Back then, in 2012 or 2011, you could not go and get a chef-driven meal without going to a full-service restaurant."
Little Finch is the next iteration of that idea — and it happens to be housed in a former Starbucks. Here, Nguyen hopes to change the way people look at going out to a bar or a coffee shop. "I wanted to create that third place," she says, somewhere that a person could sit for hours working on their laptop while sipping wine, meet with friends for happy hour, or pop in for a coffee and salad to go.
This new addition is not simply a scaled-down version of Olive & Finch. In many ways, it's actually a bigger concept, reaching beyond the bounds of a typical coffee shop, bar or eatery as it functions as all three at once.
Like Olive & Finch, it serves Chicago-based Intelligentsia coffee — Aviano is the only other place in town where that can be found. There are also fresh-pressed juices and Italian sodas along with beer, wine, cocktails and mocktails.
There's a refrigerated grab-and-go section — and in another full-circle career moment, Nguyen adds that those items will soon also be available at Denver International Airport. If you want to settle in for a bit longer, though, there's a menu board of items that are heated up in-house, including rotating flatbreads (the Southwest flavor is one of Nguyen's current favorites). You'll also find seasonal salads and sandwiches, all priced affordably, like the hearty portion of curry chickpeas served with a City Bakery baguette for just $7.
There are deals at happy hour, too, which is available from 4 to 7 p.m. daily and all day on Sundays. It includes a rotating featured cocktail, soda with your choice of spirit, wine and beer by the glass, and the "bottle and bag" special — a bottle of happy-hour wine with a baguette paired with your choice of add-ons, like pork rillette or a trio of butters.
With something for everyone nearly any time of the day, Little Finch is a smartly designed concept, tailored for its location.
"The city is really trying to redefine what the 16th Street Mall looks like," Nguyen says. "Hopefully, we're a part of that change, where more chef-driven places, more local places are going to want to be here, because it's great to be able to represent our city."
Like Edwin Zoe, the owner of Zoe Ma Ma who opened his newest addition, Dragonfly Noodle, on the mall last year, Nguyen is hopeful about the area's future. "I feel like the community needs something like this. I feel like Denver as a city needs more places on the 16th Street Mall that aren't Chipotle or Panera," she adds. "It's a really fun place. It has lots of energy."
Which is refreshing to hear in light of recent chatter about downtown being dead, especially coming from a new business owner in the area. And as guests shuffled in and out, even late into the afternoon on its fourth day in business, Little Finch's energy did indeed feel like the start of something really good for downtown.