Cafe Society

Jelly's breakfast is worth waiting for among hungover hipsters

Clutching a Mason jar full of hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps and trying hard not to spill, I stared pleadingly into the eyes of a snarling man in flannel who was attempting to push past me.

"Excuse me!" he repeated, without a trace of sympathy. I was trying to get out of his way; I really was. But I was already pressed up against the edge of the bar, trapped there by a horde of disheveled twenty-somethings wearing skinny jeans and birth-control glasses, nursing Bloody Marys and red beers and smelling faintly of day-old booze. As the snarling man continued to stare, the obscure band playing what sounded like snare drums and kazoos over the speakers seemed to get louder, and the pink-and-orange color scheme began to close in on me. I was in brunch-wait hell.

Finally, my antagonist sighed loudly and stepped around me. I wondered, briefly, just how many brawls had broken out among hungover hipsters — still feeling the effects of the previous night's PBR-and-whiskey binge — fighting their way through the foyer of Jelly.

I'd been prepared for a wait that morning — the joint is almost always jammed at breakfast and brunch — so I wasn't surprised when the hostess tasked with crowd control said that we'd have at least thirty minutes to kill before our table was ready. With that knowledge, I'd made a break for the bar and ordered a round for my party, all of whom were too hungry and tired to make clever conversation. Instead, we'd sipped silently while examining the vintage cereal boxes mounted on the walls, the coffee-and-doughnut menu posted above the bar, and the dozens of Capitol Hill denizens packed into the booths and tables in the back of the dining room. Jelly owners Christina Smith and Josh Epps, veterans of the San Francisco restaurant scene, had been right when they thought they saw a gap in Denver's breakfast culture, I thought. Even with the ever-proliferating Snooze, the Mile High City had clearly been jonesing for more morning joints.

Nutritionists have long lectured that breakfast is the most important meal of the day — but lately, it's also become the most social, playful, even creative meal of the day. While there will always be room (and demand) for a three-egg breakfast in a greasy diner, entrepreneurs have woken up and smelled the coffee, opening trendy spots devoted to making over breakfast. Late last year, Smith and Epps claimed a corner storefront in the heart of Capitol Hill and transformed it into a modern diner, with neon-orange stools at the bar up front, oversized booths in the dining room beyond and a bright color scheme throughout. And from the moment Jelly opened in January, the crowds started coming, hungry for both food and fun. Jelly takes breakfast seriously by not seeming to take it seriously at all: You can pay $3.50 for a bowl of Lucky Charms, which is both brilliant and a brilliant rip-off at the same time.

See more photos from Jelly

After the predicted half-hour, the hostess led our group through the jammed dining room to the blessedly quiet, heated, enclosed patio, which felt downright cozy despite the winter chill. We'd already studied chef David Payne's menu of tricked-out, sexed-up, playful morning fare — including Frosted Flake-and-banana pancakes, frittata slider flights, Bhakti chai French toast and lots of homemade jellies — and were ready to order. When our quirky, conversational server popped up, we reeled off our list of hashes, Benedicts, biscuits and gravy, and doughnuts, then readily agreed when she recommended adding sides of French toast and bacon. "It's Sunday," she reminded us. "You can take a nap after this."

Our order of donut bites came quickly, along with mugs of black coffee — Umpire. The four fried puffs had been injected with such sinfully rich fillings as hot chocolate, crème Anglais and tart, homemade raspberry jelly, then dusted with cinnamon and sugar. They were hot, chewy and absolutely fresh, an ideal pairing with our first shot of caffeine. Revived after that sugar injection, we decided to wait for our entrees over red beers. The pint glasses were half full of Jelly's Bloody Mary mix, a peppery tomato base augmented by banana peppers and pickled green beans; nestled on top of each glass was a can of PBR so that we could pour to our own tastes...or needs.

And then our brunch started arriving, with servers piling plates onto the table until just about every square inch was occupied. I started out with the Bhakti chai French toast: fat pieces of challah that had been battered and griddled until crispy around the edges and fluffy — but not soggy — within. Bhakti chai is more spicy than sweet, and it lent delightful notes of ginger, cardamom and black tea. Doused in maple syrup, this dish tasted like fall on a platter.

Searching for a savory balance to the sweets I'd consumed, I next forked into the salmon Benedict. Slices of sourdough had been topped with tender, seared salmon filets and quivering poached eggs, then blanketed with dill-cream-cheese Hollandaise and dusted with paprika. I loved the play of dill against the fish, but the hollandaise needed more acid, some lemon to give a little lift to the oily salmon. As it was, the combination verged on oppressive.

Despite a glowing recommendation from our server, the harvest hash wasn't up to scratch. The pile of rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, carrots, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and potatoes was bland, and the two poached eggs on top didn't do anything to revive it. But the simple buttermilk biscuits on the side were standouts on their own. Hot and at once salty and sweet, the dense, crumbly pastry was the perfect vehicle for Jelly's bittersweet homemade orange marmalade. Those drop biscuits also played a starring role in the Haco biscuits and gravy — which might better have been billed as biscuits and stew. Two of the drop biscuits had been smothered in a thick, tangy, tomato-based sauce punched up by roasted poblano peppers and spicy chorizo and laced with a little paprika. Everything about it spelled "hangover cure," especially since we'd opted for the $2 two-egg supplement, which added a river of over-easy yolk to the mix.

When we'd polished off everything but the hash, we paid our check and reluctantly relinquished the table, waddling out the door past a rush that had yet to let up. It was Sunday; we could take a nap.

Jelly isn't always such a circus. In the neighborhood on a weekday afternoon, I decided to give the lunch menu a try, though the board of sandwiches, salads and burgers doesn't seem quite as interesting as the breakfast list, which is available all day. At this hour, Jelly looked like a totally different restaurant — a neighborhood joint, one where the owners are on a first-name basis with just about everyone who wanders through the door, and regulars quickly welcome newcomers into the fold. When I bellied up to the bar and inquired about the Molly Hot Brown, a take on a Kentucky hot brown that includes green chiles, a friendly, tattooed gentleman sitting nearby offered some advice.

"It's like Thanksgiving for breakfast," he promised. Sold. I placed my order, glanced through the paper, and listened as the staff chattered and joked around me. My lunch arrived quickly: four slices of toast topped with thick chunks of house-cured turkey, smothered with a molten cheddar-cheese gravy studded with bits of poblano and bacon. Slices of grilled tomato crowned the pile, adding a welcome tart note to the heavy, rich meal. It was a little too spicy to really invoke the flavors of Thanksgiving advertised by my bar mate, but I was grateful for the guy's endorsement, nonetheless. I'll be back for another round of the Molly Hot Brown, as well as more of those biscuits smeared with Jelly's jelly.

Even if it means having to fight an aggressive crowd of hungover hipsters for a table. After all, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

See more photos from Jelly