Humanity falls into two camps: people who love Kanye West, and people who hate Kanye West. Bring up his name to the latter and you'll get eye-rolls, long sighs, and a diatribe of reasons why West is an untalented egomaniac. A polarizing figure at best, a Kardashian at worst.
Which is why I was surprised to hear West blaring at Hop Alley recently. It wasn't the nice, Polo-shirt-wearing Kanye of Late Registration, either. This was angry Kanye. This was Yeezy.
Curious, I looked around the restaurant, half expecting a patron to throw his napkin on the ground and storm out. No one was flinching.
But they have before, says Tommy Lee, Hop Alley's owner and resident DJ. And that's okay.
"We get more complaints about noise than the average restaurant. But we try to do as much as we can to warn people of what we're about," Lee says, laughing.
Lee's being modest. Since opening in 2015, the RiNo joint, whose food is inspired by Lee's childhood trips to Hong Kong, has won praise from nearly every critic in town. We even named Hop Alley Denver's best new restaurant in 2016. From the award: "The eatery's instant success when it opened at the end of 2015 was proof that Denver diners are ready to be challenged, titillated and rewarded with a whole new world of gustatory experience."
Lee, who also makes the playlists for his LoHi ramen shop Uncle, isn't a secret DJ by night. He doesn't even especially love music. For him, music is an integral part of the dining experience. "For me, as far as restaurant experience, music can set the atmosphere in a very particular way. I think it can be a very thoughtful tool to use."
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Lee likes to start his playlists on a more mellow note to jibe with the energy of the restaurant as it's just coming to life, especially if they're to be heard by the weekday crowd. "It'll be hip-hop, but it might not be Rick Ross. It might be A Tribe Called Quest." Come Saturdays, Lee says, Hop Alley will have a line by the door before it opens, diners hungry for an evening of adventurous eating. "So I might make those songs in the beginning higher-energy."
Who better to cut Hop Alley's dan dan mian, an addictive, rich noodle dish with a serious bite, than Tupac or Nas? Who else could stand up to the show-stopping salt and pepper soft-shell crab than Jay Z or, yes, Kanye? Why have we castrated ourselves as diners, settling for sub-par ambient music and menus with little peppers warning us how spicy a dish is?
"If you really enjoy dining out, what's the point of going to the same type of experience?" Lee asks. "We serve aggressive food, and our music is a little louder than normal."
In Yeezus's name we pray, amen.