Jonathan Bitz says the process of opening Syntax Physic Opera has been heavy, it's been emotional and it's been by far the hardest thing he's ever done. He was hoping to have his music venue and eatery at 554 South Broadway (which most recently housed the Bar and the Atrium) open late last year, but after enduring some construction delays and permitting issues, he says the spot should open this weekend if he gets the green light from the City.
For Bitz, who has run Syntax magazine for a decade and did a five year-stint as a talent buyer at the Meadowlark, getting to this point of finally opening his own venue started about three years ago. He and his wife, Joy, looked at properties in areas like the Santa Fe Arts District and RiNo. But when he found out the Bar was closing in May of last year, Bitz thought the space was ideal for his vision: the space already had a bar on one side and a venue on the other.
While Bitz thought construction would have been completed in November, physical renovations on the building have stalled over the last three months as he works through permitting issues. "That's been hard, but it's a huge blessing in that we'd refined everything," Bitz says. "We've really been able to refine the food menus. And the cocktail menus are hitting on something...drinks that had medicinal elements in them. It's a play on the old nostrums that they had at the medicine shows."
As far as entertainment goes, Bitz is all for diversifying. Early plans include opera early on Saturdays, a comedy open mic night on Wednesdays and a songwriters open mic on Tuesdays (hosted by Rachael Pollard and Anthony Ruptak). He envisions a place where artists could "work their material, and hopefully sit in a room with their peers and have that synergy," he says. "If we created that, even for a little while, I would feel like we did something really good here.
"I want this all to point toward stories," he adds, "from the back of the house with the food to the cocktails to the service, which we have put a big emphasis on. I want that to help create the stories in the same way that we're going do with the songwriters open mic. One of the requirements is going to be during everybody's set that they have to introduce and tell a story about one of their songs. Tell me why did you write this. What's the story here? I want stories. I like that."
After securing the lease on the building in August of last year, Bitz starting getting down to business, hoping it might open in November. But physical renovations on the building stalled for about three months as he worked through permitting issues.
"I'm incredibly lucky to have this chance to build something like this," Bitz says. "My father, my partner, gave me this chance because he saw the numbers and he believes in what's been created with Syntax. We've spent a lot of time and energy conceptualizing it and now we're implementing it -- just a lot slower than we all wanted."
While Bitz might have hit a few snags along the way, especially since this was his first venue, he looked other bar owners for help and advice, like Walnut Room owner John Burr, Gary Lee Bomar of Gary Lee's Motor Club & Grub and Matt Labarge, former owner of the hi-dive and Lost Lake Lounge.
"All of them had said to me, 'Do you really want to do this?'" Bitz says. "Even a friend of mine said, 'You're crazy for doing this, right?' I said, 'I know this is going to be a long road.'
"And now at the end of this road with construction I know what they're talking about. I know why everybody has been so generous and I will be as generous as somebody in my shoes, because there's kind of a brotherhood of... 'You have the balls to do this? Here, I'll tell you everything need to know.' People have told me, 'My books are open. Walk behind the counter I'll show you everything I know. I'll show you every little trick I got."
Bitz says there's no school for this and there's not education. "Rather, it's about all of your education," he says. "This kind of process pushes you further back and into one's self. It asks you, "How rounded of an individual are you? Can you do the numbers, handle people, navigate situations, create on the fly, find solitude to work problems through. Are you a good problem solver? That's a skill we're not taught -- but we should be. I guess life teaches us the more-abstract things -- practical, hands-on work can only truly articulate the profundity of a concept, or engagement."
Essentially, what it comes down to is this - "How bad do you want something, and what are you willing to go through to get it," Bitz says. He knows you have to want something more than you fear it. A few of his heroes' photos hang in gold frames in the bar. One is William Newton Byers, who co-founded the Rocky Mountain News in 1859 and helped haul the printing press from Omaha to Denver over 50 days. The other is Silas Soule, who Bitz says was one of the primary people who opposed the Sand Creek Massacre.
"You get enmeshed in this process, and when you really know that you're fighting for, it's this idea of being comfortable with being uncomfortable," Bitz says. "That's what this process has primarily been about -- discomfort and how you handle that after you get really bad news."
Byers and Soule also fit into the concept behind Physic Opera, as the two were alive in an era when the Denver's first settlers were arriving to Denver. Over cocktails last year, Bitz's wife said, "Look, why don't we create a place where people would eat in 1860s who had a little bit of money." They knew they wanted to balance a little rock and roll with something that was a little high brow.
"Physic Opera is sort of a Latin phrase that the insiders would call a medicine show," he says. "The idea is that it is a medicine show -- that everything is medicine, from the food to the drinks to the art to the music to the conversation, hopefully."
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