I love double-decker restaurants. Along with the pubs and bistros of London, often nestled below street level (not to mention the cantinas of Cloud City, peacefully hovering above the gas giant Bespin), two-level joints add a unique dimension to the urban dining experience. And if 1515 Restaurant's moniker had a subtitle, "unique urban dining experience" would be it. With close to twenty years under its belt, 1515 may have quietly shaped fine dining in LoDo — and it certainly served as an example of the form for most of those years. The menu has shifted from Pacific Rim to New American to a French-inspired ethos that's been served most of the past decade, under the supervision of owner Gene Tang and a succession of chefs. Tang ripped the plastic off another renovation just a few months ago, rebranding the ground floor as the Dniwer (Rewind) Lounge and setting up a new happy hour.
Pretty light fixtures and some nifty wood accents help the ambience of the main-floor lounge, but the overall look still seems rooted in the late '90s, like Central Perk minus the clutter. I didn't venture to the upstairs dining room, but the lounge space just can't shake off the clubby vibe that's throttling it. Yet, unlike other long-lived restaurants with kitchens that stubbornly stick to tired trends like they're Buzzfeed ("You'll Never Believe What Artichoke Dip Looks Like Now!"), 1515 has adapted and evolved to stay current. The decision to stick with molecular-gastronomy techniques long after they fell out of favor is so square it's beautifully hip. Prices for game, fowl and elaborate cuts of meat are pretty stiff even for this end of town — which is where happy hour comes in. Offered in the lounge Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. (and how I love that extra hour of happiness), these happy-hour prices rarely touch double digits.
That's especially welcome when it comes to 1515's new bar program, with cocktails dreamed up by bar manager Rena Tedeschi that implement the kitchen's molecular tools. Where the iPad-assisted wine list used to be the big feature, specialty drinks have supplanted them — at least at happy hour, where a $12 lavender-dusted martini for $5 is a big deal. My raspberry mojito ($5) featured liquid nitrogen-exploded raspberries that slowly turned the concoction pinkish. A slightly cloying flavor emerged, which may have been due to a happy-hour switch to well rum. But this is a drink that improves as the minutes tick by.
On the other side of the page, 1515's food offerings are a bit more typical — but that's not a mark against it. The sight of clean-cut spring rolls ($5) and fall salads ($5) is a bit dispiriting, but huddle around a bowl of French onion soup ($7) and the whole room comes alive. Presented with appropriate aplomb, the centerpiece is a Gruyère-stuffed sandwich, caged by halos of fried onion and dotted with more cheese. It's an addition of salt and crunch that I didn't know this venerable dish needed, but one that I was glad to have. The soup itself held its own as it swallowed the sandwich iceberg, thick onion tendrils swimming in a beautiful Burgundy-colored liquid with a number of complex flavors to discover. This bodes well for 1515's ability to take on the French canon.
Another bowl didn't fare as well — a pretty one with Bang Island mussels and frites in a buttery broth that belly-flopped. The trappings were quite worthy, but something was off between the chardonnay, butter, lemon, garlic and shallot and the mussels themselves — something beyond the expected sea taste of these bivalves and into the realm of swampy. And while they were pleasantly arranged and dusted with parmesan, the frites piled atop lacked any naughty thrills.
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There's a sharp divide between upstairs and downstairs at 1515, but with a little dust and a rebranding, it's turned the newly christened Rewind Lounge into a place to visit in its own right, rather than just a purgatory while waiting for a table to clear. And with the new molecular cocktails, it seems that a place like this can do something interesting and new by embracing something old.
Perfect for: Those who are bemoaning the death of old-school, excellent service. Tang's joint has always striven to be a paragon of hospitality. My experience at the bar was quite fine, but head upstairs and you'll most likely be greeted with a digital drink list and an evening of crisp professionalism from start to finish.
Don't miss: Outside of happy hour, Rewind offers a substantial bar menu, with new dishes like "Predator and Prey" ($14), with smoked rabbit and rattlesnake sausage, or a curry-rubbed chicken breast — all a bit more accessibly priced than the dinner menu.