Cars snake so far down the road from Acreage, the restaurant on the Stem Ciders production campus in Lafayette, that I feel like I’m looking for parking at a popular open space. Dry fields stretch in all directions. The mountains loom gray and grayer from an approaching storm. I finally park, sidestep fierce thorns along the weed-lined curb and take it all in: this big sky, the raw openness. For setting alone, Acreage is worth the drive. Factor in the whole package — the wood-fired food, the cider flights, the fire pits on the lawn with kids playing cornhole — and you get a restaurant that reminds you of how lucky we are to live in the West.
A spirit of possibility pervades the place. Independence, too, and aren’t those the traits that have linked all of us drawn to this high desert over the generations? Here, restaurant formalities have been cast aside. You seat yourself, inside or outside, at the bar or in the cider garden, with people you know or ones you soon will, sharing rustic, wide-plank tables that seat sixteen and encourage conversation. You build your own flight from the two dozen or so cider varieties on offer, swapping notes with neighbors about the dry one that reminds you of Champagne, the offbeat crowd-pleaser with chiles and guava. You order when you want to, leaving your table to stand in line at the bar or at the counter, where the smell of wood smoke is the strongest, given the proximity to the primary heat source that cooks the food. Sometimes lines get so long that you decide not to get up again to order cider doughnuts, because you don’t want to interrupt the good time you’re having. Your loss: They’re terrific — not too sweet, laced with bits of apple, ready to be dunked in thick cider glaze.
At recent meals, those doughnuts were the only dessert, emphasizing the menu’s casual, farmhouse vibe that started in Snacks and ran through every section. Cornbread, sweet and grainy with a blend of cornmeal and gluten-free flour, arrived in a cast-iron dish with a heap of pimento cheese. Soft pretzels broke into chewy pieces, the kind you could wave in the air as you told a story, with fat flakes of salt falling off as you got to the good part. Fries were doused with thin mushroom gravy and stacked with cheese curds and roasted green chiles in a Western poutine.
Sausages were available by the link but best enjoyed as a set: fine-grained Berkshire pork, venison-port, bacon-cheddar bratwurst and bison-green chile with a low rumble of heat. Like everything else whisked out of the kitchen, they were served simply, on a rimmed baking sheet over paper with a little pot of cider sauerkraut.
Burgers also kept coming out, and with good reason. Double-pattied, with cheddar and a sweet smear of onion jam, they fit the down-home ambience and smacked of summer’s grill. Spare ribs were equally popular, smoked and braised until well rendered, leaving fat strands of meat that could hardly stay on the bone. The meat was crackly edged, with a sticky glaze hinting of apples and baking spices. If the kitchen wanted to ditch the menu and pare down to ribs alone, these could certainly sustain the place.
But farmhouse wasn’t part of the original plan. “We’d gotten a little off-track,” says Stem Ciders co-founder/CEO Eric Foster, who opened a RiNo taproom in 2014 and worked with big-name consulting chefs like Kelly Whitaker and Daniel Asher to roll out the restaurant in February.
“What we’re seeing right now is that burger sales are high because people are expecting a farmhouse experience,” explains Whitaker, noting that Foster has given the green light to a “major shift in menu” to instead double down on the original concept — that of a Basque-inspired restaurant that honors Colorado — even if it affects sales of current bestsellers.
I’ve seen a draft of the new menu and it looks reassuringly like the current one at Acreage, only better: more family-style proteins, a continued focus on local and seasonal vegetables, and more explicit nods to Basque country in ingredients and verbiage while still paying tribute to Colorado. Why Basque? Because cider has a long history in that region, which straddles Spain and France. There still won’t be pintxos or an abundance of seafood, but such fan faves as the sausages, ribs and burger will remain. So will a version of the whole Colorado bass that I had last month, which drew wows when it was set before us, stuffed with long rosemary sprigs and mounded with roasted fingerlings. “Are you going to eat the eyeball?” asked a woman waiting nearby, half awed and half grossed out.
Another impetus for the impending change is volume. Before Acreage opened, the team wondered if they’d have to put up banners along the stretch of winding road to help people find the restaurant. That first Saturday, the kitchen served a whopping thousand guests, and business hasn’t let up since. Volume translates to long lines; it also causes the busy kitchen to send out partially cooked dishes and salads without dressing. So the emphasis on large-format items makes sense. Still, the menu change is gutsy, since this one is clearly a crowd-pleaser.
But independence and possibility aren’t the only traits that Westerners share: Guts are part of our mindset, too. And Foster and co-founder Phil Kao are proving they have guts enough not just to tweak a popular menu, but to tackle such issues as farming and the supply chain, in the style of nationally recognized Stone Barns Center in New York. The long-term vision for this twelve-acre campus includes an apple orchard, a vegetable plot and grazing animals.
Also up for discussion is the counter-service setup. “We’re definitely discussing if this model is right for us, right for Colorado,” Foster says. “We’re putting a lot of thought into it.”
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But while they’re doing the thinking, there’s plenty of cider to drink, many ribs, sausages and doughnuts to eat. Besides, that storm has cleared, leaving a pink hue over the mountains that shouldn’t be missed.
Acreage is located at 1380 Horizon Avenue in Lafayette. It's open from 3 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 720-443-3007, acreageco.com.
Select menu items:
Cast-iron cornbread $4
Whole bass $35
Spare ribs 3/$13
Sausage $5 each
Cider doughnuts $6