Cafe Society

After my first bite at Argyll, I was ready to eat my words

It worried me that Argyll, the new restaurant from Robert Thompson, called itself a "gastropub," a word I hate with a rare and white-hot passion that only a true word geek can muster for the hating of a bunch of letters.

It worried me that the very first word on Argyll's website was misspelled. "Faitle," it said. "Welcome to Argyll, a gastropub..." While failte is a Gaelic word that essentially means "welcome," faitle just means that someone wasn't being very careful when the site was designed and hadn't looked at it since.

It worried me that Thompson had put a largely unknown chef, Sergio Romero, in charge of the kitchen at this gastropub, where he'd be cooking a razor's-edge menu full of gastriques, purées, aiolis, pickles and quotation marks.

It worried me that Argyll was located in a subterranean space, which seems to almost always doom any restaurant to a slow, lingering death. It worried me that this particular subterranean space was previously the home of the Squealing Pig, a terrible excuse for an Irish pub that survived for years longer than it should have because apparently there was a big call in Cherry Creek for a place where bitter, drunk yuppies could eat potatoes in a basement.

And it worried me that Thompson once owned (along with his then-wife, Leigh Jones, who went on to open Jonesy's EatBar, the city's first gastropub) Brasserie Rouge, the best restaurant in Denver back in 2004, with one of the city's best chefs, John Broening, but then went bat-shit crazy, fucked it up and disappeared from Denver for years before coming back this year as an impassioned (read: double bat-shit crazy) defender of gastropubbery and Scottish cuisine. It all screamed meltdown, and I wanted nothing more than to stay clear of the blast radius.

"What's the matter with you?" Laura asked as we drove toward Argyll for our first, inevitable, meal there. "You look worried."

"Nothing," I said, hunching down in my seat.

"Then what's with the face?" she asked. "Do you know something about this place?"

I'd tried to talk her out of coming with me, given her every opportunity to bail, because that's the sort of sensitive motherfucker I am.

"No," I snapped. "Never been here. I don't know anything about it at all."

We parked the car, got out and walked beneath the canopies of lights already strung for the holidays all across the Creek. It had been snowing for days. Everything was slick with ice, and Laura held my hand — partly to keep from falling, partly to make sure I didn't bolt. She knows me pretty well, and there were good bars, taquerías and sushi restaurants within sprinting distance.

From the sidewalk, Argyll looked dark and abandoned, with no lights showing. We walked down the stairs and across the broad patio, with its ash buckets and dartboards and a battered propane grill left out in the snow. "If I say so, we just leave, okay?" I told Laura. "If I give you the sign?"

She looked me up and down, nodded, and then we warily stepped in out of the cold.

Three hours later, we stepped out again — and I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.

Argyll isn't just a good restaurant; it borders on being a great one — the kind of restaurant where you eat and drink and finish and walk out and immediately want to turn around and do the whole thing over again. The kind of restaurant where, once you're inside, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the best possible place you can be at the moment, and so you linger. One more pint of Murphy's, another bite of this or plate of that.

Rather than being close and claustrophobic, the low-ceilinged space is cozy, with its chalkboards and polished wood, deliberately distressed tables, booth-back banquettes and high-set windows that don't really look out on anything but make the two small dining rooms seem more open than they are. The service is friendly and attentive, turning even first-timers into regulars as the staff welcomes their children, their weird requests, their desire for long conversations about beer lists and the provenance of the kitchen's salmon. And at the end of the evening, the servers hand out fresh-baked cookies, tiny little orange-peel-and-anise cookies that are so delicious they taste like Thompson has kidnapped someone's grandmother and is forcing her to make treats in the back.

The deliberate design of space and sentiment is all evidence of Thompson's skill set. He's exorcised the worst demons from this location, made most of its deficits into strengths (the weird double bar and left-hand snug in particular, but also the intrusion of a stairwell into the main dining room and the unusual kitchen placement) and given Argyll the feel of a spot that was already your grandfather's favorite escape fifty years ago and has only improved — slowly, with cautious steps — since then. That's a fantastic trick for a place that's only about six months old. And it's not Thompson's best trick, either.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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