How did the owners of one of Denver's best — and smallest — farm-to-table, nose-to-tail neighborhood restaurants end up opening a new, expansive eatery in a downtown hotel? Serendipity.
For years, Paul and Aileen Reilly fielded inquiries from people interested in working with them on new projects. The brother-and-sister duo ran Encore in the Lowenstein complex on East Colfax from 2008 to 2012 and, after it closed following unsuccessful lease negotiations, opened Beast + Bottle at 719 East 17th Avenue in 2013. That restaurant quickly gained a reputation as one of the top places to dine in the city, known for the whole-animal butchery in its tiny kitchen as well as its Colorado-centric sourcing. In 2016, the siblings added Coperta, an Italian eatery at 400 East 20th Avenue.
News that Beast + Bottle's building was being sold
came just before the pandemic hit. At first the Reillys, along with partner J.P. Taylor Jr. (Aileen's husband), intended to find a new home for the concept. But after a month of looking for a possible space, the first restaurant shutdown was announced in March 2020 — and soon it became clear that relocating might not be the best course of action. "Beast + Bottle was very much of its place. It was intimate and quaint and romantic, and we were like, 'I just don't see this moving,'" Paul remembers.
In late summer 2020, a real estate company that knew the Reillys had been considering potential locations for Beast + Bottle connected Paul and Aileen with the Hyatt, which was looking for a local restaurateur with a seasonal approach to open a concept in its new project, the Hyatt Centric Downtown Denver, at 1776 Champa Street.
The negotiation process was long. "There were times I thought the deal was dead in the water, and then all of a sudden it would resurrect itself," Paul says. But the final paperwork came through at a very significant time: on June 5, 2021, Beast + Bottle's final day of service.
Recalls Paul: "We were in the basement of Coperta printing the menus for the final night at Beast, and Aileen and I were sitting there like, 'Okay, this is kind of fucking weird.' Like, we almost have to go with serendipity. A door is closing, another's opening."
Preserved mushrooms with heirloom farina, celery root and white truffle butter.
While the Hyatt was initially interested in bringing on the Beast + Bottle name, too, Paul knew that wasn't the right fit. With a larger space and kitchen and different clientele — largely travelers — the whole-animal approach to menu design just wouldn't be possible at this new venture. And so the Apple Blossom
concept was born. "What is possible here," he explains, "is taking that ethos that we did at Beast — know your farmer, know your rancher, know your fisherman, know where your food comes from — and being able to do that on a larger basis."
While the restaurant space was designed by Hyatt before the Reillys got on board, the Apple Blossom team was able to add some of its own touches, including a nature-inspired, hand-drawn chalk-art mural by pastry chef Jodi Polson. The restaurant opened in late October, four months after the Reillys signed the deal.
Where Beast + Bottle's menu focused on ingredients sourced in Colorado, Apple Blossom gives Paul the chance to expand his culinary approach. "Which makes sense," he says. "Larger audience, larger dining space. We're going to need more people to help us tell those stories, so let's extend that to the rest of the United States."
While he's still working with many Colorado-based purveyors, including Ollin Farms, Esoterra Culinary Garden and Oxford Gardens, he's now bringing in other ingredients, such as uni from Santa Barbara for a pasta dish. Instead of traditional meat-and-cheese charcuterie program offerings, Apple Blossom offers a taste of the South with an American country ham plate and pimento cheese. Gumbo gets elevated with duck and Carolina gold rice. Even tofu is transformed in a butter-basted "steak" preparation with polenta, fennel, pistachio and blood-orange beurre blanc.
But there are also staples meant to appeal to the hotel's guests, including the AB burger and rigatoni with lamb Bolognese. "I got to live my chef-driven dream in that little building," Paul says of Beast + Bottle. "But I've also grown up as a chef since then and have grown up as a restaurateur, and I think that when you're cooking in a hotel, you have to keep travelers in mind."
Pasta with uni from Santa Barbara.
Unlike the Reillys' other ventures, Apple Blossom serves breakfast and lunch, and also offers room service. "It's certainly different than a 54-seat bistro that operates five nights a week," Paul admits. "But I'm loving it so far. It gives us a bigger chance to tell our story, and that means sandwiches and salads at lunch or egg dishes at breakfast.... A lot of the food here is meant to be comfort food."
Apple Blossom chef de cuisine Russ Fox started as a line cook at Coperta five years ago and had run the kitchen there for the past three years. He happened to have a background working in hotels, which made for more serendipity. "He has absolutely earned his moment to run his own kitchen and be in the spotlight," Paul says.
Polson, too, already had a longstanding relationship with the Reillys. The pastry chef at Beast + Bottle and Coperta for six years, she is now leading the pastry program at Apple Blossom. "She's really grown into one of my all-time favorite people that I've worked with throughout my career," Paul remarks. "There's a symbiosis I think that we have working together."
At a time when staffing shortages are rampant in the industry and many longtime hospitality professionals have moved into other positions or fields, Paul knows that he's lucky to have such a strong crew. "I feel like a lot of chefs and restaurant owners don't have that weaponry in their arsenal right now," he says. "We've all been working together for a while and slowly building a team that I think is really poised to make their mark downtown. It's pretty exciting."
Apple Blossom is located inside the Hyatt Centric Downtown Denver, at 1776 Champa Street, and is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday; the bar is open until 10 p.m. nightly. For more information, visit appleblossomdenver.com.