Avanti Food & Beverage Opens Monday, Ushering in the Modern Era of Food Courts

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Avanti Food & Beverage, the creation of Patrick O'Neill and Rob Hahn, opens on Monday, July 13 in Lower Highland. Described as a food hall, a stand-alone food court, a food-truck rally minus the exhaust fumes and a food-and-booze lover's heaven, it packs seven restaurant concepts from seven different chefs into shipping-container kitchens on two floors with two bars, striking views of downtown, cool and understated industrial design, and enough buzz for a mountain of beehives. Which means this might be the biggest, boldest restaurant opening in quite some time.

We'll profile each eatery separately in the coming week, but here's an appetizer to whet your appetite.

First, the food: Bixo, Brava, Farmer Girl, MiJo, Poco Torteria, Souk Shawarma, and Quiero Arepas. Got it? Some are names familiar to Denver diners, especially in the street-food sphere. Quiero Arepas has been one of the top food trucks in town for years, serving Venezuelan corn-flour sandwich-type things. Poco Torteria also does sandwiches — Mexican-style — compliments of Kevin Morrison of Pinche Taqueria fame. Brava's Neapolitan pies need no introduction to fans of pizza della strada (that's street pizza, if your Italian's a little rusty), but what about the rest?

Bixo is the Mexican-Mediterranean mashup from chef Marco Gonzalez, born and raised in Mexico City and trained in some of Europe's finest cooking schools and kitchens. The food looks and sounds high-end, but nothing on his menu exceeds $15. Think riotous colors and flavors from Oaxaca and Yucatan combined with white-tablecloth plating and modernist technique.

Consider MiJo a younger brother to Frank Bonanno's Bones. Both are helmed by executive chef Johnny DePierro  — but this is dePierro's and and Bones sous chef Michael Nevarez's more casual noodle counter focusing on udon bowls and potent street eats. 

Farmer Girl is the vision of chef Tim Payne, who ran Terroir in Boulder County until 2012 and currently delivers upscale food-truck fare from his Tasterie Truck. As the name suggests, his kitchen at Avanti will offer farm-fresh, seasonal fare with a goal of transparency when it comes to the source of every ingredient.

And Souk Shawarma, from Bistro Barbes chef/owner Jon Robbins, brings deeply spiced chicken and beef wraps in a style closer to the originals in Lebanon, Syria and other Levantine countries where the slow-roasted meat skewers originated. 

If that's not enough, Avanti features bars upstairs and down, with twenty tap handles each — ten from Dogfish Head and another ten from Colorado breweries; three kegged cocktails and six signature originals designed by bar consultants Allison Widdecombe and Chad Michael George of Williams & Graham; and eight wines each of red and white by the glass, plus Infinite Monkey Theorem on tap. "We knew we'd have large volume so we wanted a streamlined program but with good ingredients like real juices and quality spirits," Widdecombe explains.

The whole project — with design by Scout Interiors, art by Cristina Del Hoyo and Banshee Press, and the creative vision of O'Neill and Hahn — started out as nothing more than a plan for a permanent food truck lot with a built-in bar, but morphed into an indoor venue with permanent kitchens. "We really had no blueprints for this," O'Neill explains (in the figurative sense).

"We weren't trying to copy anything," Hahn says, adding that "there was a lot of brainstorming." Even the shipping containers that house all seven kitchens was the result of a comment from a health department inspector, rather than part of the plan from the onset. 

In many cases, the various permitting, licensing and regulatory agencies from the city had no idea what to make of the concept, so completion was delayed a few months past the original planned opening date. But once the ideas were explained and illustrated, O'Neill says, the plans were generally approved. For example, the liquor license was a little tricky because Avanti itself doesn't technically serve food, just booze, so the owners had to point out that there was plenty of food available to drinkers — and so a tavern license was eventually approved.

Hahn's longtime friendship with Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione led to the Delaware brewery's beers being featured. "We'd love to have a good relationship with our business neighbors," O'Neill notes — and that relationship led to a collaboration beer between Dogfish Head and nearby Prost Brewing.

As exciting as Avanti is for Denver diners, it's more than just a glorified food court. The separate kitchens will serve as incubators for restaurant ideas for up-and-coming chefs and budding restaurateurs. Leases are intentionally short so that turnover is a built-in part of the concept, which will allow new talent to come in and give their ideas a temporary testing ground before moving on to bigger things.

If you go (and you know you will), starting Monday Avanti will be opening at 11 a.m. daily (Brava serves espresso drinks, if that's on the early side for you) and closing at midnight Sunday through Wednesday and 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. And when you go, keep in mind that parking is almost non-existent on Avanti's end of LoHi.  So grab a B-Cycle (which maintains its largest bike station in town on Avanti's property), take public transportation, walk, Uber it or carpool with your ten closest friends. But do not drive yourself alone in your car — you'll circle the neighborhood for hours as your friends have fun inside.

Keep reading for more photos, or see our complete slideshow for even more photos.

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