Chefs are straight shooters. You would be, too, if your job involved fire and sharp knives. But every time a chef says that his goal is “to run a neighborhood restaurant,” I roll my eyes. (What can I say? I’ve got teenagers in the house; I guess it’s rubbed off.)
These days, “neighborhood” has little to do with the people who live nearby. It’s a code word for affordable price point, or lower expectations of service, or approachable fare, or all three, with a concept that would’ve been much the same regardless of which neighborhood and which space the real estate gods chose to offer up. But Brightmarten, which opened last spring in Bonnie Brae, is one of the exceptions. When executive chef/owner Jake Grant says that he wanted to create a “neighborhood spot” after six years of working at Euclid Hall in LoDo, it’s clear that he has living, breathing neighbors in mind.
Then again, does he have a choice? This is a neighborhood that hasn’t been as shaken up by Denver’s roiling growth, a place where entire soccer teams wait in line at the Bonnie Brae ice cream parlor and the ramshackle store that’s fixed chandeliers for as long as anyone can remember remains in business. While there are plenty of scrapes and new builds, there are also lots of lifers on the other side of the fence. Even the Bonnie Brae designation still stands, unlike in other parts of town that have changed so much they go by new names, often against old-timers’ will. And the last thing Grant wanted to do was pick a fight with old-timers. Right before Brightmarten opened, a sold and renovated Campus Lounge — which had held down the corner just down the block for decades — closed within months, a victim of not giving locals what they wanted. (The Campus Lounge reopened again last month under new ownership, but with a return to the sports-bar emphasis that had held sway for forty years.)
So there’s more than a little wisdom in this team’s approach. “We didn’t want to come into the neighborhood and say, ‘Let’s jam our foods down your throats,’” says Grant. His menu, written and rewritten a handful of times before Brightmarten’s opening, is designed to keep guests “in their comfort zone,” with the goal of getting more creative over time. No wonder, then, that instead of bone marrow and pig’s ears, Grant and his team of Euclid Hall and Rioja alumni are putting out a predictable roster of American fare. “Our takes on classics,” is how Grant likes to think of it.
Still, everything comes with a creative twist, however minor. A half Caesar salad is fantastically crisp and evenly dressed, with parmesan crisps and sun-dried tomatoes in place of whole anchovies. Instead of mashed potatoes or rice with the half a roasted chicken, you get chewy orange niblets of sweet-potato gnocchi. You can have a regular bacon cheeseburger, or you can go one step better with the Juicy Lucy, with Swiss cheese, onions and mushrooms stuffed into the patty. Fried green tomatoes are ultra-crisp, dredged in fine crumbs made of crushed potato chips and cornmeal, then deep-fried. Paired with pimento cheese, they’ve become a down-home bestseller, even if my batch tasted mostly of fryer oil.
Brussels sprouts, which have fast-tracked their way to being everyone’s favorite vegetable, are tossed in a fall salad with apples, gently smoked ricotta and greens. The combination is Brightmarten at its best: simple, balanced and, well, bright, thanks to a citrusy vinaigrette. Pair that salad with the beef stroganoff, and you’ve got a meal you could order several times a week, which is the secret goal of every neighborhood restaurant (beyond staying in business, of course). Braised, shredded short rib clings to noodles so wide and hearty, they’re nearly the size of lasagna noodles. The kitchen goes all in on this sauce, upping the beefiness by mixing mushroom cream with the braising liquid and a splash of French onion soup. Order this combo when the snow is falling. Order it on a Wednesday when you need a pep talk to finish out the week. Order it and be king of the table, presiding over the dishes that everyone else wishes they’d ordered.
The kitchen has good instincts, though some dishes need more time to settle in. It’s smart to reimagine chicken cordon bleu as a fried-chicken sandwich, with layers of ham, spinach and Emmentaler cheese sauce. It sounds less fancy that way — something Grant was aware of when writing the menu — and taps into the current love affair with fried-chicken sandwiches. But the twist gets a little too cutesy, with off-puttingly sweet breading from pulverized Frosted Flakes.
Sometimes the team executes according to pedigree, breaking down hogs, curing pork chops and making sausage. At other times, it seems like they’ve never worked at destination restaurants. A half a roasted chicken was either burned, like it had kissed the broiler, or pale, as if it hadn’t been put under it at all. Cornbread and a chocolate chip cookie are served in cast-iron skillets, a nice touch that fits with the casual neighborhood vibe, but we didn’t get the standard warning about being careful of the hot skillet, and here’s why: Both arrived stone cold.
So far, the neighborhood has embraced Brightmarten, with a steady stream of gray-hairs, singles and families with young kids filling first the bar for happy hour, then the six-person booths, then the community table. Redesign was handled on a budget, with a new coat of dark-gray paint and shiny cut-out aspen trunks on the walls, and the same style of contemporary furniture and paper-pendant lamps that neighborhood families might themselves bring home from Ikea. But just because Brightmarten caters to the neighborhood doesn’t mean it’s homey. Dark walls contrast sharply with the bright white and orange furniture, and accents are largely missing. Maybe over time, the booths will acquire tea lights or plants or even salt and pepper shakers to make them feel less stark.
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Bonnie Brae may not be your thing, but the lesson from Brightmarten is a good one. Denver is growing quickly, but at heart it’s still a city of neighborhoods, with independent restaurants designed for neighbors.
Brightmarten, 730 South University Boulevard, 720-541-7696, brightmarten.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Select menu items
Fried green tomatoes $9
Half Caesar salad $6
Fall salad $13
Juicy Lucy $14
Crispy chicken $14
Chicken and gnocchi $25