Central Bistro and Bar opening in Highland with Lance Barto behind the line

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Last June, Lance Barto was working as the exec chef at Strings, but he was ready to make a move, which led him to Craigslist, and while he was scouring restaurant-industry gigs, he came across one advert in particular that caught his eye.

"It said that it was a new restaurant that was looking for a chef with vision, a chef who would be at the heart of the restaurant, take hold of it and make it their baby," says Barto, who's currently working the line at Linger and still behind the burners at Strings on Sunday mornings, during brunch service. He applied for the gig, started the interview process in August, did a few tastings and was officially offered the job in January.

The restaurant? Central Bistro and Bar, a seasonally influenced New American bistro in Highland that's the project of Denver real-estate developer Isiah Salazar.

"My food will be upscale, and we'll do a lot of American classics, particularly in the starters, but we're going to draw the line at $26 for entrees -- nothing higher," explains Barto, adding that his menu will include dishes like shrimp and grits, fried chicken, pork and beans and macaroni and cheese. "You'll find fun, creative, seasonally driven American food that incorporates French techniques with great American cooking."

And he'll soon head off to the Big Apple to find inspiration. "I'm going to spend a lot of time doing research and development for Central, and I'm in the process of lining up several stages and reservations at Michelin-star restaurants in New York," notes Barto, who says that Central will also pimp a classic cocktail menu, which means he'll combine grubbing with imbibing while he's in New York. "Our cocktail program will focus on classic cocktails -- things like the Tom Collins, Moscow Mule, Old Fashioned, Harvey Wallbanger and Manhattan -- and we're definitely staying away from frou-frou cocktails with a ton of ingredients," he promises.

Central's beverage program will also focus on wines, but beer won't be a big draw. "Beer will play a small part of what we do, and we'll have three beers on tap, along with a selection of bottles, but the majority of our efforts will be driven by wine -- including wines on tap -- and signature cocktails," says Barto.

The space, which will seat 65 to seventy in the dining room, an additional 25 in the bar and lounge and thirty to forty on the patio, is currently under construction, and when it opens early this summer, Barto insists, Denver diners will be impressed. "We spent a ton of time researching award-winning restaurant designs, and used those as inspiration for our own design. It's a really cool mash-up of rustic, nostalgic and modern," he says. And while Barto admits that it "sounds like it may be a hard bridge to gap," he stresses that the "designers have done an awesome job."

Central won't open until late May or early June, but you can get a taste of what Barto has up his culinary sleeve much sooner than that. On March 9 and 10, Barto and his crew, along with Hush Concepts, will host a five-course pop-up dinner, paired with wines and cocktails, in an undisclosed location downtown; tickets are currently on sale for $115 per person at www.hushdenver.com/reservations.

"We thought it would be a great opportunity for us to debut with another organization that has a good reputation, and we also thought it would give us a good test-drive," says Barto, who will cook alongside a potential sous chef candidate.

"I'm excited for the Hush dinner, and I can't wait for the restaurant to open so people can see what we're all about," says Barto. "We hope to open a restaurant in Denver that's different, and we're working hard to create a unique, comfortable space that will really show our guests great hospitality."

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