Denver lost one of its best restaurants when chef Justin Brunson announced that he would not be reopening Old Major, which had been dark since all Colorado restaurants were required to cease on-premises dining on March 17. The closing also marked the end of Masterpiece Delicatessen, which had exited its sandwich-shop spot on nearby Central Street at the end of 2019 and taken up residence as Old Major's breakfast and lunch component. But the news wasn't all bad for Brunson (though it was for Old Major fans): His new enterprise, River Bear American Meats, is going strong — and now a familiar name has taken over Old Major's lease at 3316 Tejon Street.
Amos Watts recently purchased the restaurant from Brunson, completing a circle that began back in 2016, when Watts became the head chef at Old Major for about two years. "Justin didn't close the restaurant because it wasn't doing well," Watts explains. "He did it because River Bear is doing great. The fun part of it for him was to pass it on to someone he knew."
Watts has been working on updating the dining room, hiring new staff and hammering out a menu for his new concept, called the Fifth String, which held its soft opening starting August 7 and opens to the public this Wednesday, August 12. The restaurant's name is a nod to the fifth string of a banjo, which Watts plays. You can see the string and its tuning peg — attached to a fork instead of a banjo — in the logo stenciled above the eatery's front entrance.
Inside, the biggest changes, courtesy of Ernst Brothers, are padded banquettes and chairs and a new blue paint job. Wood floors in the back half of the dining room are still in place; Watts points out that they're the original maple floors from when the building held a roller-skating rink nearly 100 years ago, but they've been given a new finish to modernize the look. Old Major regulars will notice that the glassed-in salumi-aging room near the kitchen has been converted into a wine cellar. "There will be less charcuterie here, but we're going to buy from River Bear," Watts notes.
The chef's Colorado career has included leadership positions at Jax Fish House, Acorn, Old Major and Corrida, which he opened with Bryan Dayton (who also owns Acorn) in 2018. Watts left Corrida earlier this year to launch the Fifth String, but he says he remains close friends with his former business partner.
Although he's been an executive chef for nearly a decade, this is Watts's first solo stint as a chef/owner. Opening a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic has had its challenges, he admits, but he isn't the kind of person to let challenges get in his way. "I've never listened to anyone since I was two years old," he says with a laugh.
Watts was able to study how other restaurants are dealing with smaller teams and limited dining-room capacity, and he's implemented some of the good ideas he saw. For starters, he's hired people he knows. His chef de cuisine is Marcos Mendez, whom he hired as a sous chef in his days at Jax and has kept at his side ever since. He's also retained Gene Fereda as general manager; the two worked together when Watts was previously at Old Major. "It's really fun to get the crew back together, because everyone really wants to work together," Watts says. "I love the support from everyone; I feel like everyone's really buying into it."
The opening team is about two-thirds the size of what he would have hired for a "normal opening," Watts explains, since guest capacity is still limited to 50 percent. He's kept all of the tables in the dining room but put houseplants — his wife's suggestion — on tables that won't be used, so that customers will have plenty of space without feeling that something's missing. The restaurant also received permission from the city to add several tables on the sidewalk in front of the building, supplementing the two small patios on the side.
"This was not as scary as it was on paper," Watts says of the opening. "You just have to put forth the effort to follow the CDC protocols."
Face masks, social distancing and a survey asking guests if they felt comfortable were all part of the soft opening, because Watts wants to make sure he's doing the right thing for his employees as well as his customers. For him, the strangest part of following safety guidelines has been realizing just how much of his own cooking he samples throughout the day. "I'm so used to tasting and smelling," he points out. "And that just doesn't happen when you're wearing a mask. Maybe I'll lose some weight, though."
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Old Major was known for its focus on locally raised meats, and Watts is also emphasizing local ingredients at the Fifth String. But the menu is far more produce-driven than that of its predecessor, and there's a substantial pasta selection, as well. Small plates make up most of the dine-in menu, but Watts is also offering a slate of family-style dinners that are built for those who want to take home a good meal, so you might see whole roasted chickens or short ribs for four, along with a variety of house pickles and other sides customized for each dinner. Also be on the lookout for a wine list that will grow along with the eatery's customer base. Watts says he'd like to "spend fifteen grand on wine right now," but he wants to make sure the list is in keeping with what people want.
Dinner and wine will be on the table at the Fifth String from 5 p.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; call 720-420-0622 for details and reservations. Watts says the long-term goal is to add brunch on Saturdays and Sundays and to be open seven days a week.
Only a few months elapsed between the closing of Old Major and the opening of the Fifth String, but it felt like there was a hole in the Highland dining scene while the doors were locked. Watts's new eatery should be music to the ears of neighbors accustomed to good things emanating from this spot.