Colorado History

Like Its Fireplace, Memories of Colt & Gray Have a Warm Glow

Colt & Gray created lots of warm memories.
Colt & Gray created lots of warm memories. courtesy Laura Shunk
On December 4, Colt & Gray announced that it — along with siblings Ste. Ellie and Viande — will close on December 21, after its eleventh annual Drink-the-Bar-Dry party.

Some restaurant closures hit hard. This one feels especially poignant.

The first time I went to Colt & Gray, I spent eleven hours there. I’d struck up a conversation with barman Kevin Burke over a lingering brunch at the bar, and left only when I had to make a dinner reservation in another neighborhood. After that meal turned out to be a disappointment, I found myself pulled back to Colt & Gray’s intoxicating mix of whiskey cocktails, sticky toffee pudding and warmth. I closed the bar down for the first of many times that night, sharing an amaro with Burke as he mopped up.

This was in late 2009, when the wounds of the recession were fresh, and diners simultaneously craving comfort and change brought forth an era of classic cocktails, gastropubs and a new kind of abundance — of meats, sweets, fancified fried food and brown booze. Colt & Gray chef-owner Nelson Perkins, who’d given up a career in finance to pursue his dream restaurant, had ushered that new era into Denver in August that year, when he unleashed upon the city a menu of offal and pork belly, blue-cheese gougères and bacon caramel corn, bespoke cocktails and an opulent burger. Colt & Gray was Denver’s torchbearer along a new frontier in national dining that was at once novel and familiar, and it was one of a spate of openings in those few years that represented this town’s potential to become a culinary magnet.

click to enlarge At the bar at Colt & Gray. - LAURA SHUNK
At the bar at Colt & Gray.
Laura Shunk
But more than that, Colt & Gray was a haunt, a hub, a fixture — as close to a Gas Light or a Montparnasse cafe as we had in those years in the Mile High. Journalists, gourmands, spirits aficionados and industry folk all made the bar a regular stop — usually close to midnight, when we’d share a nightcap and a snack, chat with Burke and his barkeeps as they closed up shop, and then, occasionally, amble together down the street to My Brother’s Bar for one last toast.

I owe half my friendships in this city to Colt & Gray — some forged slowly across the bar over multiple one-cocktail evenings, some cemented lightning-quick over a PBR shotgun on a rowdy weekend night, when the ever-present cheeky backbone of the place broke through the elegant facade.

I also owe the place much of my career. When I became the food critic for Westword in 2010, I received most of my best news tips and got some of my best story ideas while sitting at that bar. And when I was feeling frustrated with a piece that wouldn’t quite come together, a crispy trotter, a tart daiquiri and Burke’s witty insight usually got the gears turning.

click to enlarge A farewell food tray. - LAURA SHUNK
A farewell food tray.
Laura Shunk
Colt served as the setting for some of my biggest moments in the early 2010s: for an epic birthday party when I licked my plate clean of foie gras sauce, for a still-legendary family feast when we shared a lamb’s head, for my last meal before I moved away in 2012, when the kitchen sent a sheet tray of greatest hits. But it was also the source of unending small pleasures: of games of weeknight cribbage over snacks and drinks, of a rare pour snuck unceremoniously across the bartop, of every patron at the counter air-drumming in unison to the climax of "In the Air Tonight," by Phil Collins.

Like everything in the fleeting days of that post-recession era, Colt & Gray was serious, but it never took itself too seriously. The world has changed since 2009; our anxiety is a little more all-encompassing, a little less fun. Dining has changed since 2009, too: Excess gave way to low-ABV cocktails, grain bowls and vegetable-forward cooking.

It would have been lovely to watch Colt & Gray and its downstairs siblings age into true Denver institutions. And in a way, they will: Many alums of these establishments have moved on, running different kitchens, pouring behind different bars.

As for the place itself, though, nostalgia will have to do. Like its cozy fireplace, memories of Colt & Gray will always have a warm glow.
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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk