Chef News

Denver Chefs and Restaurateurs on 2017: More Tapas, Fewer Sliders, Better Breakfast

Lon Symensma would like to see more late-night dining options in the Mile High.
Lon Symensma would like to see more late-night dining options in the Mile High. Mark Antonation
Happy 2017, Denver! As we kick off what promises to be another action-packed year in the Mile High City’s restaurant industry, we asked local chefs and hospitality professionals to tell us what they’d like to see happen over the next twelve months. In response, they issued pleas for better service and better breakfast, put the kibosh on lists and snobbery, and predicted menus full of $15 cocktails and tapas.

Westword: What would you like to see happen in metro Denver’s restaurant industry in 2017?

Mary Nguyen, Olive & Finch: I’d love to see an increase in the number of family-run ethnic restaurants. It’s harder than ever to maintain a healthy restaurant business these days, so Denver diners need to rally around the independent, locally owned places to ensure their long-term survival. Also, we desperately need more skilled restaurant-industry staff. With the huge number of restaurants and higher expectations from sophisticated diners, we need to attract more hospitality workers who are dedicated to a high level of service. I know I’m not alone in my desire to see that happen in 2017!

Lon Symensma, Cho Lon, Cho77 and Concourse (opening in early 2017): I’d love to see more diversification of our ethnic-food scene. I think Denver has a lot of room to grow in that regard. Also, it would be great to see late-night restaurants serving food other than pizza and burgers. Denver certainly has the industry personnel to patronize those types of restaurants.

Elise Wiggins, Cattivella (opening in 2017):
I’d love for us to be able to raise our prices enough to cover the minimum-wage increase. I want my team to have livable wages, but I still need to pay my bills so they can have a job.
Coperta joined the scene in 2016.
Bobby Stuckey, Frasca Food and Wine, Pizzeria Locale and Tavernetta (opening in 2017): Hospitality with the joy of the casualization of restaurants. As an industry, we have lost the edge in the front-of-house for the basics of hospitality. I would love to see it come roaring back. Lachlan [Mackinnon-Patterson] and I ate at Harry’s Bar in Venice last week. When we walked out, we had this crazy high from how good the mechanics were in a casual bar setting. We said if you took the formal white waiter’s jackets off and put them in a blue chambray shirt and a Hedley & Bennett apron, it would be even more startling. The problem is many restaurants have missed…[these] points of service — from knowing each seat’s position number to running food and [performing] basic table maintenance.

Duncan Holmes, Frasca Food and Wine:
I think it would be nice to see the evolution of some really great bakeries making awesome breads and pastries. I know there are a few, but I think a couple more small, production-type bakeries would be a great addition to the city’s dining scene.

Jordan Wallace, Pizzeria Locale Denver: I’d like to see more focus on hospitality. Too often, diners have to choose between great hospitality or great food. Restaurants that offer both are few and far between.

Paul C. Reilly, Coperta and Beast + Bottle: I hope that 2017 brings better healthy breakfast options. Everything is heavy. I’d love to see a quick and healthy option for breakfast burritos and breakfast sandwiches. Also, Denver needs better Indian food. I love eating Indian food, but don’t often cook it at home because of all the spices and pantry items that I don’t usually have. It’s a very comforting cuisine to me.

Aileen V. Reilly, Coperta and Beast + Bottle: I would like to see a more unified effort of restaurants helping and supporting one another and fostering a more cohesive sense of community.

Brian Cohen, Stella’s on 16th (opening January 2017): There has been an influx of new concepts, but I’d like to see more that better cater to the neighborhood in which they are settling. In our case, near Union Station, we found that there are still not enough — or good enough — fast-casual, prepared-food options for LoDo workers and residents. There are plenty of cool new sit-down, full-service concepts, and a number of national chains and old remaining local spots that get busy because there’s nowhere else to go. We’re psyched to bring positive change and something fresh to service the area with Stella’s on 16th.

Gavin Berry, Del Frisco’s: I am hoping — and I genuinely think it is happening — that we will see more and creatively varied BBQ options here in Denver. We’re a great beef-centric city, with adventurous eaters and incredible culinary talent. While I love the BBQ options we have, I think there’s plenty of room for even more creativity and innovation.
Jeff Osaka revived twelve at [email protected]
Mark Antonation
What do you hope goes away?

Josh Wolkon, Vesta and Steuben’s:
While this is unlikely to happen, I’d love to see technology, in general, be extricated from the dining experience. There’s too much technology in the form of cameras, phones, screens, survey devices and other distractions in our dining rooms and bars, interfering with what has the potential to be a genuine, human hospitality experience. Unfortunately, with the labor shortage and increased costs, I believe the industry will continue to look toward technology to replace the human factor. While I understand technology has its place and is not going anywhere, I still want our restaurants to remind our guests of the intangible reward of genuine hospitality. I know it’s unlikely, but you asked for hope.

Jorel Pierce, Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall, Stoic & Genuine and Ultreia (opening 2017): Out-of-town big shots thinking that they have a handle on Denver’s needs. We are still plenty capable of satisfying our local clientele. Additionally, I think that Denver chefs deserve the chance to be paid credit for elevating us into a higher tier of food, drink and hospitality. We want to be a top-tier market; we can do it.

Jeff Osaka, Sushi-Rama, Osaka Ramen and [email protected]: Lists.

McLain Hedges, RiNo Yacht Club and the Proper Pour: The idea of “trends.” If someone makes a great kale salad, then fuck, yeah! If someone is killing it with tiki drinks, word! Don’t do something just because someone else is doing it or because it’s “trendy” — but if you’re doing something well and you’re proud of the product, then awesome. Also, be humble, be honest and be genuine. You aren’t the best in the world, so please don’t act like it.

Chad Michael George, The Way Back: Fried Brussels sprouts and sliders.

Troy Guard, TAG Restaurant Group:
The need to “define” new concepts. Why do we have to put restaurants into buckets, like “modern American bistro” or “classic French brasserie”? The best restaurants and chefs around the country are just serving really kick-ass food, inspired by their travels and family and personal passion, without having to label or define themselves or their culinary styles. I hope Denver diners can stop asking “What IS it?” about a restaurant and just enjoy the experience.

Robert Thompson, Punch Bowl Social: Beverage snobbery. We exist for our customers, not our own gratifications. Be snobby with your fellow bartenders and at competitions (if you must), but leave it at the door when you’re serving guests.
click to enlarge
Juan Padro predicts Denver will see an influx of tapas in 2017.
Danielle Lirette
Any foods/drinks you think are really going to hit menus hard?

Jensen Cummings, Brewed Food: Fermented foods are going to continue to evolve beyond favorites like kimchi and sauerkraut. Miso will have a breakout year!

Juan Padro, Bar Dough, Highland Tap & Burger, Sloan’s Lake Tap & Burger and Señor Bear (opening March 2017): I feel like tapas are going to be big. Jen Jasinski, Justin Cucci and David Lopez are all opening tapas places.

Brendan Flood, Bistro Vendôme: Squid and really good vermouth. But not together. Or maybe...

Kevin Burke, Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie: I’ve been watching drink prices slowly flirt with the $15 mark on cocktail menus. I’ve always thought that this is the magic number that provides enough financial cover for a bar to do whatever the fuck it wants to. It creates an R&D budget and provides enough coverage to [carry] eau de vie, Japanese whisky, Mezcal and the whole list of “This is too amazing, I wish I could introduce people to it, but it’s too expensive” bottles [of booze] that could then live in the speed rail.

Bradford Heap, Colterra, Wild Standard and Salt: VEGETABLES! I love featuring items that are low on the food chain. We’re making vegetable entrees so good that guests never feel like they’re missing anything. You won’t feel like you’re sacrificing anything if you don’t have meat on your plate.

Nate Singer, Blackbelly Market:
Butcher beer (pilsner with a fernet float).

Hosea Rosenberg, Blackbelly Market: More unique grains and plants that people are not used to seeing.
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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