Food News

Hot Takes: The Ten Biggest Food Stories of 2021

Dave's Hot Chicken is one of several hot chicken joints that opened in Denver in 2021.
Dave's Hot Chicken is one of several hot chicken joints that opened in Denver in 2021. Dave's Hot Chicken
After a pair of indoor dining shutdowns and never-ending changes in rules and regulations upended the hospitality industry in 2020, restaurateurs were eager to welcome 2021. The year started out on a positive note when Governor Jared Polis announced that counties at level red (remember those color-coded days?) would move to level orange on January 4.

That meant that dining rooms could reopen, and while there hasn't been another full-on shutdown of indoor dining since, 2021 came with its own set of challenges. From supply-chain issues to staffing shortages, restaurants and bars have continued to take hits. But most have persevered, in the process gaining fresh perspectives that could result in a stronger industry going forward.

And hot chicken — there was a lot of that, too. Here are the ten biggest food stories of 2021:
click to enlarge FNG was closed temporarily because of the staffing shortage. - MIKE CAMPBELL
FNG was closed temporarily because of the staffing shortage.
Mike Campbell
Staffing shortages
When indoor dining shut down in 2020, most owners and operators were forced to lay off a majority of their staffers. While out of work, many former restaurant and bar workers opted to leave the industry altogether, or set off to start their own new ventures. Why? The reasons are plentiful. Hospitality work has long been known for its grueling schedules, as well as questions about pay structure, mental health support and work/life balance. One thing most people in the industry agree on, though, is that the staffing shortage isn't simply the result of lazy people staying home to collect unemployment.

As bars and restaurants look to fill empty positions, things have begun to shift. Some are adjusting hours,  cutting brunch and lunch. Many have added service charges to their receipts and begun pooling tips to make pay more equitable. Mental well-being is at the forefront of conversations, and owners are implementing new benefits — and attitudes — in order to make their businesses more welcoming places to work.
click to enlarge Prices for chicken wings continue to rise. - WING WOK
Prices for chicken wings continue to rise.
Wing Wok
Food and supply shortages
Staff wasn't the only thing in short supply in 2021. Everything from boba to chicken wings and rubber gloves to distilling equipment was affected by the widespread supply-chain issues caused by the pandemic. Furniture for new restaurants is on a months-long back order. Crayons for kids jumped in price. And food and drink offerings have had to be constantly adjusted depending on what's available at any given time. As a result, menu prices have been increasing steadily, too. It's not uncommon now to see $15 cocktails and $20 burgers, and that's a trend likely to continue into 2023. 
click to enlarge Señor Bear and all other Culinary Creative restaurant group locations are now requiring proof of vaccine. - MOLLY MARTIN
Señor Bear and all other Culinary Creative restaurant group locations are now requiring proof of vaccine.
Molly Martin
Shifting pandemic rules
As in 2020, the rules for dining out were in flux this year, culminating in the current mask or vax order that leaves it up to restaurants and bars to decide whether to make vaccinations mandatory. Prior to that order, which went into effect on November 24 and is set to expire on January 3 (though an extension is likely), only one major restaurant group in town was requiring proof of vaccine to dine in. Bonanno Concepts officially implemented the policy on September 30, but now many others have done the same. Will that trend continue in 2022? Or will the city or state require proof of vaccination rather than leave it up to businesses? Only time will tell. But there's no question that many other pandemic-era changes, such as expanded outdoor dining and booze to go, will be sticking around.
click to enlarge Three Saints Revival is one of over 300 new restaurants to open in Denver in 2021. - MOLLY MARTIN
Three Saints Revival is one of over 300 new restaurants to open in Denver in 2021.
Molly Martin
New restaurant openings rebound
Over 100 more restaurants opened in 2021 than did the previous year — and the total of just under 300 isn't far behind the pre-pandemic numbers of 2019. While the city lost some beloved institutions like Beast + Bottle and Falling Rock Tap House over the past twelve months, the dining scene continues to grow and evolve in new and exciting ways — a testament to the strength and creativity of Denver's hospitality professionals. From the bright, whimsical Three Saints Revival, which feels like a dreamy escape from everyday realities, to the comforting Lucy's Burger Bar with its cheese-filled Juicy Lucys, fresh options abound — and that's something to celebrate.
click to enlarge Allison Declercq with the oven that's helped her build the Funky Flame. - MOLLY MARTIN
Allison Declercq with the oven that's helped her build the Funky Flame.
Molly Martin
Pandemic-born startups find success
Starting a business in the midst of a global pandemic is challenging, to say the least. But despite the odds,  a lot of scrappy companies and pop-ups gave new ventures a go in 2020 — and in 2021, many of them grew in unexpected ways. The Funky Flame founder Allison Declercq started selling bread made in a wood-fired oven at home in December 2020 and is now cooking pizza and more at the Radiator in Sunnyside and looking to open a brick-and-mortar in 2022. The team behind Split Lip started slinging burgers and hot chicken at pop-ups last summer; by this past September, the concept had moved into Number Thirty Eight and landed on our 2021 list of best new restaurants. For these entrepreneurs, the pandemic was a time to reassess their professional paths and bet on themselves — and now those bets are paying off.
click to enlarge The veggie platter has been a popular option at Shiro on the Go, a ghost kitchen that opened in 2021. - MOLLY MARTIN
The veggie platter has been a popular option at Shiro on the Go, a ghost kitchen that opened in 2021.
Molly Martin
Ghost kitchens and to-go are here to stay
Ordering delivery and pick-up remains a popular way to dine, especially as new COVID variants continue to spread. Ghost kitchens give concepts a low-overhead path to start selling food, while established restaurants that survived for so long on only to-go business in 2020 continue to improve those options. Even fine-dining establishments like Olivia and Tavernetta have continued to offer to-go menus — a welcome option for those who prefer to avoid crowds but still want to enjoy a high-quality meal.
click to enlarge Culinary Dropout is owned and operated by Fox Restaurant Concepts, a company based in Arizona. - FROM THE HIP PHOTO
Culinary Dropout is owned and operated by Fox Restaurant Concepts, a company based in Arizona.
From the Hip Photo
Out-of-state concepts moving to Denver
The list of new restaurant openings in 2021 was long, but many of the names on that list didn't have local roots. New locations of concepts already established in other states have been cropping up in large numbers around the metro area. On the one hand, this means that companies view Denver as a viable market — a sign of the strength of the dining scene here. But that also makes it tougher for smaller operators to find affordable places to open, as they're unable to compete with bigger names backed by bigger money (think Giordano's and Federales). As Denver continues to grow, companies based outside of Colorado will continue to see it as an appealing market. We just hope that independent restaurants and bars continue to find ways to balance out the scene.
click to enlarge The bottles behind the bar at Awake are all alcohol-free. - COURTESY OF AWAKE
The bottles behind the bar at Awake are all alcohol-free.
Courtesy of Awake
Beverages without the booze
This year, our list of the 100 bars we can't live without includes something new: a bar without booze. Awake opened in May, becoming Denver's first sober bar. While many people upped the ante on drinking while quarantined at home in 2020, non-alcoholic beverage options have been expanding in 2021. You can now find booze-free spirits on liquor-store shelves and cocktails options without the buzz on bar and restaurant menus all around town. Denver remains a city that loves cold beer and tipsy nights out, but it's also getting easier to take a break — or abstain completely — without having to resort to ordering tonic with a lime. Or simply staying home.
click to enlarge Perfectly paired: TRVE Brewing is the new Denver home of Music City Hot Chicken. - KEVIN KIRSHNER
Perfectly paired: TRVE Brewing is the new Denver home of Music City Hot Chicken.
Kevin Kirshner
Hot chicken is a hot commodity
If there's one food that landed hard in Denver in 2021, it was hot chicken. Although the concept has its roots in Nashville, this spicy specialty seems to be everywhere in the Mile High these days. The Los Angeles-based Dave's Hot Chicken now has two locations in Denver. Colorado's first hot chicken joint, Music City, made its way from Fort Collins to South Broadway, opening an outpost inside TRVE Brewing in August. Then there's Lea Jane's, Chicken Rebel, Split Lip, Lou's and more — though the scene got too hot for one concept: In early December, restaurateur Jared Leonard announced that he was closing his Budlong Hot Chicken location at 81 South Pennsylvania Street and would reopen it as Montreal-inspired Au Feu, a move motivated in part by the growing hot chicken competition in town — a possible sign that this trend could be cooling.
click to enlarge Casa Bonita announced Dana Rodriguez as its new executive chef. - EVAN SEMÓN
Casa Bonita announced Dana Rodriguez as its new executive chef.
Evan Semón
The future of Casa Bonita
The future of the pink eatertainment palace, which has been closed since March 2020, looked uncertain for much of the year. In April, Casa Bonita's owner filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and while a local group led by Casa Bonita aficionado Andrew Novick stepped in to try and save the landmark, no deal emerged. But then the rumors started. There were rumblings that Colorado natives Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park (which immortalized Casa Bonita in a 2003 episode), might actually purchase it. Governor Jared Polis confirmed the news in an interview with Parker and Stone in August; by September, the deal was official. The latest twist in the saga could have been pulled straight from an episode of South Park: Dana Rodriguez, who once applied to work in Casa Bonita's kitchen only to be told she didn't have enough experience, will become its executive chef. The sopaipillas will remain, she says, but the food will certainly be improved — ensuring that one of the most anticipated moments to come in 2022 will be the reopening of this Lakewood icon. 
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin