The Prohibition-style bar trend, which started in 2000 with Sasha Petraske's Milk & Honey, finally reached Denver last month, when restaurateur Frank Bonanno (Mizuna, Bones, Luca d'Italia, Osteria Marco) and partner Adam Hodak opened Green Russell. The name's inspiration is even older than Prohibition: William Greeneberry "Green" Russell came to Colorado in 1858 to prospect along the South Platte River. And with their cocktail cave below Larimer Square, Bonanno and Hodak have also struck gold — and in the process redeemed the horrible subterranean space that was formerly Below.
Similar to the setup at PDT (Please Don't Tell), a Manhattan bar where patrons enter through Crif Dogs, a hot dog place, then step into a phone booth, identify themselves and wait for a buzzer to open the secret door, you get to Green Russell through a shop called Wednesday's Pie. While this front business is actually open on Wednesdays (and the pie is not to be missed), the bar itself is open only Thursday through Sunday, when it's staffed by Denver's bartending glitterati, moonlighting from their regular gigs. A list of rules is posted at the entryway: No cell phone use is allowed in the bar (except for inside the reclaimed phone booth) and a strict no-standing-room policy is enforced, which helps make the spot feel a little more spacious than it did when it was the dungeon-like Below (which blew). Even bigger than the bar is the kitchen, where the Green Russell crew cooks up some amazing late-night snacks and an incredible Sunday fried-chicken special.
Legend has it that the term "speakeasy" came from real Prohibition-era bartenders telling patrons to "speak easy" when ordering so as not to be overheard and give the spot away — but I loudly ordered an Orange Spiced Fizz ($12). Made with housemade cardamomcello, Sailor Jerry Spiced Navy Rum, Aperol and egg white, along with fresh orange and grapefruit juice, the drink had an appealing viscosity along with a delicious, bitter orange flavor. My friend wanted a cocktail made with vodka; after chastising her too-modern choice, the pros at Green Russell served her a vodka cocktail that she said was the best she'd ever tasted. What's old is new again at Green Russell.