Earlier this year, in late April, Strings, the Uptown restaurant that the late Noel Cunningham opened 27 years ago, closed after Cunningham's widow, Tammy, who had been running the restaurant since Cunningham's untimely death in 2011, made the decision to sell the beloved restaurant to Frank Day, founder of Concept Restaurants. And tomorrow, Day, whose company also owns Rialto Cafe, Ignite, Via Baci, Table Mountain Inn & Cantina, the Boulderado, Woody's Wood-Fired Pizza and the forty-year-old Walrus, is opening Humboldt Farm. Fish. Wine., charting a new chapter at the corner of Seventeenth and Humboldt.
"We considered several concepts -- everything from burgers-and-beer to a clam shack -- but what best describes us is relaxed American dining," says Sean Huggard, an East Coast transplant and former chef who's now the director of operations for Concept Restaurants.
The brainstorming sessions, he adds, also focused on "doing right by the space" -- a space that carries years of sentimental memories and history. "It was intimidating and challenging," admits Huggard. "Strings was a neighborhood Cheers, and we knew that we'd need to honor that with top-notch food and great service, but we were fortunate, because we had Tammy's support the whole way -- she was here every day through construction to help us get through the quirks -- and having her confidence made things a lot easier," he says. "She told us that she knew she'd picked the right people to take over Strings, and that means everything."
Still, Huggard, Day and partners Gina Day and Kevin Brown smartly opened a 180-seat restaurant that while preserving the architectural integrity of the quarters, is very different from Strings, starting with the elimination of the former staircase and isolating mezzanine, a move that significantly opened up the lofty, high-ceilinged space. "We really want people to walk through the door and have the kind of feeling you get when you escape from reality for a little while and leave the world behind you," explains Huggard.
To that end, the square footage struts several distinctive spaces, all of which have their own individual attributes. "We kept the original bar -- and left it in its original location -- but we knocked down the wall that separated the bar area from the dining room and added a community table, and it feels so much bigger and open," says Huggard. "It's an area where people can drink and dine in a great, high-energy environment," he adds. And there's a touch of whimsy, too: a hand-painted, black-and-white mural of a tipsy fish pouring a bottle of Silver Oak down its gullet graces a wall next to the bar. "It's a conversation piece, it's fun, and I think it tells people that while we definitely take what we do seriously, we don't take ourselves to seriously," Huggard says.
The atrium, which also existed at Strings, was largely left in tact, as well. "It's like an intimate, sneak-away vacation -- like those back-alley spaces in New Orleans," says Huggard, who adds that he's already getting bookings from groups who want to reserve the sunlit space.
Humboldt's main dining room, hued in shades of grey and sage, is furbished with banquettes and dark wooden tables, a showstopping circular booth that faces the patio and a kitchen community table that squats right next to the open line (complete with a gleaming oyster bar). And the kitchen is commanded by executive chef DJ Nagle, the opening exec chef of North, in Cherry Creek, and chef de cuisine Kollin Gately, who cooked at Madison Street, now TAG Burger Bar.
"This is simple, honest, good, clean food that's chef-driven," says Huggard. "We already have a lot of sustainable businesses that have been around for ten, twenty, forty years, and we're putting dishes on the menu that we hope will still be on there in twenty years. We want to be the kind of restaurant that people come back to week after week -- the kind of restaurant that guests come back to because they have a favorite dish, or a favorite bottle of wine that no one else has," he notes.
And Nagle, says Huggard, is a "huge food geek" who lives for cooking. "This is a really passionate chef who sends me texts in the middle of the night about a vegetable that we've never seen before but that he wants to work with. He and Kollin are just amazing, and they have this incredible energy and creativity," adds Huggard.
The menu, which is largely focused on sustainable seafood, includes everything from oysters on the half shell and charboiled oysters topped with tarragon-lemon butter to shrimp cocktail and a whole fish plated with a pickled vegetable ponzu. "I was a chef on Nantucket for years, so I'm slightly oyster-obsessed, and we knew we wanted to have oysters on the menu, because they're the perfect accompaniment to any meal, but the jumbo shrimp cocktail, the smoked trout dip, the tuna crudo -- they're all fantastic," says Huggard.
Steaks, including the classic Steak Diane; burgers; sandwiches; salads; pastas; and small plates round out the super-approachable board that, thankfully, doesn't resort to a pomp-and-circumstance listacle pimping every farmer, fisherman, rancher or purveyor on the planet. "We're cooking with integrity and honesty, but there's no reason to shove that down people's throats," declares Huggard. Amen to that.
Nagle and Gately will also create a separate "fresh" menu with starters, oysters, simply grilled fish, vegetables and side sauces, and they'll do a daily happy hour menu, too -- a happy hour, says Huggard, that will be "over-the-top impressive." Happy-hour pricing will start at just a dollar per dish, and the most expensive plate will top out at $8. "We'll have the best happy hour in Denver," insists Huggard.
In a few weeks, Humboldt will start serving brunch, along with bottomless bubbles for $15 per person. "The plan is to pour Bellini cocktails, mimosas and champagne with different juices, like ruby red grapefruit juice," says Huggard. And by next spring, the existing street-side patio will have a raised deck and lounge seating. "It's a see-and-be-seen, urban patio that's already awesome, and by next spring, once we raise it and add new furniture, it's going to really, really cool with lots of good energy," adds Huggard.
"This is really a team effort," says Huggard, "and we're focusing on the whole experience, which is the true meaning of hospitality. We're striving for the pursuit of excellence in everything -- food, wine, cocktails and service -- and it really does feel good in here. There's a high degree of energy, and we want to bring a memorable experience to everyone who walks through the door."
Beginning tomorrow, Humboldt will be open for lunch and dinner daily, and happy hour will run from 3 to 6 p.m. I got a sneak peek at the space late last week, and sampled several of the dishes over the weekend. Here's a first look of what you'll see.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.