Exclusive first look: Punch Bowl - Social Food & Drink, opening at the end of October

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This, says Robert Thompson, is the "most ambitious project I've seen in Denver in a long, long time, and I guarantee you that it's going to be worth it."

"This" refers to Punch Bowl - Social Food & Drink, the 23,700-square-foot, 900-person-capacity gastro-diner, bowling alley, Ping-Pong hall, marbles arena, java joint, cocktail lounge, video arcade, patio oasis and triple-threat bar that Thompson, who also owns Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar, has spent the past two and a quarter years pulling together. And if all goes according to plan, the high-reaching restaurateur will unveil the new entertainment and eating mecca at the end of the month.

See also: - Anika Zappe named bar manager of Punch Bowl Social, Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar and Argyll - Big Lots on Broadway to become a big bowling alley and 24/7 diner, courtesy of Argyll's Robert Thompson

When we first broke the news, back in September of 2010, that Thompson had taken over the former Big Lots emporium at First and Broadway, he said that he hoped to open in the fall of 2011, but a project of this magnitude, he also noted, takes time -- and money -- and so while he's just over a year off schedule, he says that he's gone from "Punch Bowl to a punchline to punch-drunk," adding that the wait has also given him time to get every detail right -- and deal with a few unforeseen obstacles. "I couldn't have taken Punch Bowl Social through the asbestos and budget issues without the help of some outstanding local capital partners. They deserve credit for continuing to believe in the project, and their belief will be rewarded once we open."

The space, which includes a mezzanine with its own bar, dining area, a wall devoted to popular video games from the Eighties and Ping-Pong tables, is a lot to take in, beginning with the main floor, where Social Food & Drink -- the diner -- seats 75, plus another 28 at the soapstone bar, long in length and constructed from recycled barn wood.

There's a 2,500-square-foot open kitchen, too, which will be helmed by Sergio Romero, Thompson's longtime chef, who also has a propensity, reveals Thompson, for dropping the F-bomb at every opportunity. "This is the first time that we've had an open kitchen," he admits. It's a new world for us, and we all use the F-bomb," but as a way to curtail the profanity, they're adding a "swear box," and every time a kitchen staffer utters "fuck," they'll be required to drop a fiver in the box; other, more benign swear words will require the staff to donate a dollar. And the money collected, divulges Thompson, will go toward a party fund for the front-of-the-house staff. "I don't know any kitchen guy who thinks it's a good idea to to spend his own money for a party for the waitstaff and bartenders," quips Thompson.

At least the kitchen crew will be immune from anyone overhearing their sailor mouths elsewhere in the brick building, the decor of which Thompson describes as "industrial, Victorian and modern with mountain-lodge elements." And while even Thompson admits that's a mouthful, he and his co-design firm, StudioLemonade, appear to have mastered the theme, whereby each room has its own vibe that sails seamlessly into the next.

A coffee lounge, which will morph into a cocktail parlor in the evening, will benefit from sofas and cushy chairs that invite lingering and garage doors that open to one of two patios, complete with a fire pit, while the main bar, located squarely in the center of the main-level space, is a sphere of wood illuminated by a rustic deer-antler chandelier and surrounded by high-tops surfaced with little marbles and sealed with resin. "This is the Ferrari engine of Punch Bowl," says Thompson, "the rowdy centerpiece." And it's the focus of his beverage program, which is environmentally conscious, as is the space. "We won't be serving any bottled beers," he maintains. Instead, he''ll pour twelve draft beers, most of them local, and serve the remaining brews in cans. And while he's still working out the wine selections, he's hoping that he can do all keg wines, which would eliminate bottles altogether. "It's a hard thing to accomplish with three bars, but we're definitely going to try."

The mammoth quarters also include the "Holiday Lodge," an opulent, high-ceilinged parlor room that's steeped in Victorian trappings -- and has its own two-lane bowling alley. Bedecked with a fireplace and Corinthian pillars, it'll also boast carpeting. "This room, like everything else, is part of the juxtaposition of the modern, Victorian, industrial and modern mountain elements feel," says Thompson, noting, too, that the room can be rented out for private parties. "It's Victorian elegance ratcheted up," he says. And it has its own "Holiday Lodge" signage, which Thompson reveals was the impetus for his design theme. "I came across a photo of a cabin somewhere with a bright-red sign that said "Holiday Lodge' above it, and there was something about the colors, the warmth and the organic feel of the sign that just resonated with me."

That theme drifts to the six-lane bowling alley, also on the main floor. Aristocratic chandeliers, hued turquoise, are suspended from the ceiling, and on the back side of the lanes, where you'll often find TVs, will be throwback hunting images. Next to the bowling alley is a two-story, faux elevator kiosk that supplies rental equipment.

And that's not all: Thompson has secured 125 parking spaces for Punch Bowl Social, a boon, considering the difficulty of parking in Baker. Next spring, the venue will have a rooftop herb and vegetable garden, and the space will be bike-friendly. "We'll have bike racks both inside and outside, and we really encourage people to ride their bikes whenever they can," he says.

When Punch Bowl opens later this month, it'll serve breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late-night menu, along with an early-morning grab-and-go menu of breakfast burritos and pastries, plus coffee from its barista bar. And while Thompson says the menus for each service are still evolving, the emphasis will be on "diner food from all four corners of the country that keeps a high level of culinary integrity and incorporates novel twists."

We'll give you an early glimpse of some of the dishes from the new menus later this week, but in the meantime, I stopped by Punch Bowl yesterday and took some shots of the space -- which, while still in the construction phase, is definitely coming together.

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