Where: 2901 Larimer Street
When: Open 4 p.m. to close Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to close Friday through Sunday
For more information: Visit federalesdenver.com
What we saw: Larimer Street just keeps on evolving, with the recent opening of Redeemer Pizza, the bar Partners in Crime, the ’60s-inspired Turnover Darling and now Federales, a taco-and-tequila-focused bar that debuts August 11.
The black-metal structure surrounding an open-air patio is the first thing you see when you walk up to Federales, located next to Finn's Manor at the corner of Larimer and 29th streets; it's outfitted with a retractable roof and garage doors. This lot formerly held an auto-repair shop, and the home of the business's owner is a designated historic building that could not be torn down. Instead, it's been covered in black siding with a Federales logo at the top, and will be used as a to-go ordering and pick-up hub.
The Federales concept comes from the Four Corners restaurant group, founded in 2001 by college friends Andy Gloor and Matt Menna; they are also CEO and chief design officer, respectively, at Sterling Bay, the real estate investment and development company behind Chicago's massive Lincoln Yards development. The first Federales opened in 2016 in Chicago's West Loop — a neighborhood that, like RiNo, has gone through a lot of change — and the Federales in Denver is the group's first expansion outside of Chicago, though it plans to open a Dallas location in 2022.
The original idea for Federales was developed in collaboration with Hogsalt, the group behind Brendan Sodikoff's Au Cheval. In fact, that's where the name came from — though Hogsalt is no longer associated with the brand. Since "Federales" is slang for the former Mexican national police force and the term holds some negative connotations for the Hispanic community, it seems a somewhat odd choice for the name of a concept built on tacos and tequila from a group with no Hispanic roots to speak of.
The signature Ring the Bell shots at Federales were also inspired by an experience in Mexico, where Gloor visited an all-inclusive resort with a bar where guests threw their empty shot glasses at a bell when it rang. At Federales, the glasses are made of ice (a safer option); patrons choose from a list of six types of tequila for $10 per shot, served at a tequila barrel on the patio where, after the shot is downed, the ice glass is pitched at a bell hung about ten feet away. Hitting it will earn you cheers, and as Doherty explains, the tradition has the same effect as a sizzling plate of fajitas being walked through a dining room: It draws the attention of guests and, in this case, creates demand for more Ring the Bell shots.
Cocktails, which range from $8 to $14, are also tequila-heavy. There are seven margaritas, including a green chile variation — the bar's nod to Denver — along with six frozen cocktails and eleven other options, from a mezcal old-fashioned to a jalapeño gimlet. The beer list is heavy on local brews — which is fitting, since you could throw one of those ice shot glasses from the patio and hit Ratio or maybe even Our Mutual Friend if you've got a really good arm.
The food menu offers typical crowd-pleasing fare, including queso fundido ($12) and the Federales take on Brussels sprouts ($9) — the veggie we still can't seem to escape. The real focus, though, is on tacos ($4 to $5.50), which come on corn or flour tortillas made in-house. They're available in traditional options like "pork and pineapple" (the Federales version of al pastor, with shredded pork rather than meat that's been cooked on a spit), as well spicy chicken (fried chicken drizzled in spicy ranch) and the gringo taco supreme in a crispy shell, likely inspired by the Taco Bell-fueled menu-development brainstorm session that took place when the team locked down its move into Denver.
residents identify as Hispanic or Latino and there's no shortage of Mexican restaurants with standout tacos. "Denver's just a cool town," Doherty explains. "Our core clientele is the post-collegiate young professional, and they're everywhere here...and then when you find this neighborhood, you're like, 'Wow, this feels very familiar to what five years ago in Chicago [the West Loop] did.' ... We felt tacos, tequila and margaritas would fit in this neighborhood perfectly."
In fact, the stretch of Larimer where Federales is located once boasted several Mexican restaurants — though the only one remaining from that era is La Casa de Manuel, at 3158 Larimer. Denver restaurateurs also thought the tacos/tequila formula would work well here, including Troy Guard, who in 2013 opened his first Los Chingones at 2463 Larimer (right by what had been home to the Bamboo Hut, one of the city's best Mexican dives), and Juan Padró, whose Culinary Creative group added Mister Oso at 3163 Larimer in 2019.
The opening of Federales marks the third out-of-state concept to appear on this block, where it joins Barcelona Wine Bar (which was founded in Connecticut and now has eighteen locations around the country) and the ever-popular fast-food burger chain Shake Shack. But there are also some homegrown favorites, including Finn's.
Still, Federales, with its impossible-to-miss structure, big patio and ringing bell, is sure to quickly become a popular spot in the neighborhood, thanks to the heavy-on-the-party atmosphere that fits the current RiNo demographic.
For better or worse.