When chef/restaurateur Justin Cucci opened Root Down in 2008, guests were wowed by reclaimed gymnasium floors, a room divider festooned with old telephones, and remnants from the building's previous incarnation as an auto mechanic's garage cleverly given a second life. That year was the beginning of the Great Recession, though, and so upcycling, reusing and cutting costs on design seemed the thing to do. But over the years, as the chef added Linger, Root Down DIA and Ophelia's Electric Soapbox to his roster of Edible Beats restaurants, we learned that that's just what Cucci does. And his eclectic, joyous approach to restaurant design is bubbling up again at 3915 Tennyson Street, with the opening of Vital Root in what was was once a Mountain Man Nut & Fruit Co. outpost.
The idea for Vital Root took shape with the help of Desi Springer, founder of the Vital Center for Mind-Body Health, a yoga and wellness studio next door. Cucci and Springer worked together to create a menu based on Ayurvedic principles that would be both nourishing and delicious. That means you'll find dishes that are primarily plant-based, with some eggs, ghee and cheese, but no meat. "I feel better when I eat plant-based food, and this is a celebration of that," Cucci explains.
Additionally, the menu features ingredients with healthful or "superfood" status: medicinal mushrooms, turmeric, spirulina, seaweed and chia seeds, for example. But it's not Cucci's intent to be dogmatic or oppressive when it comes to food choices. "At the end of the day, it has to be delicious," he adds.
Flavors span the globe in much the same way as at the other Edible Beats restaurants; pho spring rolls, yuba noodles and avocado-and-sorrel hummus grace the appetizer list, while dashes of miso, sofrito, vindaloo and pesto perk up soups, noodle bowls, sandwiches and entrees.
Vital Root opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast, which includes nutrient-packed smoothies and cold-pressed juices as well as more traditional quick-service options like breakfast burritos, egg sandwiches, granola with yogurt and a "no-grain" cereal made with quinoa, pumpkin seeds, almond milk, coconut and berries. Sugars are kept to a minimum and primarily come from maple syrup, honey and coconut sugar; for breakfast bowls and cereals, guests will be left to sweeten their dishes to taste. "Sugar is definitely one of the battles we're trying to fight here," Cucci notes.
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Ciders, local beers, organic wine and low-alcohol cocktails made from fresh juices and house-grown herbs round out the beverage program.
For the decor, Cucci was inspired by the "gingerbread" style of the former Mountain Man nut shop. The rainbow-hued, scalloped shingles on the front awning were left in place, and the colors were carried through into the dining room. "I try to bring things together that have nothing in common," Cucci says. The space also reminded him of a treehouse, so he worked with his architect — Boss Architecture — to enhance that element. A third inspiration came from his collection of mid-century Bertoia chairs, the cup-shaped, wire-frame seats that add lightness and style to the space. The metal-grid pattern of the chairs continues through the dining room, with room dividers featuring panels reclaimed from a post office, and onto the front and back patios.
"I've never used a designer before, and I've been happy with the results," Cucci says. He admits to being a collector and likes to fill his restaurants with unique details, but just enough "so that it doesn't look like Sanford & Son."
One other feature of Vital Root combines design with the kitchen's mission: A "Vital Vitals" digital display that keeps track of the restaurant's statistics for customers to see, including monthly percentages of how local, organic and non-GMO the products brought into the kitchen are. "The transparency of food in restaurants is not happening yet," Cucci explains. "We're going to try to be incredibly transparent."
If the whole concept seems a little wild, a little overblown, a little trendy, just look to the successes of Linger, which turned a mortuary into one of Denver's top dining destinations, and Ophelia's, which celebrates downtown's sordid past in a building that once housed a brothel, peep-show arcade and adult bookstore.
Vital Root is now serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, using a fast-casual service model to deliver what the team calls "fast (slo) food." The restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 8 a.m to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Keep reading for more photos.