On Monday, July 17, Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno will unlock the doors to French 75 at 717 17th Street, bestowing downtown Denver with their rendition of a French bistro. This is a project that's been officially in the works for three years, when the Bonannos were approached by the owner of the building at 17th and Stout streets. "He made me an offer I couldn't refuse," says Frank Bonanno. "It's been a dream working with them."
But Bonanno also says he's long harbored ambitions to open a French bistro, a type of restaurant he thinks Denver really needs. "This is an opportunity to cook how I love to cook — to take truly fucking simple food and make it sing on a plate," he says. "I can remember when Brasserie Rouge opened with John Broening as the chef," he says. "I thought it could have been the best restaurant in the city, and it closed. If that opened in that location today, it would be packed. The food was so spot on."
He thinks of French 75 as the younger brother of Mizuna, his fine-dining restaurant with a French tilt, much as he considers casual Osteria Marco the younger sibling to more upscale Luca. Both French 75 and Osteria Marco are whimsical, affordable spin-offs.
French 75 is also more classically French than Mizuna; the menu, which is extensive, includes bistro staples like moules frites, onion soup, Niçoise salad, roasted chicken, duck confit and sole meunière. And with the new restaurant, Bonanno says he's coming full circle on his career. "It's a lot of fun to circle back to my first exec job, at Mel’s; those dishes — things like salmon with whipped potatoes and asparagus — resonated with me. That’s what I have the opportunity to do here. This is straightforward French food; it’s what I love. It was clearly my first passion, or I would have opened an Italian restaurant first [before opening Mizuna, his first restaurant]."
The same menu is served for both lunch and dinner and also includes sandwiches — like a burger and a French dip that Bonanno promises competes with the famous version at Hillstone — plus three different foie gras preparations, several seafood starters and a tableside Caesar salad (one of the few dinner-only items) made with cotija cheese as a nod to the Mexican origins of the dish. Mizuna fans will also be happy to learn that Bonanno's famous lobster macaroni and cheese made the jump to this restaurant, as well.
Complementing that food menu is a drinks list from Bonanno Concepts beverage director Adam Hodak that focuses, unsurprisingly, on the French 75. First there's the classic recipe — made with Leopold's gin, fresh lemon, sugar and Champagne — then variations like the Maison, made with house-pressed watermelon juice, lime and salted lavender, and the Peach Street, featuring pear brandy, Asian-pear juice and verjus blanc. Despite Hodak's aversion to non-alcoholic cocktails — "They rarely sell," he explains — he's also included a French 75 variation with no booze, made with watermelon, Asian-pear juice, verjus, lemon, chamomile and soda water. Eight additional cocktails fill out the list; our eyes are on the Bijou Creek, made with gin, Cinzano Bianco vermouth, yellow Chartreuse and Meyer lemon bitters, and the Bushnell, a blend of Calvados, Dolin Genepi liqueur, salted lavender, fresh grapefruit and cucumber.
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Hodak also wanted a lively happy hour, since much of the crowd in French 75's part of town are office warriors. In addition to standard discounts on specialty cocktails, draft beer and house wine, he's offering full bottles of bubbles for $22, plus half-priced absinthe and reduced prices on pours of Chartreuse.
The space, designed entirely by Jacqueline Bonanno, is anchored by an open kitchen that blends fairly seamlessly with the bar. Green Moroccan tile covers the floor beneath plush charcoal-hued booths, and one wall is completely covered with Chartreuse bottle caps. "We called Chartreuse and asked for caps, and they said no because they thought we wanted baseball caps," says Frank. "We had to explain we were using them as tile."
French 75 will be the Bonannos' tenth active restaurant when it opens next week, and the first they've opened since Salt & Grinder debuted in West Highland in 2014.