Charcoal's slogan is "Fine dining. Affordable prices," but I can recall being nearly bankrupt a couple of times after ordering too much at this Golden Triangle establishment. When I saw Charcoal's happy-hour menu, I was thrilled that I could pig out without having to make an uncomfortable phone call to my accountant. See also: Happy Hour at the Rosa Mia Inn: That Warm and Fuzzy Feeling
Since its opening in 2011, Charcoal has intrigued and puzzled me. I was pulled in by Chef Patrick Lundberg's approach to fine dining with a dash of Scandinavian flavor, but I rarely found the head space to enjoy more full meals there, with so many other Denver restaurants to sample. Charcoal does happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. at the bar, all day Wednesday and the last hour before close, with an emphasis on the kitchen's strengths: appetizers and small plates.
Take the bacon-wrapped dates ($4), for example. They're a staple of boring weddings and corporate catering gigs, but here they're little wonders of fruit and meat engineering, stuffed with Humboldt Fog cheese and wrapped in thick, almost perfectly crisped bacon. They were gone in less than sixty seconds.
Mad props to Charcoal for an excellent happy-hour tap list (Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed IPA for only $4!), but I was hankering for a taste of Charcoal's roots, so for four Washingtons, I was handed a can of Genesee and a shot of akvavit, a Scandinavian liquor with a pleasant taste of caraway.
An order of pork belly ($5) brushed with chipotle barbecue sauce and garnished with orange pickled fennel came out with more care than most typical happy-hour dishes. It was a great cut of pork, the fat and the meat equally crispy. And dessert -- rarely seen on mid-evening happy hours -- was an apricot Maltaise cake ($6), an angelic chaser to the fatty meats before it. Shame about those over-sweetened Palisade peaches, though.
Because it's a bar-only menu, happy hour can be packed; although the crowd is almost entirely buttoned-up office workers, they can get pushy if cornered. Still, Charcoal is unfairly overlooked when it comes to fine dining in Denver, and there's no reason to keep driving down Broadway when you can turn right on 9th and discover something new.
Perfect for: Westword writers. (It's almost next door.) Failing that, the Golden Triangle's nexus of businessmen and -women, high-rise residents and artists would do well to make this happy hour a regular stop.
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Don't miss: If you're into heavier plates, both the short ribs (replaced by pork belly on my visit) and the daily sausage special are FDA-approved sources of protein.