Nocturne puts on a show every night, so the least I could do was to get into character. Just over a year old in a storied space on 27th Street, Nocturne is realized in such a classy way that it begs you to rise to the occasion, even if the art-deco fixtures, better suited for mood light at midnight, look strange in bright sunlight. And classy doesn't have to mean expensive here, with a pre-show happy hour that sets the stage for a chill, kind of blue evening.
I did feel like a different person as soon as I walked into Nocturne. A curtain parts, and you're led to the bar or the stage-facing rail, the two places where happy hour is served Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. to close. Yes, the decor and soaring layout, with mezzanine seating overlooking the stage, are impressive, but what really sells the illusion is the service. It's not just thorough, but genuinely caring, accommodating and helpful enough to be immortalized in print in this year's Best of Denver. That helps to fill the silence before the band takes the stage — and so does a classic martini. They're half off (about $7) whichever way you want 'em, and so are some bubbly wines and bottled beers. There's little better than a gin martini to lubricate the mind for jazz, which begins six nights a week at 7 p.m., just as happy hour transitions into supper.
Alcohol and discounts also help smooth over the fact that Nocturne is mad expensive, from the higher-shelf mixed drinks to the food selections. It makes sense when you add the value of nightly entertainment, and if you're careful you can indeed leave with a light bill, but you might leave hungry. You'll forget these details once again when you order a few gnocchi fritto ($1 apiece), airy and fleeting bits of delightful fried pasta dough with a smear of fruit mostarda, lightly crisped housemade pancetta and a shower of tart Italian cheese. They show off the imagination of the kitchen without reaching too far, as the fare at Nocturne has evolved over the past year from Cecil Taylor avant-garde to Louis Armstrong harmonies.
Speaking of which, the $49 tasting menu inspired by Hot Five-era Louis might be out of your price range, but a $4 muffuletta slider follows the French Quarter theme. It's a palm-sized portion of ham, pancetta and capicola, with a coarse pat of giardiniera and mozzarella carefully melted on everything. With nearly everything housemade to complement one another, this is a junior version of what would be a masterful grinder — but it's hard to imagine paying $7 for it after 7 p.m. Two big ol' oysters with fixings for $1.75 a pop, though — that's quite reasonable, especially when these beauties are topped with yellow-beet mignonette and jalapeño granita that pings beautifully off the ocean brine.
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SHOW ME HOW
As Tuesday-night staple the Adam Bartczak Democracy begins to jam, the crowd is divided between people chatting and those appreciating the music. Though happy hours paired with jazz aren't rare in this town, the dynamic at Nocturne is unique: There's no escaping the sounds from the stage, and they go on all night (with periodic breaks, of course). Nocturne creates a fusion of music, cuisine and happy hour that lives up to its classy atmosphere. It makes you want to fancy yourself up just to keep up.
Perfect For: Eating like a musician. Happy hour runs late, and the night's entertainment usually crowds the bar for late-night refreshment and chatting with patrons.
Don't Miss: One of the hottest jazz tickets is town is the Gift of Jazz Festival this Saturday, which features the Greg Harris Vibe Quintet, the Eric Gunnison Trio, the Annie Booth trio and other local favorites.