"I'm basically building a new restaurant that could function on its own if needed," says restaurateur Tommy Lee of the renovations currently underway at Hop Alley, his popular Chinese eatery in RiNo. That wasn't the original plan, though.
Lee, who also owns ramen shop Uncle, which has two locations, opened Hop Alley in a former soy sauce factory on the corner of 35th and Larimer streets (our 2022 pick for the Best Corner for Eating and Drinking) in 2015. With its hip-hop-fueled vibes and exhilarating take on Chinese food, including favorites like bone marrow fried rice and Beijing duck rolls, it quickly gained a reputation as one of the city's top eateries.
Like many restaurants, Hop Alley, which is quite small, added outdoor seating in 2020. After the indoor dining room was able to reopen following the lifting of pandemic restrictions, Lee thought about building a permanent patio on the Larimer Street side of the building. But when the space behind the restaurant, which had been used as an office, became available, he saw a new opportunity. "If I can connect the two spaces in a reasonable manner and have something that can be used year-round, why not do that?" he explains.
But connecting the two spaces is "a little bit of a process," he adds, since it includes removing the current walk-in and getting a new, shorter one, as well as relocating Hop Alley's front door to the 35th Street side.
He's paying his staff through the closure, and says he may host pop-up events at his other restaurants during that time to help cover some of the costs. But he's confident the move will ultimately pay off.
The new space will include a separate dining room complete with its own small kitchen and bar area. "I'm always planning one or two iterations ahead," Lee notes. "This will give us a lot more flexibility." This area, which will have a different look than the original dining room, can be used during regular service or to accommodate smaller private parties. The separate kitchen will also allow for the possibility of pop-ups and guest chef dinners.
If you have a craving for la zi ji or any of Hop Alley's other delectable dishes, reservations are open now through New Year's Eve. But after that, you'll have to wait a bit before you can return to the expanded Hop Alley in 2023.
Hop Alley is located at 3500 Larimer Street and is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, visit hopalleydenver.com.