James Lee back at the Bitter Bar full-time

A year and a half ago, award-winning bartender James Lee gave up his post as bar manager of the Bitter Bar and beverage director of the Big Red F restaurants to embark on a journey that took him first to Salida and then Denver, where he's worked with Troy Guard, Leigh Sullivan, Robert Thompson and Hosea Rosenberg.

And while he says he learned a lot from that, he's now back on board full-time at the Bitter Bar, albeit in a slightly different role.

"I'm the owner, operator, bartender and dishwasher," he says, explaining that he'll function more like a general manager, since he'll be involved in all aspects of the restaurant. "Michael [Cerretani] is still the bar manager. The best part about coming back are the people who are already there, and I don't want to micro-manage them."

He also insists that he never really left. "I was one of the founding partners and the bar manager," he explains. "Even though I went away for a year and a half for other endeavors, I never really severed ties."

Still, during his time away, he gained skills and insights that he's brought back with him to the Bitter Bar. "I learned a lot down in Salida," he says. "And coming back to the Denver area, working with Troy Guard and Leigh Sullivan didn't work out at the end, but I learned a lot from their expertise and how they manage restaurants. I had an amazing time with Robert Thompson at Le Grand. But the best part was meeting all the people in Denver, especially the social-media people. In Denver, all restaurants are involved in the community. I feel like Boulder has a little bit of a lack of that, and I'd like to bring it back."

Lee also has plans for making changes within the Bitter Bar, though he won't be switching up the cocktail list or overseeing a re-conceptualization of the kitchen. "We want to take on this new level of food and service," he says. "I think chef Joe [Arena, who will take over from Sam Proia when he leaves at the end of June] is doing some amazing things. I'm going to support his ideas and his vision to make sure the Bitter Bar has an amazing food program. We're progressing into more of a finger-food menu, but we're offering full-on entree-sized dishes, too."

And he'll help Cerretani facilitate better service at the bar, too. "The cocktails are all on Michael," he says. "That's all up to him, and he's doing a fantastic job. But I'm going to make sure those drinks can be executed in a timely matter. We're opening another service well, and that bartender will only make drinks for people on the floor. At the actual bar, bartenders will be able to talk to customers without getting buried. And we'll be pre-batching cocktails on the list. It's essential for time, and it's really good for the quality, because you get consistent taste."

Lee will also push to balance out the beverage program with more wine and beer. "I don't want to be just known for making craft cocktails," he explains. "I want to feature Burton Daniel, one of the bartenders, who's about to take Level 2 Cicerone certification. That will allow us to really take the beer program to a whole other level."

Lee says he'll stay involved with his other gigs -- which include Blackbelly Catering and the Denver FIVE -- but on a more limited basis, as he's focused on the future of the Bitter Bar and Big Red F. "I'm looking forward to working with Dave Query, John Bachman and Jamey Fader again," he says. "Jamey said to me, 'Let's put the band back together.' I like that."

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk