In last week's Bite Me, I got into the ongoing saga of the Master family and their restaurant empire, which now consists of just one Denver restaurant: Mel's Anti-Bistro, at 1120 East Sixth Avenue. Talking with Mel and Jane and Charlie, I realized that I hadn't talked with one of their ex-cooks, Sean Kelly, in like, forever.
Kelly pulled the plug on his own Sixth Avenue restaurant, Somethin' Else, almost two years ago, and the space was turned into Fruition by a couple former members of Frank Bonanno's crew (just for the record, Bonanno once cooked for the Masters, too). Shortly after making the announcement that he was shuttering his place, Kelly decided to throw in with Mark Berzins and his Little Pub Co., which owned a bunch of bar properties around town.
This seemed strange for several reasons. First, Kelly had always been something of an iconoclast in the business — a guy who went his own way when he was in a good mood and went the opposite way from everyone else when he was feeling feisty. Then there was the fact that he'd never been a big fan of working for someone else, preferring to run his own house and his own kitchen by his own rules, even when that involved running a one-man show — as he did at Somethin' Else. And finally: Kelly was a chef, and Berzins's addresses (all of them bars, most of them small, neighborhood joints) weren't exactly drawing in crowds because of the excellence of their kitchens.
And yet Kelly took the job — overseeing the pub grub at places like the Irish Hound, Salty Rita's, Señor Rita's and Don's Club Tavern (aka Don's Mixed Drinks, aka No Kitchen in Sight). Stranger still, Kelly's been happy at Little Pub — and Berzins has been happy with the work Kelly's been doing. And though last year was a little slow for a company that's been growing into a big dog (mostly owing to Berzins's needing to gather cash — about twenty million — for his bid to snatch up John Hickenlooper's shares in the Wynkoop Restaurant Group, which ended up being bought out of a blind trust by the remaining partners), 2008 has been busy, and the next few months will be busier still.
For starters, two months ago Berzins picked up the British Bulldog, at 2052 Stout Street — the former Punch Bowl, a place now known for its stouts and lagers, and also for its strange British/Pakistani/American fusion bar cuisine and big English breakfasts during soccer season. Kelly has already visited the place and met with the chef, Berzins told me, and will likely be changing "a few things" because some items on the menu were regularly going straight into the trash at the end of the night. "Things where they throw away more than they sell," Berzins said. "The menu might tighten up a little, but it will still be that same menu."
At the same time that he was picking up the Bulldog, Berzins took over the former Hong Kong Cafe space, at 2401 South University Boulevard, which he's turning into a brand-new spot called The Pioneer. "The Pioneer is going to be great," Berzins told me. "It's the first place Sean has opened for us without someone screwing it up before him."
As for Don's, Berzins bought out the old pet store next door just so he could put some decent bathrooms in the joint. "That's going to be good news," he said, "especially for the women. Now they won't have to worry about falling through the floor when they go to the bathroom."
Wait a minute — there are women who go to Don's?
Earlier this year, Little Pub also bought Rooster's, at 120th and Sheridan in Broomfield. "I found out they were going to tear it down to make way for a Wal-Mart," Berzins explained. (Actually, Wal-Mart will be going into the space once occupied by Barber's Poultry, while Rooster's was going to be leveled to make way for something called Broomfield Corners, a companion development.) Instead, Berzins is turning it into a bar called The Old Man, which will be decorated with pictures of his dad, Vilis Berzins (who also happens to be the "creative director, creative genius" for Little Pub, his son says), as well as pictures of his grandfather and the dads and grandfathers of the staff — all raising glasses of beer, of course. And Berzins also got in on a space down at 20th and Sheridan, a former bowling alley that he's turning into another neighborhood joint called The Cooler. The gimmick? Nothing but beers in cans — another idea that came from Vilis Berzins — which sounds awesome.
"Wait till you see the place," Mark Berzins told me. "It's going to be so cool."
And as for Kelly? He's been hard at work, overseeing food-service ops at every one of the eleven-going-on-fourteen Little Pub properties. He's got a couple of lieutenants working under him now — guys he's trained and brought up to see things his way — and is starting to make "some serious inroads." The Pioneer will lead the way; that's the project Berzins sounds most excited about (not counting Don's bathrooms) — and for a change, this time he's excited about the food.
We all scream: Open just over a month, Little Man Ice Cream — the giant silver milk can with a patio attached at 2620 16th Street (right by Lola) — is already a neighborhood landmark. Inspiration for the place came from owner Paul Tamburello's own past: a grandfather who owned an ice cream store in Chicago in the 1930s. Little Man did a booming business in Denver's wicked heat, serving up handmade ice cream in homemade waffle cones, hand-mixed sodas, ice cream bars and sandwiches, root beer floats — the works. But the place doesn't plan to shut down when this broiling summer gives way to winter's chill. Instead, with the snow will come a menu shift and the addition of hot soups, chili, fresh-baked bread and hot chocolate.
I recently talked to Nik Isaac, "a humble employee" at Little Man, and he told me that while the joint has been jumping almost every night this summer, with crowds "packed to the sidewalk," there'd always been a plan to keep the registers ringing year-round. "Winters in Denver kinda suck, you know?" he said, so Little Man wants to be there for the snow-bound neighbors, switching on the soup kettles when the ice cream machines go quiet and adding a bank of patio heaters to keep everyone toasty.
Just a couple of blocks away is another new attraction: Red Trolley Coffee, Cake and Cone, at 2639 West 32nd Avenue. Open almost three months, Red Trolley is in a very cool old building — with wood like a church and a vibe like a longtime neighborhood hangout — with a killer location (smack in the middle of the panadería/taquería stretch of West 32nd, across the street from Taquería Patzcuaro).
Towards the end of the heat wave, I stopped by Red Trolley looking for a chocolate-covered sea salt and caramel gelato concoction that I'd been told by a trusted source was the kind of thing men kill for. He'd almost drool when he spoke of it and make unattractive guttural noises rarely heard outside of a zoo or inpatient mental facility. When ice cream affects a man that deeply, I gotta try it, I thought. Unfortunately, because Red Trolley makes everything fresh every day (waffle cones, ice cream, even the marshmallow for the rocky road), it doesn't offer every flavor every day, and didn't have the one I was looking for.
But it did have Vietnamese cinnamon ice cream, which was awesome — powerfully flavored and served in a soft, almost cakey waffle cone fresh from the iron. There was also a tub of chocolate that looked more like the icing you see on top of a German chocolate cake — all glossy and dense — and about a dozen more flavors that ran the gamut from ordinary (vanilla gelato) to extraordinary (caramel ice cream, laced with caramel and topped with little shattered pieces of caramel — my substitute for the chocolate salted caramel the house didn't have). But no ice cream with gummy bears or crushed candy bars. The folks at Red Trolley are serious about their "everything made in-house" mantra, so if you're looking for that kiddie crap, go to Cold Stone, sucker.
Meanwhile, I'll be in Highland, waddling fatly and happily between the town's newest grown-up ice cream shops.
Leftovers: It's lights out for Moon Time, at 846 Broadway, as well as La Praviana, farther down the street at 2231 South Broadway. But it looks like Blake Street Vault could be opening any day at 1526 Blake Street, in a LoDo block that's turning into a real restaurant row.
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