When the Way Back first opened on West 38th Avenue in the spring of 2016, it quickly captured an enthusiastic audience that applauded its locavore ethos, ambitious bar and inventive menu, which was even more remarkable for the fact that all dishes came out of a food truck parked behind the property. The restaurant had really hit its stride last summer when partners Chad Michael George, Kade Gianinetti and Jared Schwartz announced they were shuttering that address and reopening at 3963 Tennyson Street — and not only would this second iteration feature a larger space, but it would have a real kitchen.
After several months of refurbishment, the guys are finally closing in on a late-February opening. And when they begin serving, they’ll have some serious new kitchen talent at the helm: The Way Back’s new head chef is Jon Lavelle, who spent the past seven years at Danny Meyer’s fine-dining Italian restaurant Maialino in New York, most recently as chef de cuisine.
Lavelle isn’t exactly a stranger to Denver; he went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, then spent some time cooking at Duo and Olivea before leaving for the Big Apple. A colleague at Duo got him his Maialino interview, where he progressed through the ranks. “I loved the vibe at Maialino,” he says. “People seemed happy; they loved to be there, and there was the proximity to the Greenmarket. I thought I’d be there for two years, but they kept promoting me — that company affords you so much opportunity.”
Recently, though, he and his girlfriend started talking about where they’d go next, and Denver came up as a possibility. “We wanted something a little more manageable in terms of life,” Lavelle explains.
He met the Way Back team, and it felt like an ideal match. “Their ethos aligned with what I wanted to do” — especially, he says, when it came to local and sustainable sourcing, and building relationships with farmers throughout the state.
Lavelle may have spent the past seven years cooking Roman food, but he has no plans to transform the Way Back into an Italian restaurant. “I love Italian food, I love that buttoned-up service — but I never saw myself doing that forever,” he says. “Now that I’m not confined to that lens of Roman food, I’m going to branch out.”
To that end, he’ll channel the inventive whimsy of the original Way Back, he says, and elevate the food, not least because he’ll actually be working out of a kitchen. “There will be really accessible and delicious food that anyone could recognize, but we’ll have really on-point, punchy flavors that draw from all over. There will be surprises,” he promises.
The menu itself will be a run of snacks, vegetable-forward bites, pastas and what Lavelle says are “more aggressively flavored things.” Dishes will be built for sharing, and the menu is being structured so that the best way to dine will be to put together a meal of a number of plates, though he says that doesn’t mean this will be just another small-plates restaurant. “It’s communal in nature, but you can order a three-course meal that will eat like a low-key tasting menu.” The guys are exploring an actual tasting menu, too, though no plans are firm there.
As at the original Way Back, Lavelle plans to change his menu frequently as ingredients come in and out of season, and Lavelle will rely on a network of local farmers for much of his supply. “I lucked into these relationships that the team built previously,” he says. He adds, too, that he’d like to expand those networks and work more closely with farmers to experiment with different ingredients not currently being grown in Colorado.
And he’ll do what he can in-house — from crème fraîche to pickling to buttermilk, aided by his sous-chef, Michael Calabro, who also worked with him at Maialino. “He was my right-hand man in terms of experiments,” says Lavelle. “It’s great to have someone who I’ve known for years, who knows how my mind works, whose palate I know. We have a common set of expectations here.”
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As for opening dishes, look for a novel take on sour cream and onion dip made with corn and oat chips, crème fraîche, and dehydrated onion, dill and chive. Lavelle is also doing a beet salad, charring beets until blackened and then smashing them and tossing them with fermented beet liquid and beet slices, crispy buckwheat, crème fraîche and trout roe. “It’s like the flavors of borscht, but ripped apart and put together in a different way.” And don’t miss the dish that won the partners over during the chef’s tasting: a steelhead trout marinated with fermented citrus and then roasted skin-on until super-crispy, served with guajillo chile purée and charred cauliflower.
Lavelle will also put to work his extensive pasta experience, though he says that section of the menu won’t be typical Italian takes. “One of the keystones to being a really good neighborhood restaurant is to have things people can come have weekly. I want that anchor here to be pasta.”
In addition to the two chefs, the guys also snagged Rachael Wilson, most recently of Rosenberg’s Bagels and Delicatessen, to head up the front of the house.
When the Way Back swings back into business, it will be open for dinner from 4 p.m. to close Tuesday through Saturday. The team plans to add Saturday and Sunday brunch later in the spring.