Now that official COVID-19 dining restrictions are a thing of the past in Colorado, bar and restaurant openings are making a big comeback. Also making a comeback is our First Look series, which offers an inside assessment of the latest additions to Denver's culinary scene. Next up: Carmine's on McGregor Square, which officially opens June 18.
What: Carmine's on McGregor Square
Where: 1951 Wazee Street
When: Open daily from 5 to 10 p.m.
For more info: Visit mcgregor.carminescolorado.com
What we saw: The decor is lighter than at the original Carmine's on Penn, which has been serving Italian food and wine on South Pennsylvania Avenue since 1994. That was intentional, according to owner Brad Ritter, who purchased Carmine's on Penn in 2006 and chose McGregor Square for its first expansion.
"For years, so many people would say, 'You need to open a Carmine's in my neighborhood,'" he explains. While he considered other possibilities, it wasn't until he was approached about this Colorado Rockies development that he decided to add a second Carmine's. "How could you say no to this opportunity?" he asks.
"We wanted this location to be a little different but still familiar," to longtime fans of the original Carmine's, Ritter continues. As at the OG, the tables at the McGregor Square location are covered in brown paper and set with a glass cup filled with crayons. Those are used not only by kids (or adults — no one will judge here) to color, but also by a server to write down your order. Instead of handing you a menu, the server will discuss the possibilities with you verbally. And while there are menu boards hanging above each room, it's best to trust the process.
Dishes are served family-style and come in sizes meant for two or four (though when lunch is added soon, that menu will include dishes for single diners). That explains the sticker shock you may feel when you first catch a glimpse of the prices, but once you split the cost per person, Carmine's is an affordable option.
"We try not to take ourselves too seriously," Ritter explains. "We're not trying to be the most expensive or most exclusive; we want families to be able to come for dinner and a ball game and go home not feeling guilty about how much they spent."
Whether you're bringing the kids along or are having an adult evening, be sure to check out the wine racks on the bar wall — they'll hold 800 bottles once they're all filled. While the wine list is printed and available for browsing, you can certainly trust your server to talk you through those selections, too.
What surprised us: The fact that gloves for staff have jumped in price from $48 per box before the pandemic to $198 now. That's just one of the struggles that Ritter has faced recently as a restaurant owner, but the McGregor Square location was a bright spot for him and his team. "It's been so exciting to have something to look forward to," he says.
And his commitment to seeing the project through has paid off: The new location is a comforting addition to the area. In just a few weeks, McGregor Square has really come to life. It started to show signs of its potential when The Original and The Rally Bar opened in the Rally hotel in April, but now that Tom's Watch Bar is open and Rockies season is in full swing, you can stand under the giant outdoor screen and watch fans pour into Coors Field for a high-energy fix.
Stopping in at Carmine's during its soft opening, the easy ambience felt a world away from the hectic atmosphere outside, even though you can watch the action on that looming screen through the windows of the back room. Maybe it's those crayons ("We go through a lot," Ritter confirms), or just the natural conversation that grows from that verbal menu approach — the kind of casual encounter we've all been missing for so long.
Another comforting fact: Both Carmine's locations make everything from scratch, including the cured meats, such as the pancetta used in the carbonara, and the limoncello that will soon be available at the bar. A new carrot side dish comes on a bed of creamy ricotta and is topped with basil pesto and drizzled with garlic honey fermented in-house.
This second Carmine's may be shiny and new, but it feels familiar in a way that makes you want to linger a little longer and order that second glass of wine (or another bottle; the restaurant will happily cork an unfinished one for you).
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