Being a rebel means sticking with your rebellious ways no matter the consequences. Nothing gold can stay; it's better to burn out than fade away — at least for those who dream outside of the system. So chefs Dan Lasiy and Bo Porytko are locking the doors at Rebel Restaurant come August 4, but they have no regrets.
"We always had this idea to do things different and do it on our own," Lasiy says of the origins of Rebel, which opened in a former dive bar on the industrial edge of the RiNo neighborhood three years ago to the month.
The plan back then was to partner with Black Shirt Brewing as the kitchen side of a brewpub, but BSB needed all of its square footage nearly right off the bat, so Rebel went in search of new digs. The brick bunker of a building that once held Fat Bros. Bar & Grill (and a string of other bars before that) proved perfect for Rebel's mission. The music could be cranked up, the wildly creative dishes coming out of the shoebox kitchen could be served casually, without fuss or fanfare (where foie gras sidled up to tripe on Grandma's Corelle ware), and evocative cocktails shared bar space with grab-bag cans of Hamm's and Snork Juice, the house elixir served from a flask.
Some folks got it; others seemed scared, even offended. For every roasted pig skull that went out to be picked clean by groups of appreciative and like-minded head-onists, Lasiy recalls "the amount of sheer terror in people's eyes when you tell them you're serving chicken hearts.
"Our goal was that you were going to remember us — love us or hate us, you're going to remember," he adds.
And we do remember: a whole octopus, its tentacles tightened into curlicues from the heat of the grill, almost writhing in a wash of chimichurri; tripe poutine with crisped batons of honeycomb beef stomach standing in for French fries, coming together by willpower alone with foie gras gravy and runnels of molten cheese curd; some pierogi stained red with beet juice, and others plumped with shredded pork and nestled into thick green chile; fermented tomato jelly forming a lagoon beneath burrata and a slab of fried green tomato; the signature housemade biscuit stuffed with the part of the pig you whisper all your deepest secrets to; a whole cured sardine sliced into cross-sections — was Damien Hirst in the kitchen? — and served with celery-root remoulade and saltine crackers, as if the whole plate were nothing more than a pantry snack rummaged late at night.
"In this industry, people come up with elevator statements or bullet points," Lasiy explains. "But it hinders people or sets up a fake scenario. There are a lot of smokescreens in the industry, and the general public doesn't ask enough questions."
The chef has experienced frustration, especially when massive road projects made passage through the RiNo neighborhood difficult, but Lasiy doesn't blame that frustration for Rebel's end. "It's a driving force to prove people wrong, but not to close up shop," he says.
Lasiy has been in the business for twenty years and is ready to take some time away, noting that he's missed out on a lot of life and has friends and family in other cities he'd like to see. "It's all been great and tough at the same time," he adds. "I never thought we'd last three years...and I never thought for a moment we'd make any lists or be on anyone's radar."
Porytko, newer to cooking, says the Rebel experience has fueled his passion to learn more and improve as a chef: "Dan's been cooking a lot longer than me; I'm just figuring out what kind of chef I want to be."
Lasiy and Porytko grew up together as children of Ukrainian families in Pennsylvania, speaking Ukrainian as easily as English and even joining a Ukrainian youth association together to learn more about their culture and traditions. That culture helped shape Rebel's menu, even if only a few dishes have been distinctly Ukrainian. Lasiy explains that his grandparents were farmers and that his family taught him the value of using the whole animal for cooking and not wasting food, whether meats or produce. "Rustic food can be beautiful, and simplicity is beautiful," he adds.
One of Lasiy's most memorable — and humorous — takeaways from the past three years was receiving a letter from state Representative Paul Rosenthal, who represents Rebel's district: "It is my honor to commend you on your selection for Best Place for Some Head in Westword's 'Best of Denver' edition. Your selection means that the community bestows its highest appreciation for your hard work, perseverance and creativity."
Looking back at what he and Lasiy accomplished in three years, Porytko says, "What I'm proud of most is all the regulars who keep coming through. It starts with the food and ends with creating something meaningful for them."
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Sometime this spring, when business slowed to a trickle during the height of construction on Brighton Boulevard and other streets in the neighborhood, the two came to the conclusion that they couldn't sustain their restaurant. Although customers started coming this summer, it was too little and too late, and business never returned to where it had been before construction began. Porytko and Lasiy have picked Saturday, August 4, as the last day for Rebel, and they'll say goodbye with a Ukrainian menu, DJs and a band.
Nicole and Scott Mattson, the owners of Nocturne at 1330 27th Street, will be taking over the lease. "This is a new project, not a second Nocturne in any way," Nicole Mattson explains. "It's irreverent. It's the yin to Nocturne's yang and it's going to be a party. We're thrilled to be launching this in the RiNo neighborhood that we love and already call home. Bo and Dan are class acts; we love what they stand for as chefs, and we hope this new concept will honor a bit of their badass Rebel soul."
Rebel taught us that dining can be an experience as subversive, thrilling and flat-out fun as dropping a needle on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols must have been in 1977, as being slapped awake by the lyrics of Public Enemy in the late ’80s. If some Denver diners never quite got what what was going on in the tiny dive-bar-turned-culinary-beacon, if some people came in and walked out because the service was a little too casual or the menu was too difficult to parse, that only means that they missed out on a singular moment in the city's restaurant history, where two chefs did it their way, standing out amid an onslaught of comfort food and safe concepts...if only for a moment.