Review: Is The Kitchen Next Door Glendale the Next Big Thing?

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The Kitchen Next Door Glendale 658 South Colorado Boulevard Boulevard 303-757-0878

You know how forty is the new thirty, and green is the new black? In restaurant terms, The Kitchen Next Door is the new TGI Fridays.

If that sounds like a slur rather than a compliment, you're too young to remember the global chain in its early days, before endless $10 apps and outposts from Seoul to Sri Lanka. Describing what Fridays meant to the restaurant industry in 1973, a writer for Newsweek captured the phenomenon with this: "Police had to ring Friday's (as it quickly became known) with barricades to handle the nightly hordes of young singles. Hundreds of blatantly imitative emporiums soon opened their doors in scores of major cities -- and an industry was born."

See also: Behind the Scenes at The Kitchen Next Door Glendale

With Fridays now in its 49th year, the phenomenon it birthed is now in middle age, and the newest breed of imitators looks as different from the first Fridays as streaming audio does from eight-track tapes. But as I downed a stiff margarita and snacked on kale chips at the six-month-old Kitchen Next Door Glendale, I saw two concepts with the same DNA, both trying to create a hip environment where folks could connect over drinks and grab a meal. Only at Next Door Glendale, hip means bare-bulb pendant lamps hanging from soaring ceilings, curved-leg cafe tables and green-and-white subway tile, not Tiffany-style lamps and red-and-white-striped awnings.

The Kitchen Next Door is a casual offshoot of the Kitchen, the high-end, community-oriented bistro founded in Boulder a decade ago at the lift-off point of the local, seasonal and sustainable movements. "When we thought of the Kitchen ten years ago, it resonated with people, and we called it a community restaurant," says co-founder Kimbal Musk. But "when you limit the community based on what people can afford, it doesn't feel good, so five years ago, [Hugo Matheson, co-founder, and I] put our heads together and said, 'There's got to be a way to put a lower price point to reach more people'" -- all the while keeping the food simple and the experience fun. The original Kitchen Next Door debuted in 2011 next to the Kitchen in Boulder; the third opened in Union Station just two weeks ago, two blocks from the Kitchen in downtown Denver.

In Glendale's CitySet, though, there is no Kitchen -- not next door or anywhere else. The Next Door brand has grown up and is cavorting among the other restaurants in this project, vying for your after-work dollars all on its own -- or as much on its own as kids with semi-famous parents can. In real terms, this means that instead of starting your meal with caviar or oysters on the half-shell, as you might at the Kitchen, you start with those kale chips and maybe some sliders, especially if you arrive before 6 p.m. and are taking advantage of the community-hour menu. And I suggest you do: Nothing on the abbreviated lineup of snacks and drinks is more than $5, and you can easily put together a small meal. Sliders, which come one to a plate, are offered in three versions, all on sweet, puffy brioche from Izzio (the bakery arm of what used to be Udi's). The cheeseburger slider, made with grass-fed, grass-finished Colorado beef, always disappeared first, even the night the patty straddled the line between well-seasoned and over-salted. Friends loved the pork slider, with arugula, salsa verde and the same slow-roasted pork that distinguishes the toasty cubano. But my favorite was the vegetarian option, made of beets rather than the more pedestrian black beans or quinoa. Topped with lemony arugula, caramelized onions and feta, the jewel-toned patty was good enough to make me wish I'd ordered the full portion.

Not that I needed it, given the heaping basket of crispy garlic smashers we paired with the sliders. Fridays has its loaded potato skins, but Next Door Glendale has its mesmerizing smashers, which make you forget that fried foods aren't good for you and that you're trying to eat healthier these days, this being bathing-suit season and all. Blanched, pressed, roasted and fried, the labor-intensive fingerlings arrived with as many edges as an octopus, crispy tentacles of starch coated in raw-garlic butter, parsley and Parmesan. The hummus, which doesn't hide the fact that it's made from chickpeas and has more in common with chunky, country-style pâté than the silky, tahini-heavy version favored by Middle Eastern restaurants, was also very good, especially on grilled rounds of flatbread.

Keep reading for more on the Kitchen Next Door.

If sliders, smashers and chips (made from kale, but fried all the same) sound more like pub grub than the kind of farm-to-fork fare you associate with the Kitchen, that's because it is. Next Door Glendale is positioned as a community pub -- the phrase appears as a tagline on the menu -- so in addition to bar snacks, it also offers such entrees as bangers and mash and fish and chips. I skipped the former, since the weather was too hot to make the dish appealing. I did order the fish and chips, but later wished I hadn't, given the heavy beer batter and how much oil was left in the basket. Far better were dishes that didn't try so hard to distance themselves from their roots: PEI mussels with cilantro, jalapeños and garlic; polenta with meatballs made from the same local, grass-fed beef as the burger; and a spectacular mushroom ragout with oyster and shiitake mushrooms whose earthiness evaporated like a dream after waking, lost in the richness of wine, sherry vinegar and cream. Some dishes didn't try to distance themselves at all, name-dropping as if they just couldn't resist telling you who their daddy was: the Kitchen tomato soup, a summery bowl of the simple, ingredient-driven flavors that epitomize the company's overriding philosophy, was just one example. "Food is about tasting like itself, not masking it into something it's not," says head chef Dane Frost, who was part of the opening team at the Kitchen Next Door Boulder and served as sous-chef in Glendale until May, when he took over the kitchen.

Another name-dropper was the Learning Garden salad, which refers to the company's philanthropy. Two dollars from every salad has helped install nearly 200 gardens in schools across the country, including 37 across the Front Range and 101 in Chicago, where the Kitchen is slated to open later this year. Unfortunately, I liked the mission more than the mix; the kale-based salad could have used more pop than it got from sweet apple vinaigrette. And a side of chilled roasted carrots had all the appeal of a sentence without a verb; we'd ordered the dish to counterbalance our fried food, but the carrots needed more cumin, maybe some lime and cilantro, to really go somewhere. Then again, the lamb kofta salad didn't just go somewhere -- it hopscotched, skipped and jitterbugged, thanks to tzatziki, hummus and tender lamb meatballs scented with sultry spices such as star anise and cloves.

This being the 21st-century version of Fridays, meals end not with brownie-fudge sundaes but lemon cake from Kim and Jake's, a gluten-free bakery in Boulder, and thick milkshakes flecked with so much vanilla bean, you know they're meant for grown-ups, even before they're spiked with whiskey. One night I thought my meal might end with a complimentary shake, or at least an offer of one, after a busser splattered my husband's shirt with mussel broth and gasped -- then walked away without offering to pay for dry cleaning. His response made Next Door Glendale seem all the more like the chain that paved its way nearly five decades ago.

In some respects, I wish Next Door Glendale were a Kitchen Lite, with more seasonal salads and less pub fare, or even a Kitchen 2.0, a fast-casual -- with a bar, of course -- in the same lovely, sunlit space. But that's to ignore what this restaurant wants to be: its own hip, casual, somewhat healthy being. And with that goal, it fits into the current Denver scene far better than any global chain.

Menu items from The Kitchen Next Door Glendale: Kale chips $5 Sliders $4 Crispy garlic smashers $5 Hummus $5 Fish 'n' chips $13.95 PEI mussels $13.95 Mushroom ragout $12.95 Learning Garden salad $8.95 Lamb kofta salad $11.95 Kim and Jake's cake $5.95 Vanilla milkshake $5.95

The Kitchen Next Door Glendale is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Contact the restaurant at thekitchen.com.

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