So there I was, sharing a meal with my husband that shouldn’t have been romantic, given how packed and loud it was at D Bar Denver, an updated version of D Bar Desserts that opened in a new Uptown location this fall after an eight-month closure. But the place was dark, the bulbs above us so dim we could’ve done any number of things under the cover of darkness. When we reached for our chocolate soufflé, our spoons clinked softly, metal brushing metal, a chocolate version of footsie. Although other tables were nearby, they only enhanced the privacy that comes in public spaces when everyone is tucked into their own world — the girls on one side planning a wedding, the guys on the other leaning in slightly, talking intently about work. Then came shocking words, out-of-context words, violent courtroom words that killed whatever mood had been developing: “Ligature marks,” said one of the men loudly, then, “Hanging.”
Those gruesome snippets did more than snap us back to reality. They highlighted the difference between the two D Bars more than any musings on design or concept ever could. Those men wouldn’t have gone to the original D Bar that husband-and-wife team Keegan Gerhard and Lisa Bailey opened seven years ago, the place where women sipped champagne and oohed and aahed over intricate plates of dessert. But they did come to the new one, and felt so comfortable that they, in their own way, momentarily forgot their surroundings.
Putting people at ease is what D Bar is all about. I know this because I felt comfortable there myself. Before my husband and I had been seduced by the scene, I’d flipped through laminated pages on the table while we talked about our separate workdays, tying up a few loose ends. And there, dangling from a Lucite stand that held lists of cocktails and swag for sale, was this mission statement: “D Bar is a destination dining experience created to put people at ease.” I’d laughed at the time, amused at how corporate and chain-like it sounded, then forgotten it. But when I reread my notes, I laughed again, this time at how true the statement had become, for us and everyone around us.
Food, of course, has been used to put people at ease since time immemorial. That’s why grandmothers of all nationalities hug you and hand you something to eat, why guests always congregate in the kitchen. The reinvented D Bar goes about this task not just with sweets, which were the initial focus, but with an expanded concept, the D now standing for drinks, dining and dessert.
Tasked with bringing this concept to life is executive chef Zachariah Jones, who came on in 2010 to add an abbreviated menu of nibbles to the slate of desserts. “Pretty quickly at the small place we saw people going to lunch nearby,” recalls Jones, “and thought we’d better offer savory food.” A second D Bar, which opened in San Diego in 2012, applied this lesson, opening under Jones’s direction with a full menu similar to the one now on offer in Uptown; Jones moved back to Denver for the relaunch. He describes the current Denver D Bar menu, which starts with munchies and works its way up to steak and fish, as “modern American comfort food,” with a little more meat and a little less seafood than San Diego’s lineup. I like to think of it as a higher-end version of food found in suburban chains across America, because it’s trying to do the same thing: comfort, not challenge; put people at ease, not push boundaries — even if a celebrity chef is in charge.
At first blush, you might expect the opposite. But don’t let the baby-blue banquettes, candlelit tables and pastry chefs studiously caramelizing bananas fool you: This is not elegant fare. Some nights we started with a big platter of nachos, jazzed up with four-cheese sauce and duck confit — but nachos nonetheless. We nibbled bacon-wrapped dates, which sound more refined than they are, since they’re really an excuse to eat more bacon. We ate pizza-salad sandwiches, floppy flatbread-like creations slathered with pesto and stuffed with cheeses and greens, tomatoes coming in the form of grape tomatoes, not sauce. We downed a salad tailor-made for Denver, with poblano-spiked Caesar dressing and cornbread croutons that were a tad too sweet.
We even ate macaroni and cheese, a dish we don’t let our kids order from kids’ menus anymore, since they’re no longer toddlers. This D Bar classic arrived creamier than ever, thanks to a slight change that calls for the four-cheese sauce to be cooked with noodles to order, not pre-made and baked. Dotted with bacon and crackling with crushed Cheez-Its and panko, it’s a big enough step up from kiddie fare that adults can indulge their inner child without feeling self-conscious.
Same goes for the Southern-fried Belgian, a grown-up cousin of kids’ chicken fingers. Buttermilk fried chicken came tucked between two fat waffles that thankfully weren’t too sweet or full of vanilla. Unlike the dates, pizza-salad sandwich and mac and cheese, this sandwich wasn’t part of the old D Bar lineup, but it has quickly become part of what Jones calls “our food DNA,” in no small part because of how much fun it is to eat and how it makes you feel when you do.
Indeed, this throwback to childhood underlies much of the success of D Bar and goes a long way toward explaining why desserts such as the cake and shake and milk and cookies are still on the menu after all these years, even if they’re as sweet as the Halloween candy that kids inhale and adults stop eating after a Snickers or two.
But running a restaurant — especially one that bills itself as a restaurant, not a dessert bar, and serves full-fledged restaurant fare such as steak frites and showstopping short-rib raviolo with crispy onions and cauliflower-potato purée — isn’t child’s play. It’s one thing to find a casual dish that comes out without the promised bacon. It’s another to find bass so hastily cleaned that patches of skin remained on the side that was otherwise stripped clean. Kids don’t look out of place walking around confused, asking the same question of every person around them; a runner approaching every table and asking, “Did you have the Brussels sprouts?” does.
And kids can’t be expected to always play nice, especially if they’re tired or have had a bad day. But pastry chefs have to, especially at a place like D Bar, where working the counter is part of the job. Ours made it clear she’d rather be anywhere but in front of us, answering questions with monotone, one-syllable words, then talking animatedly — and loudly — to a co-worker about needing to “plaster on a smile” to make it through the night. Maybe she was in a bad mood because she’d made the buttermilk panna cotta she set before me and knew it didn’t have the proper jiggle.
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While that night at the dessert counter was the only time I didn’t feel at ease at D Bar, the dessert menu itself seemed ill at ease, reading like a throwback to the ’80s — or at least the late 2000s, when D Bar first flung open its doors. Desserts such as crème brûlée and what the menu refers to as that “molten cake thingy that everyone has” are as old as knock-knock jokes, the former as tiresome to eat as the latter is to hear. Some standbys should grow up a little, given how much Denver has changed in the interim. Milk and cookies, for example, seemed happily tongue-in-cheek early on, but expectations run higher these days; it’s not enough to offer cookies that look like they’re straight from a bake sale.
Like the patio scheduled to open this spring, Jones says a more extensive dessert menu is “on the horizon,” with boozy milkshakes, scratch gelato and other more grown-up items. That’s good to know, because there’s a lot to like at the reinvented D Bar, a place with a menu so relaxed it manages to make you feel at ease whether you’re talking shop or playing spoonsie with chocolate soufflé.
D Bar Denver
494 East 19th Avenue
Select menu items:
Duck-confit nachos $11
D Bar dates $8
Bacon mac & cheese $11
Caesar Chavez salad $9
Southern-fried Belgian $12
Pizza-salad sandwich $10
Steak frites $20
Short-rib raviolo $19
Citrus Circus $10
Cake and Shake $10
D Bar Denver is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. The market opens at 7 a.m. Learn more at dbardenver.com.