Review: The District Makes a Course Correction

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The District 1320 East 17th Avenue 303-813-6688

I don't live in the district that is home to The District, the historic area in Uptown that inspired the restaurant's name. But I drive by often, so it's been easy to keep tabs on the place.

At the start of summer, I watched a short-but-sweet burst of construction next to Serioz Pizza (now the BSide), in a space that had long been vacant. Within six weeks -- an unheard-of time frame in an industry known for delays -- the District opened there, and people quickly began finding their way to the restaurant's patio on East 17th Avenue. As the weather grew warmer (and the Rockies grew colder), the patio seemed full more often than not, and even now, with heaters required to ward off the chill, it's not unusual to see people sitting outside.

I grew curious. What was it that drew people to this restaurant, this patio, in a neighborhood with no shortage of good places to eat?

See also: Behind the Scenes at The District

It's not as if this stretch of sidewalk has a bird's-eye view of downtown or even patio games you can play to determine who buys the next round. The restaurant isn't in an architectural gem, nor is it tucked into one of the century-old houses that earned the two-block Humboldt Street-Park Avenue historic district its protected status; in fact, it sits just outside the district, on the far northwest corner of the protected zone. The tin ceiling (added during construction) and exposed brick are counterbalanced by all of the design elements synonymous with right now: reclaimed wood, bare-bulb pendant lamps, and a bar with 29 beers on tap and another twenty in bottles.

But co-owner Kerry Condon, an architect with two restaurants already under his belt, had a hunch that historic or not, the patio would be a draw, which is why he moved so quickly to get the District open. "We had a vision of a patio and using that to open the doors to the neighborhood and draw people in," says Condon, who launched the restaurant with partner Jason Sorrell, an engineer who happened to be his roommate at the University of Colorado. "Our biggest concern was that if we didn't get open with enough summer left, it would be hard to draw people in."

It's one thing to attract people when the weather is warm and folks are looking for every opportunity to eat al fresco; it's another thing entirely to turn them into regulars. And so far, the District hasn't made a very strong case for why those patio-lovers should become anything more than fair-weather friends.

When the restaurant opened in July, Condon gave the opening chef ideas for fleshing out his concept of what he calls "vintage Americana." "We wanted to fill that gap of something moderately priced, neighborhood-accessible, something that stayed open," he says. The result was a menu of smothered fries, burgers, chicken-fried-steak sliders, sandwiches and salads, served until the 2 a.m. closing time. But if that sounds like bar food at a late-night watering hole -- i.e., casual eats that take a back seat to whatever you're drinking -- Condon says that was never the intention for the District. "Food is the central focus," he stresses, adding that he wanted a kitchen that would cure and smoke its own meats, make its own sauces and dressings, and keep nothing in the freezer but ice cream. It was an ambitious mission, perhaps too ambitious for the timeline. The avocado chop salad -- with iceberg lettuce, a green rarely seen on menus these days -- wasn't chopped, and the promised tortilla strips and roasted corn in the corn-black-bean salsa were mostly MIA. The District chef salad, touted by the server as "the best way to see what we're known for," featured better greens and roll-ups of turkey, pastrami and ham, all smoked or cured in-house. But it also came with a scratch-made Russian dressing so bland, I would've gladly traded it for something out of a bottle. Keep reading for more on the District. The more I ate, the more I felt like I was in a bar, not a restaurant. And that's just what an acquaintance said when I bumped into her in the dining room one night. "I didn't know it was such a bar," she said, emphasizing her words by banging her head back and forth to the loud music. But the music wasn't loud enough to draw attention away from the problems with the food. Mashed potatoes were gummy. Country gravy, found on fried chicken and chicken-fried-steak sliders, tasted like béchamel, with not enough salt and pepper and no sausage or drippings for flavor. Pulled pork, supposedly smoked and tossed with smoked-pepper barbecue sauce, must've played hooky from the smoker, skipping out with something akin to ketchup instead. Smoked turkey also failed to show up on the turkey-avocado sandwich; the meager sammie tasted mostly like toast. I might have eaten it anyway, given the dandelion greens and lemon-blackberry aioli that were supposed to adorn it, but the greens turned out to be arugula, and the only hint of blackberry in the aioli was its light-purple hue, a color as appetizing as green ketchup.

Servers like to recommend the housemade bacons, but the chewy strips of lamb, pork and duck were nothing special: Some were overcooked, some looked like scraps, and the smoked maple syrup turned out to be just regular syrup. The barbecue sauce was left off the bacon blue fries. Reuben fries, which we'd paid an upcharge for to get with a burger, needed more pastrami and sauerkraut and a few more handfuls of Swiss cheese to flavor the Mornay. The burger itself came out well done, not medium as requested. I had high hopes for the Cuban smoked spaghetti squash with sofrito, rice and beans, a dish with healthy aspirations on a menu with lots of fries, batters and gravy; besides, everyone from bartenders to servers had been talking it up. But the squash came out deep-fried, masking whatever smoke flavor it might have had. When a server came by to check if everything was "tasting great," I mentioned that I'd expected something a little healthier. "It is healthy," she countered, ignoring the squash's stint in the fryer. "It's vegetarian. And gluten-free!"

Thankfully, she cleared the squash before our dessert arrived. That's more than can be said for another server, who was friendly and opinionated -- I wish we'd listened when he said he wasn't much of a fry guy -- but largely absent after our entrees were delivered. That time, our plates stayed in full view, gravy congealing, fries growing increasingly soggy, until he brought our check -- which meant we had to push them aside and try to ignore the remains of our meal while we ate the beer-battered, deep-fried peanut butter sandwich, quite possibly the best thing we had all night. It certainly outdid the brownie, really a blondie under a grainy brown-sugar topping, and the strawberry shortcake, made of pound cake rather than the biscuit described on the menu. But maybe that was a bonus; at a later meal, the biscuit with the fried chicken was a dry affair that tasted a day old.

To their credit, the owners have recognized the District's missteps, handing out comment cards and working to address the negatives. "We went through growing pains trying to fix a lot of service and execution issues," admits Condon, who promoted Scott Szczodrowski, most recently of Denver Biscuit Co., from line cook to head chef last month, after the opening chef and a replacement didn't work out. "Scott is a great leader," Condon adds. "This is the leadership and accountability that we have been missing."

Szczodrowski is working on a new fall menu, with seasonal soups, more burgers, several unsmothered fries, and such entrees as fennel-glazed salmon and butternut-squash risotto. Many dishes are expected to disappear, including the chef and chop salads; many others, including the fried chicken and desserts, will be reimagined. "We had an extraordinary amount of turnover in the beginning," says Condon. "It took a while to get the right people on the bus to get going."

Time will tell if the bus is now headed in the right direction. If not, the District's patio might not be so full next summer -- at least not full of people wanting to eat as well as drink.

Select items from the District's menu:

District tri-bacon $5/10 Bacon blue fries $5/9 Fried chicken $12 Cuban smoked squash.. $10 Chicken-fried steak sliders $9 The District burger $10 Pulled-pork sandwich $9 Smoked-turkey sandwich $10 Fried PBJ $6

The District is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Find out more information here.

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