There we were, two restaurant critics drinking coffee and talking shop — quietly, of course, so that no one around us could hear. “What’s big in Denver right now?” she asked, noting that in her home town, fried chicken and bourbon are all the rage.
“Beer,” I replied, the answer so obvious it rolled off my tongue. “Beer and big restaurants.” While in 2014 Denver’s dining scene saw an uptick in intimate bistros such as To the Wind and Bistro Barbès, the current trend is breweries getting into the food business — not just with pub grub at tap houses, but with eateries designed to be destinations in their own right.
It was only a matter of time, really. The beer industry has been big for years and is only getting bigger; according to a recent study by the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, the state’s craft-beer industry has an annual economic impact of $1.15 billion. What’s new is the realization that food itself, not just the award-winning stuff with which you wash it down, can be a draw — and a profitable one, at that. Why let beer lovers traipse out to someone else’s food truck when you can capture those food dollars yourself?
Enter The Farm House at Breckenridge Brewery. When Breckenridge-Wynkoop LLC opened an 8,000-square-foot restaurant on its new $36 million campus in Littleton this past spring, it was christened the Farm House at Breckenridge Brewery, or the Farm House for short, a name that carries an entirely different connotation than those of sister restaurants such as Breckenridge Brew Pub and Ale House at Amato. “They wanted to push the hospitality side of it,” explains Christopher Cina, Breckenridge-Wynkoop executive chef. “It’s very welcoming and open.”
Compared to many other brewpubs, the Farm House feels less masculine, less like a bar. If not for the barn-like architectural elements — a vaulted ceiling, big windows and corrugated metal on the walls — the main dining room could pass for a country club, with silk flowers, elegant upholstered chairs and a stone fireplace that adds intimacy and warmth. The centrally located bar and reception area are more whimsical in feel, with aspen trees sporting shimmery leaves cut from beer cans, a mannequin with a skirt made of grain bags, and a reservable section with couches and private taps dubbed “the Man Cave.” Blond-wood tables spill out to a screened-in porch, and a wraparound patio offers outdoor seating and views of the Littleton open space beyond the fence. Even on weeknights, people relax for hours on the large, grassy lawn, sitting by fire pits and playing cornhole until it’s nearly too dark to see. (Technically, the lawn and picnic tables are considered the Beer Garden, with limited food and drink menus Thursday to Sunday and drinks only the rest of the week.)
In vibe alone, the Farm House is the brewery-based restaurant I’d be most likely to bring my kids or mother to, and that’s precisely what the restaurant was going for. “We made a sincere push to be female-friendly, open to everyone,” says Cina. On one visit, I even saw a large group of older women in dresses and hats, hardly your typical beer-drinking crowd. The desire to appeal to a wide demographic, Cina explains, stems from the fact that this is the group’s “first foray into suburbia.”
We all have our own thoughts on what suburban meals look like (be nice, now). Here’s how they look at the Farm House: If you’re lucky and don’t have to wait for a table — either because you’ve arrived at some obscenely early hour or because you’ve thought ahead and made a reservation — you’ll be shown to your seat, where a server will materialize out of nowhere to drop off a tin pail of pork rinds and take your drink order. Servers mean to be helpful — that whole farmhouse/hospitality thing — but in reality they’re overzealous, arriving before you’ve had time to read through the list of beers on tap, much less decide if you want the Farm House #3, with passion fruit, oranges and guava, or the Nitro Vanilla Porter. I must have waited too long; by the time I decided what I wanted, the Farm House #3 was gone.
A bit rushed by the servers, you’ll order something to start, perhaps sweet biscuits in a small cast-iron skillet, with cold-smoked butter and housemade preserves; maybe deviled eggs or barbecued carrots or a kale salad with rye croutons, sunflower seeds and cheese. On nights when I went with boys, not girls, we started with heartier pork sausage, blanched in beer for a knockout flavor, then laced with melted gobs of pepper Jack cheese. Served with flour tortillas and a white-bean green chile, it was the starter we all reached for, each of us wanting the last bite but too polite to take it. Wings were also better than average, brined for two days in Breckenridge stout, baked, flash-fried and smothered in tangy Buffalo sauce.
The “Lunch & Supper” menu is served all day, but regardless of when you arrive, you’re likely to follow up your starters with one of the restaurant’s seven sandwiches, which sell as well at dinner as they do at lunch. Avocado turned a pedestrian BLT into a BLAT; fortunately, the sandwich, made with scratch mayo, Tender Belly bacon, tomatoes and sourdough, tasted better than its name sounds. A pulled-pork sandwich had enough meat for two sandwiches, with smoky bits of chopped pork and citrusy Brussels sprout slaw spilling messily out of the onion roll. The sandwich could have used more barbecue sauce, and I tried to ask for more — but by then our server had moved on to greeting other tables.
Lamb pastrami was terrific. The lamb had been treated to the time-intensive process normally reserved for brisket; though it wasn’t boiled, as traditional pastrami would be, the meat was cured, rubbed and smoked, resulting in a sandwich with a distilled lamb flavor that held its own against the Swiss cheese, Brussels sprout slaw, pickled-tomato mayo and rye. The only thing missing was chewy black bark on the meat, one of pastrami’s greatest perks. Beet sliders were a disappointment, made not with grated beets mixed with rice and spices, as vegan friends make them, but with one thin slice of beet per bun, as if made by a carnivore who’d never eaten the thing. Scant dollops of goat cheese and arugula helped, but only a little. All sandwiches and burgers — there are two, one made of beef and another of elk — are served with housemade chips, which as often as not arrived without the herb seasoning they’re supposed to have.
Listed under the heading of “Dinner Bell,” the entrees weren’t as consistent as the sandwiches. Strips of boneless, skinless breasts and thighs made buttermilk fried chicken more like nuggets than grown-up fried chicken, though the accompanying smashed potatoes, braised greens and bacon-onion marmalade certainly weren’t kiddie fare. (The dish has since been changed to include a breast, a thigh and a leg.) A wet-aged ribeye, topped with compound herb butter, was tender and properly cooked. But the salad that was supposed to come with it, described by the server as a Caprese with tomatoes, red onions and scratch mozzarella, was nothing more than a side of shredded lettuce without cheese. When we inquired of a passing server, he apologized and returned with what seemed like the same salad, this time topped with dry, rubbery mozzarella. (I was later told the salad should’ve indeed been a Caprese, so the kitchen goofed twice.) Spice-rubbed smoked chicken came out sans rub and so over-smoked that it was dry and chewy like jerky. Thank goodness, then, for the sides of buttery polenta and warm peach relish, which made up for the unfulfilling main course.
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Desserts, under the direction of Ashley Nakagawa, executive pastry chef at Breckenridge-Wynkoop, end Farm House meals on a sweet note — but not overly so. Warm apple pie had a pleasantly lemony tartness unknown to many fruit pies. A mason jar layered with shortbread, blueberries and whipped cream was similarly reined in, this time from lemons in the form of lemon curd.
If anything, the flaws indicate that the Farm House has been a victim of its own success. “The volume we’re doing there is so much greater than we ever anticipated,” says Cina, who notes that on weekends, the restaurant is consistently doing upwards of 1,800 covers a day. “It’s hard to keep up with it on the quality side.” Still, for an establishment that’s trying hard to be a restaurant, not a restaurant within a brewery, it would be great to see more attention paid to little things. Why not replace the ho-hum hothouse tomatoes on the BLAT with one of the sensational heirloom varieties that are abundant right now? Why not use fresh berries in the lemon mason jar instead of the frozen, tough-skinned blueberries I had once? Why roll an already sweet biscuit dough in more sugar so that it tastes like dessert rather than a starter?
Since my visits, the executive chef has moved out of state and been replaced by none other than Cina himself, at least until he can find a suitable replacement and fix those inconsistencies. And in the meantime, the Farm House is an appealing place to pass the hours — and Exhibit A of what’s trending right now.
The Farm House at Breckenridge Brewery
2990 Brewery Lane, Littleton
Chicken wings $8.95
Hand-cranked sausage $6.50
Brewer’s BLAT $8.50
Pulled-pork sandwich $8.99
Lamb pastrami $10.75
Veggie beet sliders $8.50
Spice-rubbed smoked chicken $15.95
Fried chicken $14.99
Apple pie $5.25
Lemon mason jar $5.50
The Farm House at Breckenridge Brewery is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at breckbrewfarmhouse.com.