Cafe Society

Sean Kelly finds a home at the LoHi SteakBar

I'd been on and off planes for six hours, not always heading west. The first, a little commuter, had let us off on the tarmac. I'd spent time in a smoking lounge trying to negotiate a cigarette-and-lighter transaction with a Russian man who looked, in profile, exactly like John Hamm in Mad Men, exercising my incredibly rusty Russian against his polite but completely indecipherable English. Next to me on my second plane, a fat kid wouldn't put his armrest down, drooled on himself and eventually toppled mountainously over onto my shoulder, only to wake with a start and head-butt me in the jaw. There are no peanuts on flights anymore. No pretzels. A lukewarm Coke and half a granola bar I'd found in the bottom of my carry-on were all I'd eaten. On the DIA tram, overcrowded like a Tokyo subway, I'd seriously considered biting the little hippie girl pressed close against me. She looked delicious.

"You hungry?" Laura asked — not her first question upon recovering me at arrivals after almost two weeks away, but neither did she make it to five.

"I could eat," I said. Which, if you've been married to me for as long as Laura has, you'd know is me-code for fucking starving, thanks. Famished enough to gnaw a hippie.

I wanted a steak. I wanted a burger. Maybe pork chops. A hundred tacos, seventeen cold beers and a quiet place to sit and re-acclimate, if only for a few minutes.

"What about LoHi?" Laura asked.

"Yeah," I said. Then "Yeah" again, because LoHi sounded perfect. Like just what I wanted, what I needed like medicine or a balm.

LoHi SteakBar is one of the stranger animals to come out of the second-generation gentrification of the Highland neighborhood. It occupies a non-Larimer Square property that Joe Vostrejs and his crew picked up on the bounce (the former home of the NorthStar Brewery, it was a renegade zine gallery before that), just when things in the wider restaurant world seemed to be going down the toilet. Being one of Vostrej's non-Square places meant it could be more his kind of place (less coded to fit with the rich genetics of Larimer, more personal and neighborhood-y), and also meant that he could stretch a little. A familiar name in the kitchen helped make that possible: Sean Kelly, ex of some of Denver's most recognizable addresses (Mel's, Aubergine, Clair de Lune, Somethin' Else). Having spent two years overseeing many spaces for the Little Pub Company, now Kelly wanted just one. A place where, at the end of the day, he could really feel like he was accomplishing something — even if that something was nothing more or less than serving a few great dinners to a few hungry people. So one day he'd called Vostrejs, who'd answered the phone and just like that brought Kelly out of the jungle and back into the light. Kelly wanted a space. Vostrejs and his partners had one. That was January, and the rest is nothing but business.

Well, business and history — partly Kelly's, a little bit mine as well. I've known Kelly since my earliest days in town. I've tracked him like some Midwestern towhead stalking his favorite pitcher through trades and victories and defeats. If they made baseball cards for Denver's chefs, Kelly's would be one of my most prized — bent at the corners and rubbed soft as cotton. Laura and I have celebrated anniversaries under his care. He has fed our parents, entertained my guests. At Clair, Laura and I ate our first fine-dining meal just two weeks after the birth of our daughter — Parker nestled quietly in her car seat amid the forest of our legs, no doubt wondering what in the hell her parents were doing. And I mourned the closing of Somethin' Else with friends at one final blowout meal just before Kelly closed the doors for good.

I didn't see much of Kelly during his time with Little Pub, so I was excited about LoHi even before I got a first peek at the menu — because Kelly is not only a fine-dining guy, but also something of an iconoclast. A perfectionist. A man with strong opinions about food and restaurants and his relationship with both. And once I did finally see that menu, I had to find out how someone like him would handle a simple steak, a hamburger, a bowl of chili. I wanted to see how Kelly did comfort without truffles, foie gras or fried baby artichokes.

I got to see it at LoHi my first day back, as the staff was relaxing and resupplying between rushes — lunch long over, the first happy-hour customers yet to arrive. They were hanging around the front door catching a little sun, polishing glasses behind the completely rebuilt bar that now gently divides the room into two halves (one a bar/lounge, the other a more sheltered dining room), rolling silverware in the back booths. I'd liked North Star because it was a comfortable, casual place with homemade beers on tap and tater tots at the bar, with a hit-or-miss menu that could always be ignored in favor of another pint and another round of tots. It was a neighborhood joint in a neighborhood that had really needed one, and if it never really stretched, that was okay with me.

LoHi was different, though. Gutted and now filled with sun and polished wood, the room was open and welcoming — like a grown-up version of North Star, the place North Star might've become had it survived long enough to become solid and beloved. And while the space was impressive, the menu was more so: simplicity designed by someone who knows full well how complex simple can become on the other side of the swinging doors. Blue-cheese fondue made creamy, warm and delicious, served with housemade potato chips that, for once, didn't completely suck; meatball sliders that were really more like small hoagies made with scratch red gravy and topped with hand-formed meatballs; and on the brunch menu, very French omelets with frites, corn griddle cakes, shrimp grits with saffron butter, rock shrimp po'boys with Cajun mustard sauce. Even the little share plate of olives and almonds had passed through the particular mind and hands of Kelly and his crew, so that the olives were marinated in-house and bright with herbs and garlic, the almonds candied and set shining and glossy on the plate.

I got my desired steak — a thick strip from a company with whom Kelly has worked for years, butchered in-house, perfectly grill-marked, a touch heavy on the seasoning but nicely cut, with a thin rind of fat left along the convex edge. It was delicious, napped with a veil of à la minute béarnaise, tasting powerfully of tarragon and long experience, which made me laugh because the front of the bar is faced entirely with bottles of A-1 steak sauce behind Plexiglas, like an in-joke between the kitchen and the customers. The frites were what really touched me, though, because while a french fry is the simplest of kitchen simplicities, the serving of an ideal pile of frites is something that a chef will take pride in forever. And these were certainly deserving of the house's unmitigated satisfaction.

Not everything was perfect. Nothing ever is. The gnudi — ricotta and spinach dumplings, like the insides of ravioli without the pasta shell and touched with a rustic tomato sauce — seemed oddly out of place. Broiled ahi tuna with frites sounded like the strangest fish fry ever conceived. And though I rarely complain about dessert menus, I really think that LoHi might benefit from a somewhat more extensive selection.

But then, LoHi is still young. Despite its sense of solidity, the combined years of experience behind the scenes, the expert balance between comfort on the floor and precision in the back, it is still a very new restaurant operating in a neighborhood that itself seems to cast about quarterly for new identities, sometimes even changing costumes week to week.

I wound up back at LoHi the next day, again starving for something more than just dinner. This time I wolfed down a bowl of black bean and steak chili in a thin gravy studded with big chunks of beef and exactingly cut scallions, as well as a fantastic, ground-that-day burger doused in that same chili and topped with a fried egg. And then there was the order of pork chops with applesauce (one of my own private comfort foods — something my mom cooked for me on just about every good day and just about every bad day I had when I was a boy) that came as a beautifully butchered and house-cured rib chop, seared fast and finished in the oven, with more frites and a side of apple and onion compote that walked a graceful tightrope between sweet and savory.

This second meal was good, but my first LoHi meal was memorable. Part of it was circumstance, part of it was need. Just hours off a plane, just moments back in my own skin, it was a steak, some fries, a couple of cold PBRs and a shared plate of olives that anchored me back in Denver after being away, in the company of Laura after missing her terribly, under the care of Kelly and his crew after too long an absence.

It made me feel like I was finally home.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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