Kendra Anderson has spent several years educating Denver imbibers about wine, both via her consulting business and as Westword's Swirl Girl wine columnist. But the first thing she wants drinkers to know about Bar Helix, the establishment she's opening at 3440 Larimer Street, is that it's not just a wine bar. "I’m creating the bar I want to go to and that my friends want to go to," says Anderson. "I've struggled to overcome the perception of me as a sommelier only. I also drink tons of cocktails, and I love a negroni maybe better than anything. In addition to fabulous wine, we will have just as many delightful options for the cocktail lover, beer lover and eater. This is a culmination of being a sommelier, diner, chef and hedonist — it's an outgrowth of wanting to eat and drink the best of everything."
She's also conscious that wine bars can seem fairly daunting to novices and non-wine drinkers, which is exactly the opposite of what she's trying to create. "People feel intimidated by wine bars," she says. "I wanted to create a space for people who love wine and are obsessed, and all they want to do is drink Champagne — but also for people who are curious about wine, or who care not at all for wine. I wanted to serve both crowds."
She describes Bar Helix as if "Williams and Graham, Ste. Ellie and Mercantile had a love child." The wine list, she says, will rise to the level of the best restaurant wine programs in the city — a boon for wine-drinkers who'd like to geek out a bit in a true bar environment — and she's cutting no corners in building her cocktail, beer, cider and sake lists, either. "This is a sexy, grown-up lounge and bar," she says. "One of my guiding principles is, are we sexy? Do you feel sexy when you come in the door? Not in an overt way, but in a subtle way. I love a bar like that — where the lighting is just right, the seating is intimate and everyone looks good to each other."
Anderson's driving themes for filling out the beverage program are seasonality, inspiration and experimentation. The cocktails, she says, will be a tightly curated list of classics and original creations, and they'll rotate based on what's appropriate drinking for the season. "I’m very inspired by seasonal drinks, so that’s what we’ll lead with the most," she explains. "What do you want to drink once it’s roasting hot outside?" She also plans to build in systems so those drinks are delivered quickly — "We're not Death and Co.," she says. "We're not making elaborate drinks that require ten minutes and several ingredients." And while she'll have a full bar, she's looking forward to featuring cocktails made from wine-based spirits like sherry and grappa.
Building the beer program was harder, says the owner, because she wanted to offer something exciting to beer enthusiasts that they wouldn't find elsewhere in RiNo. And while she's not ready to reveal the direction she's settled upon, she promises it will be distinct from anything that her neighbors — some of them craft brewers or formidable beer bars — are doing. In addition to beer, she's filling out a sizable cider selection, focusing on bone-dry examples in particular. "I know Colorado has a great cider presence, but I have not personally seen too many of the ciders on many programs," she explains.
And then, of course, there will be wine, which Anderson says will also adhere to the mantra of seasonal, inspirational and experimental. "I don’t want it to be very set or formulaic," she says. "For instance, when we open [in the summer], there might be no red wine. I don’t really drink red wine in the summer, especially when it’s 100 degrees out. And if there is red, it probably won’t be a Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m willing to take that risk and see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll correct. But I may be able to refer them to a chilled Beaujolais, and say, 'Let’s talk about why you might enjoy this more today versus Napa Cab, which might be better in December.'"
Anderson says her main goal here is to have conversations that encourage drinkers to expand their palates and horizons a bit. "A lot of times, ordering wine is transactional — it's, 'I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay,' and then we get that glass and serve it to you. That's the opposite of what I want; I want a conversation. We might have Chardonnay by the glass, but it might not be what you normally drink, or it might not be from a place you normally drink it from, so we'll have a conversation about what it is and isn’t. Our Chardonnay might be from Burgundy, so it will have the clean, fresh, bright apple and pear flavors, but might not be what you’re used to with the oak. I want to help people expand their horizons and get out of their comfort zone. Not in a forceful way — I want people to be happy, no matter what, but I hope guests will take a journey with us, work with us a little bit and have a good time." She's also intent on offering good values, so she'll focus on lesser-known regions and varietals, and rely on those conversations to help, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker make the leap to a Douro red from Portugal.
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Bar Helix will likely feature twenty to thirty by-the-glass options, because, says the owner, "I think that’s where people can really play around." One big additional perk: Commit to ordering at least two glasses of wine of any particular bottle, and Anderson will open anything in the bar.
Anderson's become somewhat famous on social media for her "soulmate pairings," and the magic of those matches are what will inform the food menu at her bar. "I am obsessed with that concept, because that’s ultimately what got to me to pursue becoming a sommelier," she explains. "I was in culinary school, and we were focusing on the regional cuisine of Germany. I was not a wine drinker in culinary school, and I was hoping to get that part of school over with and just cook. It was choucroute day, and our instructor brought in a beautiful Mosel Riesling. I remember taking this bite of sausage and sauerkraut and a sip of Riesling and it was just mind-blowing. That's the concept of the soulmate pairing. And you get that not just with wine, but with beer, cider, sake. I want people to have those moments, because it opens their minds." Food will therefore be snacky, sexed-up bar food, she says, and "what you want to eat when you're tipsy." The menu won't be huge, but it also won't be one-dimensional — and Anderson hopes guests will suggest their own soulmate pairings for inspiration.