It's quiet. The piano is silent tonight at Baur's Restaurant and Listening Lounge, and the Denver Center theaters are dark on Mondays, bringing little foot traffic to 15th and Curtis streets. That leaves few distractions from an evaluation of the evening happy hour, a meal of which I had conflicting expectations. The previous tenant, Le Grand Bistro, was my favorite restaurant in LoDo (a bit of unfounded resentment here, full disclosure) but the menu at its replacement, which opened last spring, looks good enough to hang up on the wall like a gold record.
I spent plenty or time in the brasserie setting of Le Grand, and Baur's overhaul, undertaken by chef/proprietor Dory Ford, didn't impress me much, with a lack of ornamentation and some rough edges peeking out. But there is a new chef's counter as well as the soft glow of the listening lounge beckoning you to hear what Baur's has to offer most days of the week. The design also includes a few reminders of the building's long history, which stretches all the way back to 1872 when it was incorporated as the O. P. Baur Confectionery Company. Nineteenth-century visitors would feel at home in the interior, but they probably wouldn't be able to make much sense of the menu itself, solidly New American but with bites from all over the world.
Even more astonishing would be the cocktail list, which attracted my attention more than so many other me-too mixology menus. Like the Peron's Last Flame ($11), most of these tipples combine rarely seen spirits like minty Fernet Branca Menta stirred with familiar flavors like rum, ginger and lime. Yet there are no cocktail specials, other than $5 wells, at social hour, served on weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. I was pretty happy nonetheless with a $6 glass of cava — and $5 drafts are also available from the respectable tap list.
Happy hour and cocktail menus were just two of the sheets put in front of me ; there's also dinner to consider, a full wine list, charcuterie and raw bar selections, and even a "signature" menu to fill the lull between lunch and dinner with more accessible entrees. Next time, Baur's; I didn't even discover half of these until my meal was over. Yet I did discover that the kitchen pulls off happy hour with a sustained grace note.
My choices arrived all at once, suspiciously fast but warm to the touch. I attended to the vadouvan-spiced chicken wings ($2) first, diminutive drumsticks that packed a noticeable amount of curry spice in a thick, crispy breading. A bit dry, but I could down these by the half-dozen. Ah, happy-hour wings — I wish I knew how to quit you. There's also a chimichanga ($5) filled with house-made carnitas that won't make you forget the real stuff, or even Chipotle. At least Jose Olé and his frozen queso-filled shame tubes have been upstaged here, with a crispy tortilla and fairly good pork with tangy salsa verde. The chimichanga was the one time in my admittedly narrow experience that Baur's crazy ambition exceeded its reach. The happy-hour dish that shone the most was a plate of four vegetable samosas ($2), crackling crisp, each bite a smorgasbord of spiced veggies and smooth starch, with a ladleful of tamarind sauce that was actually true to the complex fruit. And for two bucks, this could be one of the best happy-hour deals in Denver. All these snacks weren't enough to finish off the evening, and there was a pasta that packed some of the things I treasure the most in this little world of ours: braised duck, guanciale, and fresh noodles. The tagiatelle ($15) was the final piece in the puzzle started at happy hour.
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With the opening of Nocturne and the continued success of Dazzle, the rebirth of the jazz lounge is my favorite, yet most unexpected, trend to gain traction in 2015. And even without musical accompaniment, this is a new happy hour that performs a fine solo.
Perfect for: Someone who hasn't seen live jazz recently, or ever. With one of Baur's cocktails and huge gets like Ellis Marsalis appearing on stage, this jazz lover chooses to believe that anyone could be converted to the groove of America's music.
Don't Miss: Of course, national acts get the most attention when they come to Baur's, but happy hour is a fine introduction to resident jazzman Joe Smith, who plays every Tuesday with the Magic Pickles or the Mile High Club, both delivering vintage swing that's appropriate for the setting.