Egg whites bubbled like evanescent caviar on my long-stemmed Colorado Sour, but that didn’t surprise me. Neither did the scratch amaretto. What else to expect at The Family Jones, a spirit house that’s approaching drinks with the same local/seasonal/artisanal ethos that upended kitchens a decade ago? Head distiller Rob Masters set the stakes for this place when he voiced his aspirations last fall, shortly before the Family Jones opened: The vision, he said, called for “making anything a good bartender needs...for a world-class bar program.” Anything being the operative word.
So I went in expecting marvels on the beverage side of this operation, and marvels was what I got in every spirit-swaggering (read: knock-your-pants-off) cocktail. What stopped me cold, though, were the blossoms. Blossoms! And not just as garnishes to drinks. Delicate orange ones, like petals of a marigold, were blown across a tender short rib, the final act of a careful, conscientious chef. Aren’t such flourishes the province of not just restaurants, but fine-dining establishments? What were they doing here, in a place widely deemed a bar?
Truth is, the Family Jones isn’t really a bar. Yes, a copper still and wood fermenters on the mezzanine classify it as a distillery, bound by regulations on what can and can’t be served, with beer and wine falling into the latter category. (A distillery can only serve spirits made there.) But while you can treat it like a tasting room, taking tours and drinking your way through flights of scratch spirits, it’s far more than that, far more than a detour for drinks before you Lyft elsewhere. Those blossoms are more than a beautiful finish; they’re a manifesto. Under the direction of opening chef Tim Dotson, this kitchen isn’t about to be an afterthought.
Perched above a park in LoHi, with cinderblock walls, velvety cobalt seating and a patio, the Family Jones is equal parts spirit house and contemporary restaurant, complete with a small but sophisticated menu — tucked cheekily inside a photo album — of hot and cold small plates. Cocktail tables and upholstered benches cluster up front, bathed in the cathedral-like light filtering through vertical beams over soaring windows. The room grows darker the deeper in you go, past plush booths until you reach the inner sanctum, a half-moon of counter seats beyond which bartenders and cooks mingle. This proximity unites the bar and food programs, even though the latter isn’t bound by the same strict dictum of in-house sourcing. And that’s fortunate: Bigger staffs than this have stumbled in slavish devotion to the idea, sending out inferior versions of what could’ve been better sourced. “The kitchen and the bar share the same small space,” says Dotson, who crafted the opening menu with Justin Cucci of Edible Beats. “The goal has always been to integrate the creativity between the two.”
That creativity runs rampant. A hollowed-out artichoke brims with light-bodied fondue, an inspired pairing given how well the blend of parmesan, white Cheddar and Gruyère plays off the astringent leaves; beets, apples and bourbon-buttered croutons harmonize with the cheeses differently, the way various foods do with a glass of wine. Ham salad strays far from the mayo-bound sandwich filling popular in the South, with slices of this high-end domestic ham ribboned over frisée, puckery green tomatoes and peanuts, as well as cheese curds and a hard-boiled egg, gently warmed to take off the chill. The combination breathes life into the salad genre, giving people tired of kale, spinach and Caesar a new reason to order greens.
Not just garnishes, but words once associated almost exclusively with thoughtful, high-end dining apply here, too. There’s texture in every stack of fork-tender short ribs, gently yielding fingerlings and tuiles of crispy raclette, a cheese akin to Gruyère. Balance in the acidic rumblings of eggplant caponata on toast, with vinegar-splashed olives, capers and roasted tomatoes reining in the richness of creamy burrata. Seasonality in the pickled peach butter and bourbon-peach vinaigrette that finish discs of pork tenderloin on a raft of cornbread. Pulling off these combinations is akin to juggling: Only good chefs can keep all elements in play without one of them crashing. But Dotson does so with confidence, having cooked for nearly two decades in New York, on Martha’s Vineyard, and locally at TAG.
Look closely before you put fork to plate and take in the artistry of that jagged wafer of dehydrated corn (listed on the menu as a cornflake) jutting skyward, held in place by wedges of lemon cucumbers, melon and tomatoes. Those tiny yellow dots, edible fireworks on the tips of bolting dill. That harmonious stratum of frisée, cod, potatoes and corn reduction thickened with pulp. Granted, fish atop starch is hardly new, with potatoes a common bed, but the addition of corn makes this light and exuberant, like summer itself.
Occasionally, a plate takes on too much. An heirloom-tomato salad was a fantastical 3-D collage, a collision of geometric shapes in all heights and sizes, but the subtle sweetness of tomatoes and melon never had a chance against the anchovy-like umami of black-garlic dressing. The vibrancy of red sorbet over a brownie’s deepest brown faded when the sorbet melted, leaving a watery sheen over the plate; ice cream would’ve been a better match, preferably in something other than cherry-lime. The rare dish that plays it safe — roasted chicken slider, I’m thinking of you — fails because the kitchen’s heart isn’t in it. What fun is there in a chicken sandwich with no crunch? Besides, it’s oddly proportioned, too small for a sandwich, too big for a slider, with the bun-to-filling ratio all wrong.
Such missteps, however, are easily forgiven in a kitchen as authentic, as adventurous as this. The Family Jones doesn’t fall into the trap of so many other wine bars, tasting rooms and brewpubs, tying the menu too closely to spirits, with rum this and gin that, nor does it channel a time or place other than the vibrant now of Denver. Instead, the team kept it in the family, feeling out the space and cooking by trial and error until it arrived at a destination for diners and drinkers alike. Cheers to that.
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The Family Jones is located at 3245 Osage Street. It's open from 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday, 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Find out more at 303-481-8185 or go to thefamilyjones.co.
Select menu items
Artichoke fondue $16
Eggplant caponata toast $8
Ham salad $12
Icelandic cod $16
Pork tenderloin $15