I love the promise and anticipation of a new restaurant — and the sigh of relief that comes with bringing a hard-wrought vision to life for guests. But the moments before opening are also the last moments a restaurant will define itself on its own terms. Crowds and critics take up that mantle from the second the first dish comes out of the kitchen, ultimately determining where the restaurant fits in the dining landscape. Most of that judgment is passed when a place is brand-new; many restaurants are put neatly into boxes before the servers have even figured out the table numbers.
But the truth is, restaurants evolve. Once the opening crowds dissipate, the regulars start to get to know the staff, and the menu gets tweaked to better play to an audience the restaurant didn’t even know it would have, you can really start to see what a place might become. And if you follow a restaurant for many years, you may see it evolve into something unexpected.
For instance, when I was Westword’s restaurant critic back in 2011, I reviewed Hops & Pie, and I was taken with the fine-dining upgrade owners Drew and Leah Watson had given to the classic pairing of pizza and beer. The restaurant felt new and novel then, with its beer-infused crusts (the alcohol gives them a feathery quality, like adding vodka to pie dough), its ambitious craft-beer program and its grown-up mac and cheese, glazed with IPA-imbued cheddar and littered with smoked ham and peas.
Inherent in my review was the assumption that Hops & Pie would make its name on the fine touches that differentiate it — and it has. But nearly eight years into the restaurant’s Tennyson Street residency, it’s the nostalgia that strikes me, not the innovation. Hops & Pie has settled into being a neighborhood pizza joint that might recall the parlors of your youth: There are stickers plastered to the walls now, and the place is perpetually dark and a little sticky. You’re as likely to see harried parents feeding hungry kids on busy weeknights as you are to see craft-beer geeks bellied up to the bar. It feels lived in and timeless, a true neighborhood anchor that’s outlived many surrounding bars and restaurants. And in all that time, if anything, the food has gotten better and the beer program more ambitious.
Perhaps that should have been predictable; Hops & Pie has always been community-oriented, so it's no surprise that it's built a loyal following. It runs a long happy hour, for instance, that's designed to be as enticing for drinkers who want to taste through several drafts of unusual suds as it is for young families likely to be partaking in an early-bird dinner. From 3 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, draft beers, glasses of wine, ten-inch pizzas and the slice of the day are all $1 off. If that sounds modest, consider that the discount brings slice pricing down to about $2 apiece and makes individual pies as cheap as $7.50 — less than what you'd pay at a fast-casual outlet. Go the slice route, and two people can feasibly stuff themselves on pizza and have a couple of beers for less than a total of $25. You could feed a family, assuming some members aren't drinking beer, for close to the same.
The best move, though, is to couple that happy-hour pricing with a daily special: $2 craft cans after 5 p.m. on Wednesday or $2 Bierstadt Lagerhaus Slow Pour Pils all day on Thursday. Now your tab for two is inching below $20, leaving enough extra cash to add an order of macaroni and cheese at full price.
While Hops & Pie doesn't do weekend happy hour, it does offer an indulgent reason to stop by on a Saturday: Between noon and 5 p.m., you can get two slices of the day and three draft beers for a total of $16. Sipping three beers encourages groups of friends, which is what builds the neighborhood vibe here. And if this really is your neighborhood joint, it behooves you to join the restaurant’s beer club, which gives you happy-hour pricing at all hours, plus access to special releases.