Populism has become something of a dirty word in the most recent era of our country’s electoral politics, tied as it is with a commander-in-chief who rode our worst impulses into office. Don’t hold that association against The Populist, the quiet RiNo restaurant that’s held out on a once-deserted block for the last six years. This ode to the common man is the polar opposite of abrasive or garish — in fact, it’s so subtle, it’s easy to miss entirely. The low-key signage and facade melt innocuously into its more industrial surroundings.
In keeping with the demure exterior, the restaurant yields its delights slowly, which might be why you can continue to fall in love anew with the place. Come in winter, for instance, and you may not notice the twinkling patio, one of the best outdoor dining spaces in the city in warmer months. The menu changes frequently enough that each visit brings a new favorite dish, but it’s never too late to discover mainstays like the variations on jackfruit or the solid burger.
For our part, it took too long to fully grasp the nuances of the wine list, a tightly written selection of interesting bottles that comprise one of the best collections in the city, and it was longer still until we realized that the Populist’s happy hour, which runs from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, is a good way to experience a real taste of this spot’s charms cheaply. Judging by the sparse crowd, we’re not the only ones who lagged in our recognition.
Given the Populist’s smart take on wine, you should start your foray into happy hour with the wine list. Though limited to four $6 selections — a sparkling, rosé, white and red, on the day we dropped by — the bar doesn’t flinch on trotting out unusual varietals, a welcome divergence from lists that pour lowest-common-denominator wine during discount hours. We sipped our way through a crisp pink New Mexican sparkler, a rounder white arneis from Italy's Langhe region, and then an herbaceous Loire Valley cabernet Franc — and regretted only not making it a quartet with the rosé.
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If you’re not a wine drinker, you’ll find a trio of bright cocktails, including a gin and housemade tonic, and a New York sour with a red-wine float. This is not a happy hour for serious beer drinkers, who have to content themselves with Montucky Cold Snacks — but at least those are only $3 a can.
Just four snacks fill out the food board, and if you order all of them, that’s enough for a meal. We’d stick to snacking on just a couple of them, though: The croquettes were a bland miss for us, and the PEI mussels, enriched as they were with piquant sausage and microgreens, weren’t good enough that we’d be willing to miss out on dinner.
Instead, stick to the Populist happy hour classics:the "bacon and egg" and the popcorn, which is made addictively umami with togarashi spice for an ideal drinking snack. The bacon and egg is worth ordering even if you’re not here for happy hour: Lardo-spackled toast comes sided with a poached egg nesting in sweet-savory bacon jam that recalls the flavor of maple-bacon beans you might order at an exceptional barbecue restaurant. That you can get the latter, in particular, at a $4 discount is reason enough to make your way here during happy hour. Besides, eating that much protein is a good excuse to order another glass of wine.