Bars offer a form of intimacy: You're shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow drinkers, face-to-face with your bartender and only a few feet from the source of your next drink. Conversation and camaraderie flow like beer from the tap, and toasts among strangers (if there is such a thing as a stranger at your favorite watering hole) are common — whether to celebrate, commiserate or just knock back another shot.
But bars have suffered greatly during the pandemic. Most bar stools have been eliminated, leaving customers scattered around what little table seating can be found, and those saloons that haven't figured out some form of food service have had to close entirely because of COVID-related restrictions. Many watering holes throughout Denver remain in a state of limbo, either hibernating for the winter, trying to make a go of it with takeout booze sales or offering only occasional special events until capacity restrictions ease enough to make reopening worthwhile.
No wonder, then, that so few new bars have opened since the pandemic settled over Denver like a smothering smog last March.
But while hospitality can be muffled, it can't be muted completely. In October, 3 Kilts Tavern bucked both the pandemic and the trend away from Irish pubs when it opened at 1076 Ogden Street — its second attempt, since COVID killed downtown business at the pub's first location, 1600 Champa Street, where it tried to make a brief go of it from June to August. At its new spot, 3 Kilts is offering a considerable food menu of hearty Irish-American fare, making it more of a restaurant than a straight-up bar...though that's certainly a welcome addition to Capitol Hill, too.
In December, Dirty Laundry debuted at 2955 Ulster Street, relying mostly on booze to go (with even its own line of canned cocktails) until restrictions loosened up and the bar was able to seat at 25 percent capacity starting on January 4. Dirty Laundry stands as a quintessential neighborhood bar, offering a refuge for Packers fans and a brief lineup of Wisconsin-inspired snacks. Midwesterners will also be warmed by Dirty Laundry's true-to-form brandy Old Fashioned.
Over the past few months, a smattering of wine bars, distilleries and breweries also started pouring, despite the odds against new ventures emerging in these unsettled times.
And then the letter L appeared on a former pet-food store at 46 Broadway, signaling the arrival of a new venture from two veteran Denver barmen. Adam Hodak and Alex Lerman launched The L with a goal of bridging the gap between cocktail destination and neighborhood tavern.
Hodak was the longtime beverage director for chef/restaurateur Frank Bonanno's restaurant group; he was one of the driving forces behind Green Russell, the sultry underground speakeasy below Larimer Square, and also oversaw the launch of the beverage program at Denver Milk Market. Several years ago, he hired Lerman as a barback at Green Russell, and the two worked together for about three years before Lerman left for New York City, where he rose to head bartender at the NoMad Hotel in Manhattan. When Lerman returned to Denver, the two decided to open their own bar together, and they signed a lease on the space in September 2019.
"It was empty for two years before we took over," Hodak recalls. The space needed considerable work to become a bar, and he and Lerman did all the demolition themselves, then added a small kitchen and moved the facade back several feet to make room for a patio.
The L's original liquor-license hearing was scheduled for March 25, 2020 — just days after severe COVID-based restrictions gripped the entire city and all restaurants and bars were ordered closed. The hearing was postponed several times, but eventually the license was granted, and the two bartenders slowly transformed the pet shop into their vision of a drinking establishment. It finally opened on January 17.
"We're really blessed to be opening a bar instead of shutting one down," Lerman says, lamenting the many jobs lost by his friends and colleagues in the industry.
And while Hodak notes that he'd like to hire some of those colleagues, for the moment the L is a minimalist operation, since capacity restrictions prevent the kinds of numbers needed to hire a full staff. "We never anticipated mom-and-popping it," Hodak says, but for now, your cocktails will likely be made by one of the two owners until the place can operate at full capacity.
The space itself also reflects a spartan aesthetic, by design and necessity. Tables (made from Colorado ash) and chairs (not fancy, but surprisingly comfortable) are few and far between, and, of course, there are no stools at the bar. With the help of Koch Kovotsos Architecture, Hodak and Lerman also salvaged wood from the demolition and turned it into bar shelves and other furnishings. The two had planned distinct seating areas but are putting off building those so that they can keep the tables more moveable for now. They're also postponing the installation of a draft system, since serving cans and bottles makes more sense from a health and safety standpoint. Coming soon, though, is a mural by artist Bunny M, which will be added on the interior north wall over the next month or so.
The pandemic did provide some opportunities, including equipment and accessories. "We have Racines' sound system and smallware," Hodak points out. That restaurant, which closed on March 17, never to return, was one of his favorites, he says, adding that "David Racine was awesome and more than willing to help out."
At the bar, the goal is to offer a little something for nearly every taste. "You can come and get one of the most beautiful cocktails anywhere in the city, or you can come in for a can of beer," Hodak explains. "Hospitality doesn't mean stuffy and old; it means listening and giving people what they want."
According to Lerman, the name refers to both the L trains of Chicago and the L line of Brooklyn's subway system. "Some of the best bars in the world are located off of lines," he says. "We wanted to stay true to this neighborhood, though, so something too limited didn't seem right."
For food, Hodak had originally planned on offering fully dressed Chicago-style hot dogs, but after the first order came in and he spent precious minutes away from the bar fussing over toppings, he realized it wouldn't work. So the L will instead serve Danger Zone calzones; customers can scan a QR code to pull up a menu and order online, and their calzones will soon show up steaming hot — since Danger Zone is just two doors down on Broadway.
While the L isn't quite the bar that Hodak and Lerman originally envisioned, every Denver bar has had to make accommodations during the pandemic. The bones are there, though, and Hodak says the pleasure comes from the people you're with and the drinks being served, not the decor or expensive flourishes of high-end cocktail bars. "The experience here is not so much what's around you, but what's right in front of you," he explains.
The L is located at 46 Broadway and plans to eventually be open every day. Current hours are 5 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 3 to 11 p.m. on Saturday and 3 to 8 p.m. on Sunday.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.