In 2012, Denver was just beginning to emerge from the economic torpor of the Great Recession, and the whole concept of RiNo as a neighborhood and entertainment zone and not simply an art district was just taking off. Parts of Larimer and Blake streets were beginning to see hip, edgy new bars and restaurants pop up, but they felt more like an extension of the Ballpark neighborhood. Farther northeast, though, was still mostly the territory of warehouses, dive bars and neighborhood Mexican joints — that is, until Jonathan Power and Noah Price opened The Populist at 3163 Larimer Street, following the success of Price's Crema Coffee House three blocks closer to the action.
Big loans and financing weren't easy to come by in those years, so DIY was more a necessity than a fashion for budding restaurateurs. The Populist reflected that in both its decor and ethos, serving inventive small plates spun from myriad influences and more than a little trial and error. Repurposed gym lockers became storage racks for the restaurant's notable wine list, and vintage furnishings shared space with tables topped with reclaimed wood.
But seven years later, the Populist is closing; the restaurant will serve its last dinner on August 10. What was once a brave and pioneering eatery in a transitioning neighborhood has become one of many options for trend-followers flocking to the area — many headed for the doors of corporate-run establishments such as Shake Shack, Barcelona Wine Bar, Lustre Pearl and 10 Barrel Brewing Company. But the Populist wasn't a precursor to gentrification; it was a quiet neighborhood eatery that happened to serve forward-thinking cuisine. Power and Price didn't build the place for destination diners; the lack of a parking lot and the diminutive dining room were proof of that. Even the ivy-lined patio felt like a friend's back yard, with shipping pallets propping up vines and string lights adding a warm glow.
"We've had a hell of a run, and decided it's time to move in a different direction," Power explains, noting that the shift in the neighborhood has turned the Populist into more of a special-occasion place than he and Price initially intended. Transitioning from one of the hottest spots in town to one of the "old guard" of restaurants that opened in the early part of the decade feels a little strange for a restaurant only six and a half years old, Power adds.
The bright side of the closing is that the owners of the Populist have sold the restaurant rather than just closing it. The buyer is the same group that operates Señor Bear at 3301 Tejon Street, and the plan is to turn the space into Mister Oso, "a little brother to Señor Bear," explains Juan Padro, one of the principals behind Culinary Creative along with Katie O'Shea and Max MacKissock. (Padro is also one of the founders of Highland Tap & Burger and its Sloan's Lake and Belleview Station outposts.)
Señor Bear was launched in 2017 to highlight Latin American cuisine as envisioned by chef/partner Blake Edmunds. Mister Oso continues the theme and will specialize in the smoked-meat tacos, ceviches and light cocktails built on pisco, rum and agave spirits. "We'll have a pretty robust to-go program of smoked meats by the pound," Padro notes. "It should be a pretty fun and casual vibe."
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Power says that he's staying on as a minority partner, but that he and Price both plan to focus more on their families and personal lives. The chef/restaurateur explains that he's been meeting with Padro and his partners to discuss the transition and help find positions at the group's other restaurants for those who wish to stay on.
"We've built a hell of a family here, and we want to make sure and take care of them," Power adds. "And this feels like a really smart move."
Power also opened Bar Fausto across the street from the Populist in 2015 with Koan Goedman. While Bar Fausto remains open, it's transitioning to a new concept called Gold Point under new owners Sudhir Kudva, Michael Reilly, Colin Hankins and Corey Costello. Power will also maintain a small ownership stake there.
The Populist will remain open from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday until the last dinner service on Saturday, August 10. Call 720-432-3163 or visit the restaurant's website for information and reservations.
Correction July 25, 2019: An earlier version of this story referred to the new restaurant as Little Oso.