The romance of train travel hasn't disappeared just yet. The renewed and revitalized Union Station offers the Brief Encounter magic of a mid-century rail station, without having to climb into a train and spend countless hours next to a musty grandpa who gasps like a fish in his sleep. At Union Station, Stoic & Genuine draws in the big fish and Mercantile offers great sandwiches and better dinners, plus home-grown souvenirs. ACME Burger & Brat Co and Fresh eXchange provide quick sustenance to travelers and tourists. So where does The Kitchen Next Door fit into this puzzle? Unsurprising to those familiar with the Kitchen, Next Door is distinguishing itself with a dependable happy hour.
Happy hour — er, "Community Hour" — is a cornerstone the Kitchen, which has spread its presence from Fort Collins to Chicago after opening the original in Boulder in 2004, but at the Next Doors in Boulder, Denver and Glendale, it's practically the foundation. Served daily from 3 to 6 p.m. and from 9 p.m. to close Monday through Saturday, plus 6 p.m. to close on Sundays, it fits well with this spinoff's more leisurely atmosphere. (Late night offerings are limited to select half-price beer pitchers and bottles of wine.) Servers wear graphic tees instead the crisp, identical uniforms at The Kitchen across the street, and the space is rather bare. One exception is the neon Union Station Restaurant sign, rescued from obscurity and now providing a delightful glow to the central bar.
The Kitchen family is devoted to the concept of simply prepared food, and Next Door Union Station's fare is even more stark; its Community Hour offerings omit flowery descriptions or listings of local ingredients. Instead, it comprises comfort food mainly of the like-Ma-used-to-make variety, with plates of meatballs and polenta ($5) and cheeseburger sliders ($4) along with kale chips ($5) and calamari ($5). With the exception of the sliders, which also come in beet or pulled pork varieties, all these plates can be shared among a couple with minimal fuss, but they're not big enough to supply a table. Consider the spiced chickpeas & hummus ($5), which offers four exquisitely toasted pita triangles that can be stuffed with the fixings. In classic Kitchen fashion, the flavors are muted but addictive.
A friend and I proceeded to tear through most of the remaining items, splitting some and hoarding the rest. The burger slider is an obvious crowd-pleaser, melted through with cheese and piled with the regular toppings. The beet slider ($4) is a harder sell — all the squishy and odd features of a veggie burger, minus the weight and plus the flavor of dirt. Still, it's a longtime Next Door staple so it must have a cult following. I'd rather drop a Lincoln on the meatballs and polenta, which creates a warming, homey feel in the stomach. That's thanks to beef from Colorado's Best Beef and a rich tomato sauce over creamy polenta.
Unfortunately, Next Door's beverage offerings need an update. My margarita ($5) was just tequila, triple sec and lime, and could have used a little more pizzazz. The beer selections are pitiful, and Next Door offers only three unexciting drafts (a Dry Dock apricot, Avery White Rascal and an Elevation Beer Co. Kolsch) on happy hour for $4 to $5, almost exactly as it's been since the place opened.
That's the only big concern I have with The Kitchen Next Door Union Station. The menu and vibe are identical across all three outposts with only a few tweaks, which won't reward happy hour crawlers looking for more variety in their travels. Consistency is a virtue, but one associated with the TGI Friday's of this world than with locally-grown dining. The happy hour pleasures waiting Next Door are undeniable (see below), yet I hope the Kitchen's formula will allow for a few more twists and turns.
Perfect for: With simple finger food at hand, accommodating service and a non-condescending kid's menu, Next Door Union Station is the place to stop if you're touring downtown with children in tow.
Don't Miss: There's one thing on the menu that you can't leave or live without. If you're reading this on a USB drive smuggled into North Korea, here's your reason to defect: the crispy garlic smashers ($5). Fingerling potatoes are smashed and fried to a near-mythical crisp, then coated in Parmesan and garlic butter. Now, I've been cursed to wander this Earth in a futile search for a potato that can match the Kitchen's.