The Wazee Lounge & Supper Club moved into an old plumbing shop at the corner of Wazee and 15th streets almost fifty years ago and has held court there ever since, standing as a reminder of a bygone era as lower downtown became LoDo and Denver's urban core gentrified around it. During that time, it's gone through several owners, but it always remained the Wazee. Now its days are numbered: Juan Padro, who owns Bar Dough, Señor Bear and the Tap & Burger concepts, reveals that he's inked a deal for half the building, buying out Dan, John and Mike Shipp, whose Roadhouse Hospitality has operated the Wazee since 2015. Padro's crew will shutter the iconic restaurant around the end of this year and install something completely new.
This isn't Padro's first look at the space. "Charlie [Woolley, the building's other owner] has been trying to get me to work with him for a long time," he says. "We were originally going to do Bar Dough there, but [the current Bar Dough address] fell into our lap, so we bought it."
Dan Shipp says his group came to terms with the fact that the time had come to refresh the Wazee entirely, which is what spurred the deal. "It's kind of run its course," he explains. "It was remodeled before we took over, and it lost some of its charm. Union Station got busy, Larimer got busy, and we’re in the middle — you have to have a reason to come to the middle. These guys will make it more of a destination place." He adds that he talked to a number of operators before eventually making the deal with Padro, because he liked what that group wanted to do.
Padro, partner Katie O'Shea and chef-partner Max MacKissock are plotting a French "bistronomy" restaurant called Morin, a passion project for MacKissock. "I’ve wanted to open a French restaurant since I was fifteen," says the chef. "I grew up in a French household with a French family. It's my favorite cuisine, and something I like to eat and cook."
And true to that inspiration, the restaurant bears his mother's family name, which made her cry when he told her, MacKissock says.
Exactly what kind of French restaurant he wanted to do crystallized a few years ago when MacKissock and his wife, chef Jennifer Jasinski, spent eight days in Paris with a local chef and fell in love with the bistronomy movement proliferating in the City of Light. "You had this Michelin-style food in this loud atmosphere, which is kind of my style," he says. "The restaurants are casual and fun, with loud music."
While MacKissock and his team plan to use bistronomy as their launch pad, the chef says that term won't fully encapsulate the experience, which he's still conceptualizing. He knows service will be polished but casual, in a dining room with a laid-back vibe. Lunch food, he says, will be a little more traditionally French, with some dishes inspired by a Christmas fair he loves on the Champs-Elysees, while dinner will be a little more free-form and creative. "It'll be French in its essence, whether that's technique, sauce or an ingredient, but it won’t be bistro French food or brasserie food," he says. "There will be odes to the classics, but you're not going to be able to look at the menu and be like, 'I know this because I know French food.'"
Without revealing specifics of the menu, MacKissock promises a couple of additional things: "There will be a charcuterie element. I'm a big terrine and pâté guy; I love that stuff. Another big thing will be potatoes — I love potatoes, and I would envision a section on the menu with just different preparations of potatoes. It'll be lots of fun food."
As for drinks, the team tapped McLain Hedges and Mary Allison Wright, proprietors at the Proper Pour and RiNo Yacht Club, to build out the program; Wright will create the wine list with a heavy emphasis on natural wines, while Hedges will take control of cocktails and serve as bar manager. "Mary is the queen of natural wine in Denver, and McClain is the bee's knees," MacKissock says. "They're two of my best friends, and we've been trying to do something together for a while."
Padro says Raw Creative, which also did Señor Bear, is helming the design of the space, and extensive changes are in the works, though not a full gut and remodel. "They're like family, so it's great to have them involved in the project," he says.
This project comes as the group moves forward on several fronts, including menu changes at the Tap & Burger concepts ahead of a new Tap & Burger going in at Belleview Station; a Bar Dough licensing deal called Sophia in New Orleans; and a catering company started, says Padro, when the team threw its name in the hat to cater this year's Velorama Music Festival and won the bid. The latter endeavor is called Culinary Creative, and that's the company that partnered with Woolley on the Wazee deal.
MacKissock is the company's culinary director, and he'll continue to oversee menus at the other restaurants, even as he plans to spend more time in the kitchen at Morin. He'll hire a chef de cuisine, he says, and he expects Señor Bear chef Blake Edmunds will be very involved, especially as MacKissock builds out the menu and gets the place up and running. MacKissock and O'Shea head to Paris and Lyon next week for research.
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As for the Wazee, there's still time for one last pizza and beer: Padro says if all goes to plan, it'll stay open until at least the end of the year. "My hope is that we can really push people to get in to experience the Wazee one last time," he says. "It’s an important piece of Denver’s history, and we want to honor that and respect that. It's time for a change, but that doesn’t change the historical significance of the space."
The Karagas brothers, who'd moved to Denver from Detroit, bought the Wazee from its founders in the early ’70s; Angelo Karagas ran the Wazee for decades. (In 1980, Westword moved its office above the pizza emporium; we'll share more of that story later.) After Angela Karagas passed away, the Wynkoop group then headed by John Hickenlooper purchased the restaurant with Woolley; the Wynkoop later sold its portion to the Shipps. Meanwhile, Angelo's brother, Jim Karagas, ran My Brother's Bar until that classic watering hole changed hands earlier this year.
Shipp says his group will continue to focus on its other Roadhouse concepts; it currently operates fifteen restaurants.
Look for Morin to open in April or May of 2018.