Linger looked quiet the first time I stopped by the restaurant, which had opened earlier this summer in the former Olinger's mortuary. I made my way past the valet leaning against his podium and up the cement steps, intending to get just a fast glimpse of the place and continue on with my night. But as soon as I pulled open that glass door, I knew there was a very good chance I wouldn't make my next stop.
The place was already steamrolling toward its first crush, with three smiling and efficient hostesses directing traffic at the front, separating parties with reservations from those just trying their luck. Beyond them, the deep, high-ceilinged dining room was already full of people — Denver's Twitterati eager to see and be seen at the then-week-old Linger, packed into the gray padded booths and crammed into the rows of tables overlooking the downtown skyline, their frenetic conversation buzzing beneath a beat-heavy soundtrack. Servers glided between the diners, handing out water in formaldehyde bottles and taking orders. In the open kitchen along one wall, a crew of cooks worked rhythmically, ladling sauces and calling tickets while somehow managing not to run into each other.
The intoxicating din of a restaurant running full stride carried up the spiral staircase into the bar, which was standing room only, with those stuck standing eyeing the high tables where parties were sharing space, the two-person booths in the center snagged by dates, the four-tops with the skyline view that might have been the most desirable real estate in town. I grabbed a seat at the Lite-Brite-studded bar and ordered a cocktail. That quick drink soon led to appetizers and then dinner, and as darkness settled over the city, I completely forgot any other plans I had. I wanted to stay at Linger all night long.
But then, chef-owner Justin Cucci has had some practice in catering to crowds. After working in kitchens for most of his life, he gave an old garage in Highland a kitschy, retro makeover and opened it as the ultra-hip Root Down in December 2007. Almost four years later, Root Down remains popular, and the bar gets absolutely jammed during happy hour and brunch. For his second restaurant, Cucci took on a completely different challenge, turning a massive, awkward space that had once housed dead bodies — hardly a place where you'd want to linger — into a swank eatery where people would actually hunger to get inside.
Photos: Back of the House at Linger
Once he'd worked out the practical side — like where the kitchen would go, and how he could get people up to the rooftop patio that opened last week — Cucci started in on the decoration, incorporating the building's past into its whimsical new look, with echoes of the quirky, morbid humor that characterizes the film Harold & Maude, photos from which are plastered on the bathroom doors and above the kitchen. But while you could find yourself greeting a hostess at an old church pew and then sitting on a hearse seat and ordering from a menu that looks like a toe tag, the colorful, eclectic richness of Cucci's attention to detail creates a seamless space that's at once stunning, humorous and cool. And above it all, the old Olinger Mortuaries sign now glows "Linger Eatuaries."
I loved the vibe from the get-go, but Cucci made sure that his novel place would be more than a novelty. And what keeps me coming back, what keeps most of the crowds coming back, is the food. On another whim, Cucci decided that this restaurant would focus on global street food, and he visited various spots around the world to nail ,down exactly what he wanted to serve. The result is a menu that spans every continent, emphasizing some regional specialties while adapting others to Cucci's particular desires. Every item is offered as a small plate, meant to be combined with several other dishes to make a full meal — and there are dozens of dishes to choose from, divided into kitschy, somewhat clumsy geographic categories. While a gimmick like that could be DOA if it wasn't done well, Linger manages to pull it off.
When I returned with a group for dinner in the dining room, we started off with hummus — not the traditional chickpea and tahini mixture, but an earthy blend of puréed fava beans and peas. Four lines of garnishes bordered the plate, and we mixed in the grated hard-boiled egg, smoky paprika, pungent feta and tangy preserved lemon, then dug in with pieces of hot naan. The result was a light, interesting take on the ubiquitous appetizer. From there we moved on to the Mongolian BBQ duck buns, puffy rounds of steamed dough folded over hunks of succulent braised duck coated in sweet, plummy hoisin and sprinkled with bits of fresh green onions and tart pickled cucumbers. They were delicious, as was our next dish: raw, vegan Indian samosas. The sticky blend of dates, shredded carrots, coriander, curry, crushed cashews and almonds — sided with a cashew-flavored dipping sauce and a cranberry-mint jam — tasted not unlike a Lara bar, in the most pleasant way possible. Normally, I'm a die-hard advocate of the marriage of fire and meat, but these are now among my favorite dishes on Linger's menu. And there's a lot to like here.
I started another dinner with a few more vegetarian dishes. The "popper breakdown" filled a bowl with pan-fried, sweet shishito peppers and tempura cheese curds. Dipped in the honeyed habanero jam, they might be the best bar snack ever — even though I wasn't eating in the bar. Next came carrot and lentil kofte, which mashed carrots, lentils, chickpeas and chiles together into a patty, then placed it on leaves of butter lettuce along with slightly sour pickled shiitake mushrooms and a smattering of scallions. I dunked each morsel in a little yogurt sauce and didn't miss the meat.
In fact, if any restaurant makes me think that I could love life as a vegetarian, it's Linger. I could certainly skip ordering the Wagyu burger sliders, since they were weirdly flavorless, despite the bacon and cheddar that came on top — though I did enjoy the waffle-cut sweet-potato fries heaped on the side. But the chicken b'stilla was definitely worth trying again: Flaky pastry held shreds of tender chicken blended with almonds, apricots and raisins and spiked with cinnamon; the tart, preserved-lemon yogurt on the side was a perfect complement.
I've encountered a few other disappointments at Linger. The saag paneer fries transformed saag paneer into dry, chalky sticks, which the watery rhubarb ketchup did nothing to improve. And the Mysore Masala dosa was too bland to stack up to the real thing: It lacked the flavor of fermentation. I've also experienced a few service problems. Linger was definitely understaffed in the beginning — which made both drink and food orders slow — and is still sometimes playing catch-up.
But these missteps are far from fatal. Cucci's second place has breathed new life into the Denver restaurant scene. Its decor bends the rules and its menu is massive, but the whole is so intriguing that you can't help but want to linger.
Photos: Back of the House at Linger