A few months into the pandemic, chefs and restaurant owners started to realize and, at various paces, come to terms with it: Their fancy food just didn’t travel well.
They had been selling their fresh-tossed pastas, perfectly roasted fish and plates drizzled in reductions, and then all of a sudden, it made much more sense to offer, say, take-and-bake lasagnas, crispy chicken tenders and lots of portable dipping sauces.
These comfort foods got many restaurants through the pandemic and, for some, are now changing the way they do business.
Look around Denver, and the menus are filled with items that are nostalgic, creative and also a bit ironic. The cocktails are nodding back to the later part of the 20th Century with plays on frozen daiquiris, espresso martinis and cosmopolitans. The happy hour specials are straight from fast-food and even convenience stores: cheesy “gordo crunches,” soft-serve blenders and Frito pie bags.
Turns out, these are the great levelers, the foods and drinks that unite customers, kitchen and bar staff. It’s what everybody actually wants to eat or drink when they clock out.
For one Denver-based restaurant group, the shift in tastes led its owners to shutter a fine-dining French concept, transition that kitchen to preparing buckets of fried chicken (and feeding first responders) and finally to reopen later this month as a throwback steak joint.
“As a group, we’re really good at doing ‘polished-casual,’ ” said Juan Padró, co-owner of A5, which will soon debut downtown in the former home of Morin (and Wazee Supper Club before that). “It’s about being inspired by something and making it better, using the best ingredients and having fun with it, and appealing to somebody’s childhood or some experience that they associate with.”
For Padró, those associations are a mashup of his Puerto Rican heritage and childhood in Massachusetts. Traditional foods like rice and beans are the ultimate comfort, he said. But so are Italian-American staples like meatballs and garlic bread or chicken parmesan. And you’ll find versions of all of them at The Culinary Creative Group’s restaurants.
One staple across the restaurants is a frozen cocktail made in the type of countertop slushie machine you might have come across at gas stations, snack bars or movie theaters.
Padró says that growing up, his dad used to make him a version typical of Latin American countries with just blended ice and pineapple. But most customers will think of the beach when they see a congelado del día on the menus at Denver’s Señor Bear and Mister Oso.
“It’s so cheesy … but it works,” Padró said. The only thing you want when you go to the Caribbean is a frozen daiquiri or a piña colada, not a big Napa cab(ernet). And I think people want to be transported, especially now.”
The combination of taking diners somewhere else in space and time is a sweet spot at the downtown bar Run For The Roses, which sends its customers through an alleyway and down an elevator before arriving in the underground digs, where they can feel entirely apart from 2021 and Denver.
For owner Steven Waters, classic drinks are a specialty, and any comebacks therein, like espresso martinis and cosmopolitans, are absolutely welcome. He also imagines those unnecessarily elaborate ’90s-era cocktails (think Sex on the Beach, Alabama Slammer) coming back around soon, even if “people have no idea what’s actually in them.”
And Waters takes the nostalgia to another level with hors d’oeuvres that combine “high and low,” things like a bag of potato chips served with caviar, a platter of deviled eggs and shrimp cocktail.
As customers are coming back to drinking and dining indoors, the bar is slowly reintroducing its food menu and trying to conjure the atmosphere of a dressed-up dinner party, Waters said. It’s a vibe that could strike a perfect balance for restaurant-goers coming out of the pandemic.
It’s also the scene that Padró envisions at A5, where he hopes to see big groups gathered around a table full of bygone indulgences (think seafood towers), and everyone just chowing down on lobster tails, or Denver steaks and (modern) wedge salads.
“Where we live is important to us; our community is important to us,” Padró said. “We don’t want to force stuff on them.”
Here are some guilty pleasures we’ve noticed on menus, and where to find them.
Bologna sandwiches are best when fried and topped with mustard, mayo, iceberg lettuce and potato chips, all between two slices of griddled white bread at Misfit Snackbar.
Cheesecake maybe never goes out of style, but we’re seeing it on dessert menus old and new, and with distinct interpretations. For a sample, try out Barolo Grill‘s fanciful Castelmagno version and The Greenwich‘s New York-Basque indulgence.
Chicken tenders had a real resurgence during the pandemic, with a pop-up that’s becoming permanent at the former Lola Coastal Mexican, soon to be The Post Chicken & Beer in LoHi. Also try them at Knockabout Burgers at Denver’s Avanti food hall.
Cosmopolitans are having a moment for the first time since “Sex and the City.” Order one at Benzina on East Colfax.
Deviled eggs are a holiday tradition, but try popping ’em like palate cleansers between sips of martinis at Run For The Roses.
Espresso martinis are what kicked off the ’90s-specific food trend in a big way this year. Go to Run For The Roses or Restaurant Olivia.
Frito pies were once reserved for barbecue gatherings and sporting events in Texas and the Southwest. Now you can get them around Denver, including at Vaca Gordo BBQ and Mister Oso.
Frozen cocktails are kind of a dime a dozen these days in Denver. For Latin American versions, Señor Bear and Mister Oso change theirs daily. For wine slushies, Acova‘s are a Highland neighborhood staple.
Gorditas (a la Taco Bell) are perhaps our favorite of the fast-food replicas. These crunchy, cheesy happy hour snacks can be ordered at Señor Bear and Mister Oso.
Seafood towers are back like inflation, and A5‘s version sure looks astronomical. Save the lobster tails and oyster platters for a blowout holiday dinner.
Soft-serve at Dang is made better with a side of French fries (think summers at the pool snack bar, but better). And Knockabout Burgers makes milkshakes and seasonal blenders that draw their inspiration from fast-food classics like Dairy Queen, Sonic and Starbucks.
White bread sandwiches get a glow up in the 2020s with the help of Japanese shokupan or milk bread. For a delicious selection of chef-made sandos on local Enchanted Oven slices, try Open located inside Goosetown Tavern.
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