The year that’s kept on giving (us hell). Restaurants and bars remain under on-site dining restrictions as we write this and the industry as a whole has faced a massive reckoning that’s left some spots closed permanently, others on hiatus, and many at death’s door. We heard from business owners in our Dec. 9 issue (see “Fate of the Industry”), but we want to continue our tradition of an annual year-in-review column despite the hardships facing our food and drink community.
What we’ve realized as we respectively scroll back through our year’s content is how many positive stories remain to be told. Honestly, we’re impressed (stunned, actually) to see continued growth in the marketplace with new openings against the backdrop of a pandemic.
Swartzell: That’s right, Matt. Though in many cases, given how long it takes to open a restaurant, how much money it requires, and how narrow the margins are, I feel like a lot of these small business owners had no other choice but to forge ahead as best they could. On the opposite side of the coin, I’ve spoken to more than a few people who went into the food biz — namely, food trucks — during the pandemic when their office jobs and such weren’t making ends meet. It’s legitimately awful that people have to worry about making rent while a deadly virus spreads all but unchecked, but while I have my opinions, our readers are here for food news, not armchair economics.
Schniper: So let’s talk about business before that initial mid-March shutdown. For the 2½ normal-ish months, what highlights do you have?
Swartzell: One of my first reviews of 2020 was for Lucy I’m Home’s brick-and-mortar location, which let Hector Diaz and family expand their menu and offer a few more Cuban bites, including some really good coffee. I’ve been a fan of the mango chicken plate since the truck days, but in an empanada, that chicken pops like homemade fireworks. Also, I was really impressed by the roast chicken I had at North Side Social, which was a stupid good deal for the price (plus, the sides were killer). What about you?
Schniper: I started the year off talking a lot about Jax Fish House opening in the longtime Il Vicino spot downtown. It’s the first expansion we’ve seen in the Springs from Boulder-based Big Red F restaurant group, which runs several notable eateries, mostly along the Front Range. Their seafood is truly sourced sustainably and they’ve since launched a trio of ghost kitchen concepts to pivot around COVID. With 25 years’ experience, they’re well positioned to adapt. Also in the early side of the year, I appreciated seeing Loyal Coffee open a north location expansion, as well as Lee Spirits Co., which grew into Monument with a second tasting room plus a production facility. Meanwhile, back downtown, I commended the ambition of the folks behind T-Byrd’s Tacos for launching a trio of connected spots: Mood Tapas Bar, District Elleven and Bird Tree Café. I spoke later in the year with chef TJ Curry and he’s really pushing to do some special things on-site.
Swartzell: So you said at the time. But then COVID hit and it wasn’t safe to dine in, nobody could operate at full capacity. Fortunately, a lot of restaurants and food businesses found ways to shift to delivery, and regulations changed to help them stay afloat. Not to be a boozehound, but I was really impressed by what restaurants did to adopt take-out cocktail options, and let me tell you, a bottle of the Burrowing Owl’s ginned up ginger beer made staying at home easier, to name one of a few spots I tried. I also thought Blackhat Distillery’s idea of selling six-packs of mixers with instructions was unique and clever, and the results spoke for themselves.
Schniper: Agree. May to-go alcohol forever be the law of the land! They aren’t getting that genie back in the bottle (no pun intended). Only trouble now is getting the beer slushy from Cerberus Brewing Co. home before it melts. But back to good grubbin’s, what caught your attention late spring, early summertime?
Swartzell: I mostly checked in at older haunts. There was a new one, the Blue Star Group-owned Stellina Pizza, where we had that potato-rosemary pizza I dug and you scoffed at. Interesting that a new space is the closest we got to an update on new Blue Star and Nosh, but 2020 threw all plans to hell. Still, the things I got for brunch from the SOCO Virtual Farmer’s Market really stick out — locally produced eggs, Breen Mesa Farm chevre, local Sette Dolori wine, Sourdough Boulangerie bread and that Carriage House Art and Farm jam. Turning all of those ingredients into a meal really made my Sunday. And how have I been passing Caspian Cafe for years without stopping in? The Persian chicken in walnut sauce was amazing! Same with the lamb tajine. Also, I learned to bake bread for a COVID column, which was neat. You did some pro-assisted cooking at home, right?
Schniper: Yep, I greatly enjoyed taking my first food class from Gather Food Studio when they moved online in April; for me it reinforced the notion of food as an experience not just a commodity. Around that time I got my first order of Mark Anthony’s Pretzels delivered (by Mark himself), and was fascinated to watch how he went from being entirely a wholesale business to overnight retail sensation. But aside from that, the pretzels were just epic, as promised. I also want to shout-out some places on the Southeast side that I enjoyed: Yong’s Korean Kitchen and Viva La Vida Mexican Snacks (both in the revitalized Spring Creek Shopping Center), plus Paleteria Arcoiris, another spot for popsicles to challenge gringo palates.
Swartzell: That brings us to when things started to open back up in mid-summer. I remember doing a lot of take-out reviews and accounting for travel time/jostle. But after seeing just how much space they were devoting to outdoor dining, I did eat on-site at the Carter Payne and was blown away by BFD’s offerings, especially those sherry cream crêpes, same with their biscuits and gravy. That, and I’ve kept stopping by Spice Island Grill for a quick take-out lunch after trying their curry chicken and jerk chicken patties. I never would have guessed I’d be wowed by the cheesecake at a Jamaican place, but 2020 is full of surprises.
Schniper: Mid-summer, I was glad to see Paris Crêpe re-imagined on South Tejon Street a decade into business — fun, fresh crêpe creations (like a banh mi) and new vegan ice creams. Po’ Brothers got my attention as a Cajun-inspired food truck with personality and flavor, and Ristorante Di Sopra really impressed me with its July relaunch, especially for its homemade pasta and citrus-saffron sea bass plate. Then along came Rumba Latin Cuisine for the win, with killer mojitos, excellent rice and bean sides (yeah, since when do we remember sides?) and a delicious Ropa Vieja rendition. Fala-Filo impressed on a repeat visit, for an Iraqi lamb plate called Bamia. Also on the international front, Ambli Global Cuisine expanded from Denver into University Village, and like its neighbor Cowboy Star, it’s a terrific spot to drop a bunch of money to satisfaction. What about you?
Swartzell: Well I’m not dropping a bunch of money anywhere, but when we got into that extended summer weather in October, you pointed me at the Great British Food Company in the old Trapper’s Rendezvous — which was my first review back in the day, because time is a flat circle. And GBFC was like its sibling spot, The Chippy, with good UK/British Isles ale on tap. Plus, as far as I know, it’s the only place to get black pudding in town, which is something I never expected to be in love with, but here we are. Hangry Ohana’s kalua pork was really good, too. For trucks, Tacos Don Lalo really nailed it with everything I tried, and I need to track down Nature’s Start Bread Company for another one of those garlic knot sandwiches. They’re baking on a level that should have folks sitting up and taking notice! How about you, come the approach of cold weather?
Schniper: In the fall, the talk of the town was the return of the King. No, not the Hobbit film, but King’s Chef Diner, which had closed in spring with no real promise to return, just a cryptic Facebook post. Then, suddenly, they were back in biz at the original purple castle location with a new patio getup. Like aforementioned Lucy I’m Home, another beloved food truck moved into brick-and-mortar: Chef Bob’s Lobstah Trap, which expanded offerings, including live lobsters. RoadHouse Cinemas, a small chain (currently on hiatus), opened a location here that offers dinner and a movie — brought to your seat, including a full bar, coffee service, gelato and outstanding jalapeño popcorn. I also went ham on the array of beer ice creams rotating through Beasts & Brews. And while on the north end, I enjoyed the fall menu update at Bar at Almagre. I happened to be next door at Lost Friend Brewing when I discovered sustainability-minded Solsage Food Truck, which makes the kickass pork-patty Little O’s Marmalade Sausage Burger. You have to try it if you haven’t.
Swartzell: My eyes are open, and I won’t miss it. Speaking of not-to-be-missed, I’m still reeling from some of the things we had at COATI. I figured Rival Bar would be selling $12 drinks, not $8-$10, and the quality and creativity really did it for me. Plus, who else in town is pushing rhum agricole? Plus, hard to beat the gumbo from Slow Downz. Related, I am so glad I was along when you hit XOXO, because that little pistachio citrus cake and that opera cake were straight out of Great British Bake-Off: a feast for the eyes and a rich indulgence for the mouth. You also really liked Ephemera — I’m going to have to try that pork belly and berry-garlic risotto dish. Speaking of recommendations, you shouldn’t miss those pierogies from Mika’s Pierogi Kitchen, especially the mushroom and kraut pierogies. Absolutely excellent. Plus, they do contactless pickup, which is great now that everything’s shutting down again, proving that at least some folks have a sense of collective responsibility.
Schniper: Heading into the end of the year, we received the second shutdown of on-site dining, with an exception for patios. Enter creative coverings and tents, which inspired the hilariously true and sad meme: “I’m confused — we can’t eat inside but we can eat inside as long as the inside is outside. Got it.” Life went on and I fell for the lavish, gluten-free mochi donuts at Thai Lily. Then the beef birria tacos at Tepex Central Mexican Cuisine food truck. And the empanadas at Tango Springs food truck, Argentinian style with a Colombian twist. On that note, the food trucks certainly are in better shape to be resilient if this latest shutdown persists long into the new year. They’re nimble, can pop up in neighborhoods everywhere, and already operate outdoors year-round. In the before world, they were a way to dip a toe before committing to brick-and-mortar. Maybe they’ll be a forever option for many operators.
Swartzell: We’ll see. Still, I know we agreed to curb soapboxing, but it bothers me to see hours-long lines at a certain burger chain when local businesses are struggling — and I genuinely like I&O’s burgers, too! But it’s that absence of collective responsibility again; so many people are prioritizing care for their wallets and reputations and careers over care for their neighbors, very much an eff-you got-mine way of being that starts at the top and trickles down like industrial waste. Hours-long hype lines at In-N-Out are a minor symptom, but minor symptoms are portents for really awful things when you do a little root-cause analysis, especially in 2020.
Anyhoo, happy Almost New Year and high hopes for 2021 not being like 2020 if we can at all help it. We’ll return to fork with y’all then. Cheers!