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The Scene at The Bitter Bar, Where Cocktails and Food Share The Spotlight

Executive Chef Joseph Arena
Executive Chef Joseph Arena

Welcome to Eater Scenes, where Eater photographer Adam Larkey visits some of the city's great restaurants to capture them at a certain, and very specific, point in the day. Behold: The Bitter Bar at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday.

When Happy Noodle closed in October 2011, Big Red F Restaurant Group founder Dave Query decided to let the eatery's less obvious identity take the reigns — The Bitter Bar, a concept that was born when Happy Noodle investor and Colorado cocktail aficionado James Lee started pouring drinks during after hours with bartender Mark Stoddard (he's since left the bar to work for Hendrick's Gin) in a speakeasy fashion. When Lee reflects on opening Happy Noodle in 2009, he says the intention was to operate a "turn-and-burn" noodle house that would close by 8 p.m., but it didn't exactly pan out that way. Happy Noodle turned into a place where guests wanted to linger, and once people started learning about The Bitter Bar cocktails served during after hours, the restaurant concept became a bit muddled. So, Query and Lee decided to ditch Happy Noodle and go full force with The Bitter Bar, which was fine, but as Lee says, it became really popular really fast. "It became a monster we couldn't control."

The problem? "It became more of a college bar with people wall-to-wall. People don't mind paying, but they don't want to wait long for a drink," Lee adds, mentioning that the bar staff had to cut corners to accommodate the high volume. "About two months ago, we decided that really wasn't our identity. That's not The Bitter Bar. If that was going to be the style, we needed to call it something else." Long story short: The Bitter Bar wasn't going anywhere, but the style had to change.

In the past two months, Lee has opened an additional service bar to accommodate busy hours and he's placing more emphasis on the food. "We're really trying to have a balance between food and cocktails. Before, it was about 80 percent cocktails and 30 percent food," but Lee hopes it becomes more of an equal ratio. Executive chef Joseph Arena, who recently stepped up to replace chef Sam Prioia (he's moving to new York City in a matter of days), plans to continue delivering food that holds its own next to The Bitter Bar's sophisticated cocktail program. In a couple weeks, 23-year-old Arena, who's now worked for Big Red F for three years, will unleash a summer menu with European influences — everything from French and Italian staples, to German and Ukrainian-inspired dishes. He hopes to share his passion for charcuterie with the Boulder community, and he plans on knocking the menu out of the park.

· All Bitter Bar Coverage [EDen]
· All James Lee Coverage [EDen]

The Bitter Bar

835 Walnut Street, Boulder, CO 80302 303 442 3050