Denver has waited an entire year for the return of The Squeaky Bean, which will reopen at the end of the month in the historic Saddlery Building at 1500 Wynkoop. And by the sounds it, we're all in for a real treat. Not only is the space a monster compared to the old Highlands space 3301 Tejon, but Johnny Ballen and chef Max MacKissock have revamped the Squeaky Bean concept with more polish and pizazz. They've also retained their A list team, including front of the house personality Steven Gallic and bartender Sean Kenyon, who opened Williams & Graham during The Squeaky Bean's hiatus. The new space sports a state of the art open kitchen with a chef's counter, an attractive dining room that seats 76, and a sleek bar that seats seventeen. Eater chatted exclusively with MacKissock and Gallic about what Denver can expect when The Squeaky Bean opens its doors, and let's just say it sounds freaking awesome.
Oh, and by the way — here's some great news for industry folks: The Squeaky Bean will be open seven days a week, which means everyone with Monday and Sunday off can check it out! Let's not forget about brunch either.
It's almost been a year since you closed The Squeaky Bean in Highlands. What's happened in the last year? MM: Well, I got married, so that was a big thing. I lost 60 pounds. I changed the way I live and eat. I wasn't happy with the way I felt. I was completely focused on my job, and that was it. I wanted more balance in my life, so I got a personal trainer and exercise has become a huge part of my life. The way I eat has certainly changed, and that will show in my food. I've been doing a lot of traveling too. We went to Italy, Greece and Germany. There was a lot of of eating, for sure. Seeing what people do with their local products is always interesting, no matter where you go — that inspires me more than anything.
You married Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja, Bistro Vendôme and Euclid Hall. How's that going? It's awesome. Food is what drew us together in the first place. She's my number one mentor. Our styles are completely different, but on that same note, there's no better business person that I've ever met. She's just brilliant. She's like an encyclopedia of food. If I don't know how to break something down, she's an incredible butcher, and I can just ask her. I have a lot of creativity with my food, and I've had a pretty good pedigree, but it's gotten better because of Jen. She's without a doubt the most influential person in my career, and she's my best friend. She's a fucking rock star.
Talk about your travels. Did you stage? MM: No, I didn't. I feel like a lot of the time, when you stage, you definitely see some things, but when you go to a city and get the chance to eat and hang out with the people, you see so much more. I get more inspiration from something like that. We went to Osteria Francescana in Modena, which is one of the top restaurants in the world, and saw some really cool things there, but I saw some even cooler stuff just going to farmers markets. We went to this one market in Mantua and there was incredible product — all of these crazy cheeses, olives, an old man making porchetta — just seeing all of that stuff was amazing. When I'm traveling, just experiencing the best macaroon, risotto or pasta is more valuable than someone showing me. And when I taste something that's 'the best,' I have something to shoot for.
You definitely had your own style before The Squeaky Bean closed. Has your style evolved after your travels? MM: Oh yea, absolutely. A lot of it is really getting confidence in yourself and your style. At the old spot, we were so limited to what we could do. Now, we have the same freedom that we did in the old spot, but we also have the tools to really build upon. I've definitely been working out some kinks— I've refined a lot of things. I feel like the new Bean is going to be a more refined version of the old one. It's going to be fun and grand, but not scary or hoity-toity... and it's not going to be 110 degrees on a summer day.
How did you pick the new location? MM: We wanted to be as close to Union Station as possible. I really think that's going to be the hub for Denver, moving forward. Not only with the restaurants, but the hotels. If you're coming from the airport, there's a good chance you'll be using the Light Rail, and we'll be one of the first restaurants that you see. I wanted to be a part of this building, for sure. Before we even knew that we were looking for a space, we looked at The Saddlery and we were just blown away. It's been restored to such detail. SG: We entertained the idea of other spaces, but we always came back to this one.
A lot of people appreciated that they could get fine food in a casual atmosphere at the old spot. Do you think you'll be able to convey that in your new space? A hundred percent. SG: The number one idea behind with the atmosphere and vibe is to showcase Max's food, first and foremost. I prefer a more laid-back, personal style of service, which is a kind of a contrast with the high-end food we have going on. I think that's what keeps people intrigued — a wonderful experience with a relaxed approach. We try to be as discrete as we can with our steps of service — our touches and attention to detail. We want to be able to mark silverware and clear tables with the least amount of intrusion as possible. The food is the star of the show.
How do you like to describe food at The Bean? SG: We like to call it progressive-seasonal. The progression comes from our goal to always push the envelope with technique, methodology and presentation. We're not afraid to take chances, and we definitely try to be as seasonal as we can. We have one acre of land South of here where we're fortunate to grow a substantial amount of the micro greens and produce. We've got some temperature-controlled flatbeds in the Highlands that give an a little bit of an option during the off season too. Above all, we source the most responsible and best quality food that we can.
Just produce? MM: Just produce, for now. There's a lot we want to do down the road though. We'll also have micro greens growing in the restaurant.
You described the service as "laid back," which has a bit of a negative association for some diners. Thoughts about that? SG: The standard is always there. For our staff, the number one most important thing is knowing the menu inside and out. MM: The same goes for the drinks. With Johnny's wine list and Sean's cocktail program, there's a lot to know. SG: There's a ton to know. We're always very proactive about staff training and making sure everyone has the proper resources they need to properly discuss the food. At the old Bean, with the space we had, we'd often change the menu on the fly, moments before service — whether it was because of seasonality, product availability or prep — the level of intrigue that we all had with Max's food made it that much easier to just get on board. We've always had a staff that just loves eating and drinking, and they love the industry. If you have people like that, combined with a unwavering education program, then everyone is able to be the best they can be. MM: We take what we do very seriously, but we want it to be fun. Talking about traveling and eating at fine restaurants — it's almost unbearable after you're sitting at a table for three hours — you're just ready to get out of there, thinking God, the food was great, but that sucked.. We want to create the experience where you have phenomenal food, an amazing beverage program — a place you can actually go have fun. It's almost become cliché to say that's we're taking the "pretense" out of it, but I don't feel like a lot of people really do it. Going out should be a celebration, every night. SG: We want to make the dining experience as entertaining as possible. We're not going to be goofy — I'm not saying we're going to do monkey dances or anything like that —but we're fun.
The videos you've recently released could be described as goofy. MM: Right. It is a fine line to walk between fun and goofy, but fun can be goofy. We just want to keep it relaxed. Come in, have food you've never tried before and have drinks you've never had before. You're not going to have some server making you feel stupid for not knowing what something is. We're bringing in a lot of fine dining touches to what is definitely a casual setting. For example, we have a cheese cart. There's not a lot of restaurants (that aren't at least two Michelin stars) that have a cheese cart. Those kinds of touches are a ton of fun, but they don't have to be presented in a shrine of dining where you're supposed to feel fortunate to eat there. I feel the exact opposite — I feel fortunate when anybody wants to come in and eat my food, any day of the week. I'm so excited to cook for people because it's what I love to do. When I hire, I'm not hiring based on skill. I'm hiring based on how hungry you are to learn, how passionate you are, and how much fun you're able to have. We have fun in the kitchen — I have 17 Boss speakers going in back there. It's FUN. That's the number one thing, and it translates.
Talk about the menu you've been testing at Café Options. What's in store? MM: Since we're trying to work ahead seasonally, and since I wasn't totally sure when we were going to open, I couldn't really start writing the menu until a couple weeks ago. If we opened in May, the menu would have been totally different than it would be in July. The menu will change constantly, and we're excited about a lot of stuff, but I don't want to divulge too much. When we're a little closer, we'll start talking about the dishes.
How many dishes will you have? Will the portions be the same as they were in the old spot? MM: We'll have 16-20 dishes on the menu, and they'll vary in size. I'd like to encourage people to have three dishes, a dessert and something from the cheese cart. SG: It's very communal, and we'll have a lot of sharing going on. MM: Totally, and I will say that we have a really cool cocktail hour. Steven spawned the idea over some drinks one night, and it's completely evolved. A lot of people like happy hour, but it's stale. I don't really feel like it's a great experience — you usually get cheap representations of the food, and it's usually poorly staffed. So, we're going to have a happy hour hybrid between dim sum and tapas. It's going to be like a really fun cocktail party between 4:30-5:30 p.m., and the food will range. You'll come in for great cocktails and a surprise offering of passed hors d'oeuvres, varying in complexity and price. SG: We'll have dim sum cards and we'll punch whatever you order.
Sean Kenyon was slated to open The Occidential in the former Squeaky Bean space with you. He's since opened Williams & Graham, and he'll be behind the bar a few nights out of the week at new Squeaky Bean. Tell us about the cocktail program he's working on. MM: Sean loves making drinks like I love cooking, and that's just fun for me to have someone else in the restaurant who digs their profession that much. SG: He just gets it. He's not strictly focused on classics, and he's not strictly focused on new-school progression. At Williams & Graham you see that a majority of the menu is dedicated to classic cocktails, and then there's a menu for well-balanced and thought-out signature drinks that don't go too far off the deep end. That's exactly what he plans on doing here, plus some slighty wacky stuff. It's going to be really interesting and neat.