For reasons beyond their control, bartender twins Randy and Ryan Layman obviously share a lot in common. Unlike some twins, however, they're pretty content with their similarities. They've worked together since their adolescent years at Red Robin, they've played in the same band, they were both alcohol-free until age 24, they've had similar hairstyles — they've even covered their straightedge wrist tattoos with the same black box that resembles the state of Colorado. They're also best friends, and until now, they've shared the same bar at Steuben's. Randy has moved over to manage the new bar at Ace, a ping pong hall and Asian eatery that's opening right next to Steuben's, where Ryan will take the lead. The Laymans found some time to sit down and chat with Eater about the changes during a busy week of staff training at Ace, revealing details about the apothecary-esque bar program. Here now, Eater's interview with the Layman brothers.
So how many seats are in Ace? Randy: When the garage doors are open, there are 18 seats inside and 12 seats outside, and we have four service wells — it’s twice the size of the Steuben's bar.
How do you like to describe the Steuben’s cocktail program and how do you like to describe the Ace cocktail program? Ryan: The concept of Steubens, since before we were there, is classic cocktails and American food. Randy: For Ace, the elevator pitch is that it’s a fun apothecary bar. The bar should always follow the kitchen, whatever the kitchen is doing — the bar should always compliment that. So when we decided on doing the eclectic Asian fare, I thought about my favorite and least favorite things about bars that are attached to Asian kitchens. When we visited Chifa in Philly [a restaurant from Jose Garces of Iron Chef] we thinking, "this bar should be awesome, this should be good." And the food was great, but everything on the cocktail menu was Yuzu margarita or “insert Asian ingredient into this cocktail.” It was just boring. So when we were talking about what we wanted to do with the bar at Ace, we thought about our visits to other cities and going to Chinatown — my favorite is visiting the apothecary. You walk by and there’s all this weird stuff, weird flavors, weird smells, and many for the health benefits. We wanted to tie that into American bar culture and American pharmacies, and sodajerks. Within a house-made soda, you can use real ingredients that all have that apothecary feel, as well as medicinal qualities. It’s just a fun bar. But we didn’t want it to get too carried away with this stuff, so half of our drink menu is based on the movie Big Trouble in Little China. We love that movie, I’ve watched it a million times, so we're looking to have fun inspiration from apothecaries and fun tiki drinks. Ryan: We want that bar to be a party. Randy: That, also, is not too far off from traditional American bar culture. The apothecary idea, with people like Antoine Peychaud, and bitters, and Pemperton who made CocaCola — they were all pharmacists and apothecaries. Even though it’s coming from an Asian influence, it is really rooted in American culture and history. Ryan: We are just finding that bridge between an Asian kitchen and a bar, and we didn’t want to go the typical route. There will not be an Yuzu margarita on the menu.
You mentioned that you're doing everything in line with the kitchen. What's the discussion like between you two and chef Brandon Biederman and chef Matt Selby when it comes to menu placement? Randy: We’re lucky because Josh [Wolkon] is really trusting, and if it sucks, he’s the first one to tell us. With the bar and the tastings, when we starting doing the menu for Ace, we started with food first and then made drinks. With chef Biederman and Selby, they’re really cool with ‘take the ball, run with it, and we’ll give you good, constructive feedback.’ Ryan: They’re wanting us to do what we do. It’s awesome. We’re extremely lucky.
Aside from sodas, what else are you making from scratch? Randy: We have six house-made sodas and we're making them soda-jerk style with the fountains. The house highball will be on draft, called the Mission Orange — it has Soju, base orange soda, and Angostura bitters. One of the things we wanted to get away from was a really overly fussy menu. The highballs are the main feature of the drink menu and they have three ingredients: soda, spirit and either a garnish or a bitter. They complement food well. It’s also fun because the soda ranges from either having four ingredients or 11-12 ingredients, like the cola. You can look at the backbar and see the real ingredients we're using. it’s cool to be able to have a soda, but have it be this complex, laborious thing that you don’t have to wait 15 minutes for. We also have a fresh juice machine to help make juice made to order. Ryan: We’re doing six house sodas now, and once everything gets comfortable, we’ll do seasonal sodas.
Are you carrying the apothecary theme into any house bitters?
Randy: We’re working with Shay from Dram Bitter and she’s making a house bitters for us, called Ace Longevity Bitters. It’s focused around ginseng, ginko biloba — all of those energy herbs. Ginseng gets you rowdy. I want more herbs and spices from the Asian kitchen to tie into our syrups. Things like cardamom, allspice berries and anise.
Let’s talk about your juicing program, particularly at the high volume level you’ll be producing. Randy: We got a Nutrifaster juicer. It’s like a jet turbine. We threw a lime in it, and wow. We just got it and we’re playing around with it. We have three house juices on the menu — pineapple, Asian pear and lime. Ryan: I feel like if you work at a culinary bar and you’re not juicing, you’re short-changing yourself and you’re short-changing your guests. It’s like putting really shitty gas in an expensive car. On that note, that’s why with a new, amazing bar, we got a bad-ass juicer. Randy: It’s laborious and it’s fun, with fresh juices and everything. Juicing is crucial. Ryan: We also work at really busy bars and we don’t batch our cocktails, we don’t cut corners.
What bartending gigs have you had leading up to where you are now? Randy: We started waiting tables at Red Robin in high school by Southwest Plaza Mall. Randy: Every time we’ve tried to get away from each other, it doesn’t work Ryan: It just doesn’t work. Randy: So we started waiting tables there, and then Ryan left for Rock Bottom and I got a job at the Avenue Grill across the street from Steuben’s. So in February 2013, I will have worked in Uptown for 10 years. I’ve walked a block away from where I started. We grew up in Littleton, working there [at the Red Robin]. We’d work a double, and go like, ‘Man, I made $100 bucks, I’m loaded!’ and rent was like $300. It was easily one of the best times of my life. And then I got behind the bar at Avenue Grill because my bar manager at the time, Lisa, forced me to get back behind there. And then Ryan was looking for a job, barbacking and bartending a little, and then we were both behind the bar at the Avenue for about four years. Not to sound braggadocious, but we helped change that bar.
What was it like changing the drinking culture at Avenue Grill? Randy: It was tough. It’s hard to convince someone that drinks 8 ounces of cold vodka to have a real Manhattan. The happy hour is 6-8 ounces of alcohol. Ryan: It’s the kind of place where you order a cocktail and then they leave the shaker on the bar. But that bar was great. We learned a lot of what service means, which is more important than any fancy cocktail. More importantly, we learning how to be a bartender over any term of mixologist. Just like Lisa, the bartender and Shelly, the General Manager, at Avenue Grill, without those two ladies plus Toby Maloney from Violet Hour, Randy and I wouldn’t be successful. Lisa taught us how to handle people and Shelly taught us how to clean dishes and put things away of where they’re supposed to be. Mise en place is everything — keeping your cutting board clean and knowing where to put your tools.
Did you shift over to Steuben’s together? Randy: It was pretty close. I thought I was going to move out of state, and Ryan was like, “I’m not working here by myself.” So Ryan went over to Steuben’s when Sean Kenyon needed a bartender. And then I decided to stay because Denver is the best place ever, and I knew that I wanted to work for Josh. Before I got the job at the Avenue Grill, I was still a server at Red Robin and I applied at Vesta Dipping Grill. I applied twice. The first time, I just dropped my application off, didn’t hear anything, and a year later I went back in 2002. I walked in, was filling out an application at the bar at two in the afternoon, and then all of a sudden, a shot glass came sliding down the bar, just like in the movies, stopping right in front of me while I was filling out the application. Ryan and I didn’t drink until we were 24. So I’m filling out this application, the shot flies down, and I look up and there’s about four people sitting at the bar, saying, “Hey you should have a shot with us! It’s so-and-so’s birthday and you should come celebrate!” I asked what it was and they said, “Who gives a shit, just drink it.” And then I was like, “Uhhh, I don’t drink.” I was just applying for a busser job, because I knew I wanted to start, because I knew I wanted to work for Josh. I didn’t even know who he was, I just wanted to work for his company. So I turned down the shot and said, “I don’t drink, guys.” They all stopped, set their glasses down, and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t work here.” I just pushed it away, the bartender picked up the shot, I finished my last two questions, asked to see a manager, and submitted my application. Of course, I never heard anything. Ryan: Maybe you shouldn’t work here. Randy: [Ignores Ryan's comment] Then in 2010 I started working with Josh at Vesta, because I had left the bar manager position at Avenue Grill. I knew that to be the barman I wanted to be, I just had to work with Josh. Eight months later, they moved me over to Steuben’s and now Ryan and I are running the block.
Let’s go back to the not drinking until age 24 thing. What? Ryan: Straightedge and hard core punk rock. When we were younger, we had plenty of straightedge tattoos, some of which are covered up, some of aren’t. Randy: We both have these [wrist tattoos], got them when we were 17.
How many duplicate tattoos do you two have? Ryan: That’s it. Randy: Nahhh, we were in a band [pointing to his chest tattoo] when we were 18 years old. We were in a bunch of really bad straightedge hard core bands. Somebody in the band thought it would be cute if we all got matching tattoos on our wrist with three X’s and we all picked a word.
And what were those words? Ryan: Mine was “clarity” because that was my favorite Jimmy Eat World record at the time. Randy: [Chuckles] Mine said “faith” — I actually forgot what mine said until you asked. It’s been awhile. Ryan: It’s been awhile. I felt silly for drinking beers and having three x’s on my wrist. Randy: We just didn’t want to drink. And we’re still pretty nerdy. I mean, bartending has forced us to come out of our shells. We were really, really shy, really introverted, really awkward. And then Lisa, the bartender that got us behind the bar at Avenue Grill, had us get behind the bar. I was like, “People have to talk to me about golf, I don’t want to do that, I can’t talk to strangers.” She’s like, “too bad, you’re on the schedule.” So bartending really forced us to find a personality, which is one of the reasons why I love it so much.
What was your first drink? Ryan: I got a 6-pack of beer and a little bottle of Jack Daniels — just jumped right into it. He did red wine. Randy: I drank a whole bottle of Mitolo Jester Shiraz. Ryan: I think that sums up our personalities pretty well.
So were you hired as bartenders when you were straightedge?
Ryan: Oh, yeah, we were bartending at Avenue Grill and I was working shifts at Rock Bottom. Randy: We were bartenders for probably two years before tried it. Ryan: This was well before we started to take it seriously, we’re talking 2003. We’re also really good bullshitters — we’re bartenders. Randy: Because we didn’t know everything, it forced us to have to learn about it. If I’m not going to taste it, I need to know what the difference is between Merlot and Pinot Noir because I need to tell someone. It really forced us to read a lot, an Argentinian Malbec is really fruit-forward and has green pepper, you can tell someone that.
That’s almost like a vegan working in a charcuterie shop
Ryan: Yeah, it’s weird. There’s a lot of weird grey area there.
How did your band take it when you decided you weren’t going to be straightedge anymore? Ryan: We had stopped playing in those bands for awhile. Randy: That was another of the reasons, we started growing up, and were just beginning cocktails and learning how to be true bartenders. We really thought it was interesting and knew we could learn, and this is where I make my money, I should maybe know what I’m selling. We’re both really craft-driven, and we wanted to take it seriously. It was a nice change from “oh, what records did you buy this week? Oh, cool, I got that 7-inch on orange vinyl.” It was just time to grow up. One of our bands just played a reunion show over July 4th, Brainhammer. It’s like if Gallager had joined Gwar--that’s the best way to think about it. One of the members stayed with me and went through my 45s and LPs and I had this one record since I was 17, and told me I wasn’t storing it correctly, and was like, “You know that record is $200?” Just one of the reasons we got out of it.
When cocktails took off, you guys were right in that timing, too. Randy: We got really lucky. [Jimmy] Meehan, Maloney, all of it. Ryan: Whenever I have a bad day at work, which isn’t often at all, we just don’t have bad days at Steubens. We don’t. That place is always busy, and it’s always great, and the people who come in are just fantastic. It’s awesome. It’s a bar for everyone, it’s great, it’s beautiful, but sometimes I get a little overwhelmed and I have to remind myself that I am one of the luckiest people in Denver.To work for the best restaurant owner in Denver, in the most beautiful city in the US, and I get to work with my best friend [Randy], and we get to do the most creative things possible. The reason we get to do that is because we saw an opportunity early in the game. Denver is awesome, and while the culinary scene is behind that of bigger cities, it’s not a bad thing. Randy: Bars should just be fun. That’s one of the reasons why we love Steuben’s so much, and with ACE, the same thing. Just have fun. It doesn’t have to be the most crazy, innovative, outside-of-the-norm thing, but it should be fun. It’s drinking, it’s eating, and we have ping-pong tables in the back room. Have a party.