A lot of pretty restaurants opened in Denver in 2017, but El Five, the Eater Award winner for Design of the Year, was not one of them. The latest dining experience by the owners of Root Down, Linger, Ophelia’s, and Vital Root starts in a parking lot vestibule off Umatilla Street. It builds in an elevator that delivers workers to their glass- and steel-enclosed offices on other floors. And everything about its first impression screams nothing much at all until the elevator cage stops at level five. At that point, doors open, and a restaurant explodes every time.
El Five’s space is dark and indelicate — it’s over-the-top and slightly offensive (see period posters plucked from the Middle East), but it also takes your breath away. Views to the east are unmatched, clear all the way to a crane-studded downtown. To the west, a mountain-backed north Denver neighborhood sits still every night at sunset. If El Five were simply pretty at this height and vantage point, it would be too much.
“In this restaurant, we wanted the patron to sort of ... feel out of place, but also feel like they’re in a special place,” says Kevin Stephenson, principal at Boss Architecture. The Denver-based firm worked with Edible Beats restaurant group owner Justin Cucci to design and build out El Five, a process that took three years as opposed to the usual year for similar projects, and around a dozen different iterations. The team started with half the current space at 2930 Umatilla, then got access to two-thirds of it, then the whole floor. “We walked the space with (Cucci) the first week he was introduced to it and said, ‘OK, let’s get going!’” Stephenson remembers. They knew the downsides were numerous — no street presence in a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood and real estate above the second floor of a brand new building, “usually a kiss of death.”
Cucci and the Boss team went back and forth in a process that Stephenson and partner Chris Davis say included more “nos” than most of their other work. Together with project lead Brent Forget, they had to tell Cucci yes or no when he bought 3,000 mirrors on eBay, for example. He would come to the architects with “obsessive collections of materials and finishes.” They would respond with clean, modern lines and minimal decoration. On and on it went like this: “Some tension is sort of revealed in the design,” Stephenson says now. “And it’s magnetic to people even though they have no idea where it’s coming from.”
On their way into the restaurant, to the bathrooms, or back to their tables, diners can encounter these “intentional misalignments” firsthand, in an area between the traditional front and back of house. They can happen upon servers huddled at the dishwashing station or peek in on the back-kitchen chefs. Meanwhile, two cooks are always exposed at work inside a wide-open counter at the center of the dining area. They’re positioned almost in conversation with the bar, a loud and raucous corner that’s packed first just after opening. “Justin wanted to see a sense of performance,” Stephenson says. He, Davis, and Cucci traveled to Las Vegas and New York to check out the latest restaurant layouts, and they brought back with them this idea for a performative kitchen and dining room. Indeed, El Five’s is the type of space that would best be captured on film, in a single tracking shot that slinks around the many corners of the restaurant.
And while the architects tried to avoid a “thematic” feeling here, film could be one theme that carries through, captured in El Five’s moving layout, beyond the picture windows, and across the walls on vintage movie posters. They’re midcentury Egyptian reprints, falling in line with the loose “tapas de Gibraltar” food description. Their images allude to a Humphrey Bogart era within Arab cinema, all sultry and dramatic, with buxom (dyed) blondes, strong angular men, and passion-inflected speech bubbles.
“The hardest spaces for us to design are the ones that don’t have a soul yet, they’re just an empty, vacant shell,” Stephenson says. “The soul of El Five came from Justin’s discovery of these old, Middle Eastern billboards. It brought this history in that the building didn’t have, and that’s when really everything coalesced.”
Cucci didn’t come to Stephenson, Davis, and Forget with “a linear vision” or even a “vision up-front,” Davis adds. “Usually he doesn’t reveal what the menu is or necessarily what his concept is to us.” Hard to say, then, if El Five’s food and drinks dictated its design, or if the decor brought about a final menu direction. The good news for everyone who happens now upon this Highland parking lot, vestibule, and elevator, and then waits for the fifth floor and a table at the top, is that the show will have just started, or at the very least it will be far from over yet. “We go in restaurants all the time where they miss the opportunity, and there’s a sameness to the experience,” Stephenson says. “The same restaurant can live differently each time you come.”
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