Around 7 o’clock on a Friday night, the restaurant at the end of Union Station’s rail line is buzzing. A pre-theater crowd finishes dinner in time to make “Hamilton.” A few celebratory groups start to toast to birthdays and anniversaries. In the entryway, a handful of heeled and collared dates lean with cocktails against canvas-white walls or squeeze by for people-watching in the bar area. A group of four young travelers rolls in with as many suitcases and asks for the wait — it will take about thirty minutes tonight to get a table.
Denver’s most talked about new restaurant, Tavernetta, is located at the base of the Hotel Born and mere steps from the downtown train station. For its ability to bring next-level food and service to throngs of travelers and locals alike, Eater awarded it “hotel restaurant of the year” soon after opening. Since its construction, Tavernetta’s building has become positioned right at the epicenter of Colorado travel and of downtown Denver’s new “urbanity,” according to the restaurant’s co-owner Bobby Stuckey.
“Just look at where the rail line goes,” Stuckey said. As people from Golden or Westminster or Stapleton or DIA consider where to dine on the weekend, they now have direct access to Union Station and specifically to Tavernetta. “All those people now get on that rail line on Thursday or Friday or Saturday night and show up down(town),” he added.
The gathering place Stuckey and his team have created at 4-month-old Tavernetta is that of a friend’s Italian country house — that is, an unbelievably cool and jet-setting friend who happens to know this architect, that photographer, also a winemaker. (The architect in this case is Semple Brown, the photographer Slim Aarons, and the winemakers are many, but the restaurant’s label is called Scarpetta.) This friend with the house is throwing a party for a vacation that’s never-ending, and everyone in town or passing through is invited.
Diners who know Stuckey’s first restaurant, Frasca Food and Wine, have been waiting for the newer, Denver version of Boulder’s Northern Italian occasion spot to come along for a while. Stuckey and partner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson opened Frasca in 2004, and praise for it ever since has been steady. In its 14 years, Frasca has received seven James Beard Award nominations, as recently as this year for Outstanding Restaurant; and two James Beard Awards for Best Chef Southwest (for Mackinnon-Patterson, who has since moved on from the kitchen) and Outstanding Wine Program (led by Stuckey along with a cadre of staff sommeliers).
In 2011, the team opened their first Pizzeria Locale and have since expanded the pizza and wine parlor to Ohio, Kansas, and Missouri. Now, Tavernetta falls nicely in between the cultures of counter service and white tablecloths, the clubby traditions of fine dining and good food’s more egalitarian future.
“One of the hardest things about Frasca, from the first night we were open, people were like, ‘I can’t walk in there,’” Stuckey said. “Which they can, and we’ve been trying to get that across for 14 years.” Similar to a theater production, dinner at Frasca can take around two and sometimes three hours, with four to six courses plus wine pairings, priced from $55 to $215. A typical dinner could start with scallop crudo, progress to Dungeness crab with aleppo pepper, and end with an amari and grappa cart rolling to a stop beside the table.
Fourteen years later, amid a massive shift in the world of fine dining, comes dinner at Tavernetta. The full experience can take up to an hour and a half, and could include only a pasta dish, like tagliatelle, with a cocktail or half-glass of wine and maybe an appetizer, such as burrata. “The Italian way isn’t to overdo it,” says Tavernetta chef Ian Wortham. “The important thing is that the dish has a context and the restaurant has a context.” Tavernetta offers lunch service and a daily happy hour, with steals like $4 spritzes and $2-$4 snacks. No-reservation lounge seating stays open from midday to dinnertime, which means half of the restaurant is always open for walk-ins.
At the heart of the new restaurant is an open kitchen with a high chef’s counter and a pair of low tables known as the “eddy.” Though only a handful of diners can reserve and eat at them each night, anyone at Tavernetta can walk through the room to see some normally behind-the-scenes action. “There’s no curtain, so what you see is what you get,” general manager Justin Williams said of the format.
At Frasca, production is largely hidden. And while many restaurant kitchens are now opening to the public eye, Tavernetta’s is built for an even more personal and shared experience, akin to home entertaining. On a busy night, around 50 restaurant staffers are working their stations as well as the room. Stuckey says some fine-dining practices, like staffing heavily and separating stemware from food preparation, continue here and make all the difference. “You take all that precision of fine dining and just kind of adjust it,” he explained of running Tavernetta.
Before dinner each night, the Tavernetta staff gets together for a meeting in the restaurant’s rear dining room. Known as the gallery, its walls are lined with six still-life and sun-drenched portraits by once lifestyle photographer Slim Aarons. He famously described his work as capturing “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.”
Dressed in gray slacks and linen aprons, Tavernetta’s employees now sit before these pictures with plates of Italian food before them, and they discuss the night ahead. Staff members have come to work in Denver from restaurants as near as Frasca and as far as Animal and Bouchon in LA, or Eleven Madison Park and Charlie Bird in New York City. Here, they often start at lower positions — polishing glassware or plate running. “It’s almost like we’re conforming to one personality,” sous chef Tyler Wilcox says of the group’s dynamic.
As assistant general manager Jodi McAllister reads off the reservations for the evening, with notes like, “surprising his wife with tickets to ‘Hamilton,” servers chime in with their own memories of customers’ preferences (read “he’s gluten-free; she’s vegan, not vegetarian”). Then Stuckey gives them a pre-service pep-talk about focusing on the diner. “It’s not about you,” he says. “Once you release that, it’s so much freakin easier.”
The team of 50 scatters around their restaurant, readying for some 150 reservations and as many walk-ins. They start cutting focaccia, shaking cocktails, and rolling pasta. Soon after 5 p.m., the house fills and Tavernetta starts throwing its big nightly dinner party.
- All Coverage of Denver’s Eater Awards Winners [EDEN]
- All Previous Eater Coverage of Tavernetta [EDEN]