It’s true that Humboldt benefits from some built-in history. Not only is it owned by Frank Day - the legendary founder of the Rock Bottom and Old Chicago chains and current owner of numerous restaurant concepts in Colorado and beyond - but, more important, it occupies the airy corner space that was home to Strings, a longtime Uptown institution.
That backstory certainly colored the development of this neighborhood insta-haunt, says Day’s director of operations, Sean Huggard - who himself made his name as the onetime executive chef of Black Pearl: “All of a sudden, you’ve taken someone’s second home, you’ve removed their favorite table, Jenny who worked here for a million years doesn’t work here anymore. So from the get-go, we were asking: what do we owe to to the building, to the neighborhood? How do we do well by Strings and make a positive impact?” In part, they decided, you do it by recognizing, per the old adage, that past is prologue to the future: “Where do we see this restaurant 10, 20 years from now? A lot of the decisions we made were based on the kind of longevity that Strings enjoyed. And though it’s early on, I think we’re already prepared to move forward. We’re our own restaurant now.” Joined by general manager Brion Boyer, we chatted about what exactly that means to Huggard.
Zagat: What aspects of this new venture are you most excited about?
Sean Huggard: You know the best part for me? We spent a lot of time conceptualizing what we wanted and didn’t want to be. Sometimes you do that and then you open and find out you were way off - the guests totally don’t get what you’re trying to do. But so far, we’ve been absolutely successful. I have this conversation with a lot of people - I think I’m going to start titling it “The Shrimp Cocktail Conversation.” We wanted to put shrimp cocktail on the menu, and we wanted it to be great, but we wanted it to be simple. No over-the-top weirdness - we’d make cocktail sauce in house with horseradish, ketchup, and lemon juice; we’d be sure the shrimp were cooked perfectly. And now, when I see a shrimp cocktail go out of the kitchen, I’m so happy. I feel like, in the culinary craze for novelty, things get missed, like that great restaurant you can go to and get that dish you love that they’ve had forever.
Zagat: At the same time, though, your tagline is “Farm, Fish, Wine”; let’s unpack that. “Farm” suggests the changing of the seasons is going to have some impact on the menu.
SH: Well, if we’ve become a farm-to-table restaurant, it’s only because it’s normal and natural - we all have relationships with oyster growers, with ranchers, with organic farmers. But I don’t want to be labeled as farm-to-table necessarily, because it’s becoming a cliché - and nor do I want to be caught up in a lie at any point in time. If farmer Joe can’t get us spinach one day and we have to get it from our mainline purveyor to keep the doors open, I don’t want to be belittled for that. We’re trying really hard to be great, but not to be something we’re not. For instance, we’re serving a heck of a lot of oysters on the half shell - but that’s thanks to all the work of some oysterman on the coast. We’re just buying them, cleaning them, shucking them, and serving them with a smile. That’s like the shrimp cocktail speech: we’re making the best, simplest shrimp cocktail we can - and if you don’t like shrimp cocktail you’re a jerk. [Laughs.]
Zagat: Which brings us to the emphasis on “Fish.” For obvious reasons, Denver’s not a major seafood town, but you’re making a go of it. What are some highlights?
SH: The charbroiled oysters with tarragon-lemon butter and crumbs are my favorite thing on the menu - I just had ’em for lunch. Our smoked-trout dip: it’s funny, the recipe’s tweaked from the one I used at Black Pearl. I said to the chef [DJ Nagle] the other day, “You know, I ran that dish for years and never got the props you’re getting for it now.” But if there’s a signature, it’s the fish section on the daily-specials list. I always wanted to have a place where people could come and order the piece of fish they want with the sauce they want and the side they want. And our guests are very appreciative toward the simplicity of that - we’re not overdoing it. Honestly, besides Jax - where Dave Query does a phenomenal job with seafood - most of the seafood restaurants in town are owned by one company, Landry’s. There just aren’t a lot of places where it’s like, if we were sitting on the ocean, I’d be serving that piece of barramundi in a basket with newspaper wrapped around it.
Zagat: That leaves wine: what’s your overall goal for the beverage program?
SH: Frank, the owner, has a joke: “What’s the difference between a mixologist and a bartender? Twenty minutes.” We’ve had a lot of conversations about that. We don’t want to come across as missing the boat to the world of mixology, but we've developed a cocktail menu that’s approachable and easy to execute, because that’s the style of restaurant we’re trying to be. Waiting 20 minutes for a drink or dealing with a ticked-off chef that doesn’t let you have the sauce you want to have with your fish - none of those things fit into the concept. Brion and I had lots of sleepless nights texting each other: “Do we think we’re too cool for this cocktail list?” I mean, the Mule is beaten up in every restaurant everywhere. But people want to drink them. Our basil martini - what is that, circa 1999? But guess what - people love it. We don’t want to be afraid of giving people what we want in order to please our own egos or to get a small portion of the population to like us.
We don’t have a draft system, but since canned beer is becoming trendy for all the right reasons - it’s a great way to package and serve beer - we’ve chosen to go very heavy on that. Of course, being in Colorado, you can’t help but be a little snobby about local beer - but when Joe comes in and wants a Budweiser, we’re going to have it for Joe. Same goes for the wine list: let’s have wines people know and like, like Caymus and Silver Oak, and then let’s have some cool boutiquey stuff so we can feel good about it and educate people. And for brunch, we’re going to do bottomless bubbles; everyone does that, I get it, but ours is a little different. It’s a little pricier, $15, but you’ll have 6 to 8 different labels to choose from, and then you can add OJ, ruby grapefruit, pineapple, blood orange, coffee liqueur—a plethora of options you can mix and match. It’s probably going to be an operational nightmare [laughs] - we’ll have to figure that out on our side, but I’m looking forward to it.
Zagat: Seems there’s a lot to look forward to.
SH: DJ and his executive sous chef, Kollin Gately, are bringing everything to the table - and with no egos whatsoever. I was a chef in this town at a time when the culinary scene was really starting to blow up, and I got a lot of notoriety - but these guys are so much better than I ever was.
By Ruth Tobias