Seasoned fans of Williams & Graham—Sean Kenyon’s magnetic cocktail temple—know to either make a reservation or come prepared to sip schooners across the street at LoHi Steak Bar until a table opens up. This fall, that will change and the wait for a cocktail from Kenyon’s bible-like list may become as coveted as an open stool.
Earlier this month, the award-winning barman and his partner Todd Colehour signed a lease for the space immediately adjacent to Williams & Graham. The two will open the Occidental, a casual tavern that will serve as both a holding tank for Williams & Graham as well as a stand-alone neighborhood watering hole.
“I want it to be a place where people meet before they go out; sometimes it is your going out; sometimes it’s your release after work; it may be the place where you go for a nightcap before your apartment,” Kenyon says. “The bar will be what my father and grandfather’s bars were like.”
The Occidental is a name that Kenyon has wanted to use for years. In the mid 1800s Jerry Thomas, who has been called “the father of mixology,” poured Blue Blazers at the bar in the late Occidental Hotel in San Francisco. In addition, the word “occidental” means “of the West.” “Denver is a gateway to the West,” Kenyon says. But the 1,500 square foot space won’t be littered with horseshoes and old black and white photos of stockyards. Instead, demolition (which started this weekend) and major renovations will turn the 1930s LoHi building into a saloon with an industrial vibe: Kenyon and Colehour will expose brick walls. A rectangular wooden bar will include an elevated section for stools along its backside. The space will be appointed with a shuffleboard table, televisions for local games, and industrial fixtures. The bar will be well lit with skylights and a front window. Moreover, the team is building a 35-seat deck out back with unobstructed city views.
While Kenyon is just beginning to think about the menu and drink list, he describes a much more informal experience than Williams & Graham. “If Williams & Graham is all of my learnings and collective knowledge, the Occidental is an ode to my beginnings,” Kenyon says. “Our philosophies of hospitality and fresh ingredients will all be the same,” he says, but customers won’t, for example, see bartenders hand-carving ice balls.
If there is a set cocktail menu at all, it will be small. Think: One featured drink for each major spirit. Kenyon says there will be two or three types of well selected gin, not 23. “I know there will be a great Old Fashioned,” he says. “It is the basis of all that is cocktails to me…a spirit, water, sugar, and bitters.” The Ox, as Kenyon wants to call it (but not spell it), will offer seven accessible craft beers on tap in addition to bottles and cans, an eighth tap for a keg cocktail or Fernet on draft, and boutique wines. Kenyon and chef Matthew Thompson—who will spearhead food for the new space from the existing Williams & Graham kitchen—are considering barbecue as one possible direction.
Kenyon is hardly the first industry veteran who has cemented his career with a formal venue, then later opened a more casual offshoot. It's a trend we’ve seen in recent years with countless big-name chefs from coast to coast, and one that is playing out not just with restaurants but also with bars. Take Manhattan’s The Dead Rabbit. Customers find an informal walk-in-only punch bar at street level, where they wait hours for a chair in Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry’s more formal upstairs Parlor.
Whether I visit the Occidental while waiting for a table at Williams & Graham or as a more casual destination of its own, Kenyon has just given this foodie with spring fever her first reason to be excited for fall.