Eat & Drink

A Sense Of Place

The Populist finds a niche with noteworthy hospitality and nuanced cuisine.

August 2013

The Populist
3163 Larimer St.
720-432-3163
thepopulistdenver.com

3 stars

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THE DRAW
A well-conceived, romantically lit gastropub with unpretentious hospit-ality and an inventive menu.
THE DRAWBACK
Certain dishes, though thoughtfully procured and prepared, sometimes lack balance; some diners might find the communal tables (86 of the restaurant’s 100 seats) inconvenient.
DON’T MISS
A tequila and rose-salt variation on the Bee’s Knees cocktail, affordable wines from unexpected countries like Lebanon, curried chickpea salad, beet agnolotti, tandoori poussin, seared diver scallops
DETAILS
Shared plates, $5 to $19; seven-course tasting menu, $70 for two; street parking. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more.

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On my most memorable trip to the Populist, I sat solo at the copper-topped bar. The rail was two-deep with regulars, all of whom the bartender knew by name. I wedged myself onto a rare open stool, ordered, and set about eavesdropping. The couple to my left had been married for 30 years. Over the seven-course tasting menu, they talked about a Whole Foods marketing program, the last time they got stoned, and her cats. The pair to my right was on what appeared to be a first date. He was so familiar with the Carrots Three Ways—a dish that includes a purée of charred carrots that sends an inviting waft of burnt sugar across the room—it made me (and presumably his uninterested date) wonder if he brought someone here every night. Shortly after I finished my dinner of steak bavette, two discs of polenta, and arugula topped with oyster mushrooms, the bartender decided that my neighbors and I—all still strangers—needed more wine. He handed us a “porron” (a glass wine pitcher), and when it was my turn, I tried to ensure that the slender stream of Vinho Verde falling from the spout didn’t miss my mouth. I wiped a drop off my cheek and passed the wine to the blind daters.

A porron is a decanter from Spain with a slender stem, like a watering can, to allow communal drinking straight from the source. Without practice, it can be awkward even among close friends, yet the bartender was brilliant to suggest it to a collection of strangers. A couple of sips in, the seersuckered man to my left proceeded to offer me one of his seared scallops, which he lovingly arranged on a bread plate with a taste of white bean purée, delicate chorizo, warm cilantro aïoli, and translucent habanero gelée. When I glanced down at the dessert list, the regular to my right leaned past his date to advise me: “I didn’t believe in God until I had the Chocolate and Popcorn.” I texted my friend to see if she could abort dinner with her in-laws: This is getting good, I thought.
In an instant, the bartender, his porron, and his keen sense of community turned a fine evening into a memorable one. He gave a long-married couple, floundering daters, and a lonely texter something to laugh about, something to tell all our friends. He made us feel cared for, and in doing so demonstrated an attribute far more precious than competent service: heartfelt hospitality.

In his book Setting the Table, famed New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer writes, “It’s about soul—and service without soul, no matter how elegant, is quickly forgotten by the guest.” Each time I dined at the Populist, that kind of thoughtful, intuitive service, which is far more rare in local restaurants than it should be, defined the experience.

On one visit, the hostess complimented me on my boots. It was just the confidence spike I needed in an uncharacteristically fashion-forward outfit. Later, her colleague sensed that my date and I were still hungry following four shared plates and insisted on another savory selection instead of offering dessert and shuffling us out the door. Another evening, the bartender decided a night of shoptalk deserved a complimentary splash of Jeppson’s Malört, a little-known digestif. On my fourth trip, I hosted a couple from Littleton who were stymied by the many beverage lists. Our server avoided a condescending explanation and made a self-deprecating joke: “Let me explain the 100 pieces of paper that we’ve thrown in front of you.” When a white wine arrived instead of a Portuguese rosé and we couldn’t flag down our waitress, her co-worker was eager to help. Instead of delaying things by telling us she’d find our server or challenging how our order transpired, she simply asked, “Which wine would you like to drink?” and returned with the correct pour. 

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