The towering French doors that mark the entrance to Kevin Delk’s newest restaurant, Bang Up to the Elephant!, aren’t just another cool architectural detail dreamed up by a design-savvy restaurateur. They’re portals to a tropical fantasy world. Beyond them await a tiered, 8-foot-tall fountain teeming with wind-up frogs and fish, cinder-block walls sprouting lush plants, cloudbursts of colorful glass orbs, the calls of jungle birds—and boozy coconut drinks for all.

Everything at Bang Up to the Elephant! (the phrase, which originated in Victorian-era London, means “done properly”) is a product of Delk’s imagination, from the Mayan-ruin-meets-Caribbean-beach-shack décor to the “Calypso” cuisine, a tasty hodgepodge of Caribbean, African, Chinese, Indian, and Southern American influences. But though nearly 600 people crowded the 6,000-square-foot space for the late-January grand opening, few knew the building’s history—or the effort it took to convert the long-abandoned space into a living, breathing (and constantly evolving, Delk promises) work of art. Here, he tells us how it all came to be.

5280: Denver natives might recognize this building as the former Mercury Café. Did it still look like a restaurant when you bought it?
KD: When we purchased the building a couple years ago, it had been abandoned for about 27 years, which is pretty nutty considering it’s smack dab in the middle of Capitol Hill. There had been squatters living in here, plus a lot of pigeons, and we hauled out two or three construction dumpsters’ worth of junk. Really all we had to work with was what was left of the ceiling and walls, and these really beautiful trusses. It’s not often that you have a 50-foot-wide span without any columns, but the trusses make that possible. It gives you a lot of ability to play around in such a big space.

What was your vision for the interiors?
I was inspired by the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, which, in my mind, are kind of the epicenter of the Caribbean. We’re going for this outdoor, festive, sultry kind of feel, like you’re under a jungle canopy or in a place that might have some holes in the roof. But that’s make believe, and while I do try to make immersive environments where you can kind of escape your day-to-day life, I didn’t want to ignore the fact that this is a giant warehouse. I wanted to capture the essence of the building, so I applied the idea of dereliction to the decor—and also brought the outside in.

With 864 plants.
I call it a “growy wall.” I brought it in here to conjure up this idea that you’ve discovered this place in a jungle. It has kind of fallen in on itself, but it’s somewhat preserved because it has a roof over its head. That growy wall is a reminder to guests that this place is old and it has history—and that life takes new shape on that old historic stuff.

bang up to the elephant plant wall
A homemade irrigation system keeps the restaurant’s 864 (and counting) tropical plants happy.

Why build the ruin’s “walls” of cinder blocks and not rubble stone?
The cinder block walls aren’t old and I’m not trying to make them come off as though they are. Cinder blocks are a material you would typically find down in the islands. They’re super practical and readily available—you just fill molds, and voila!

Did you fabricate the colored-glass wall panels?
I did—but they aren’t really glass. As we started developing them and realized how much weight the glass was going to add to the structure, we switched to Plexiglas, which actually gave us more options for color. There are eight moving panels—each is a 5-by-6-pane grid—that glide back and forth along a rail system; they create this nice delineation between the café [in front] and the restaurant [in back].

Everyone is going to want one of your booths for their patio.
And they would be super-practical for outdoor use because they’re made out of cedar planks. Design-wise, I was really interested in finding things that could be easily produced—you know, sticking with the theme of the islands, where everything is created by hand and you’ve got to use the resources you have available.

Did you make the bar stools, too?
Those are from a company in the Midwest that has been producing cast-iron bar stools since the early 1900s. I found an old version of one of the stools, did some research and found these guys, and they were still making them.

The dining chairs certainly look vintage.
They’re not old, actually, but they’re made to look that way. I imagine them in an old French hotel on some island down in the Caribbean.

bang up to the elephant dining room
Classic beer-hall tables imported from Germany offer communal seating, while a cedar-clad banquette and booths provide more intimate dining spots.

What inspired the camouflage-patterned floors?
Down in Trinidad and Tobago, you learn pretty quickly that you’re not allowed to wear camouflage. They’ll literally lock you up for it. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve heard that back during the early oil-exploration times, bandits would pose as military on the side of the road and try to steal your luggage. Now it just really annoys a lot of people there. I thought it was funny, so I decided to create my own pastel take on the pattern.

Have other artists contributed to the décor?
There’s a mural being painted on the front of the building right now by Denver artist Annie Brewster. It’s a collage I put together that she is interpreting with her own personal style. And I’m watching an artist [the co-owner of Landmark Tattoo, who goes by the name Jher451] paint palm fronds and tropical leaves onto the sides of our booths. It looks like you’re lost in the jungle. Eventually, I’m going to paint a big mural on the restaurant’s side wall: I’m going to create some creatures that don’t really exist and have a little narrative going on.

And then you’ll be done?
Unlike Beatrice & Woodsley or Double Daughters, I didn’t build this with the intention of having it finalized the day we opened. It was made to be a work in progress. As we learn what our guests and our team are interested in, this place is just going to take on a life of its own.

Bang Up to the Elephant!
1310 Pearl Street
Café open daily 7 a.m.-2 a.m.
Restaurant and bar open daily 9 a.m.-2 a.m.