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Justin Brunson opened Old Major in Highland in 2013 to make salami, so it’s fitting that he’s closing it now to craft even more charcuterie. The chef known for his meat mastery will shutter Old Major and Masterpiece Delicatessen to focus on his hormone-free, family farm-raised meat company, River Bear American Meats.
“We created one of Denver’s best restaurants,” Brunson says of Old Major. “We had so many young, talented people in the front and back of the house. We did a lot of awesome stuff there. It’s weird to say that Old Major was a stepping block, but I feel like it was. Just like Masterpiece was a stepping block to get to Old Major.”
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When Old Major opened, it was one of the first Denver restaurants to source and butcher whole animals from local ranchers, cooking them nose-to-tail. Brunson and his team cured, dry-aged, processd, and/or cooked the meat and served the upscale, refined product in a relaxed environment. It’s the kind of restaurant Denver has a whole lot more of now, thanks to Brunson’s pioneering.
Masterpiece Delicatessen, which moved in with Old Major late last year, might have been even more beloved by Denverites. When it opened in Highland in 2008, the neighborhood wasn’t the bustling, restaurant-packed haven it is today. The deli put a fine-dining spin on sandwiches, inspiring lines out the door for the white truffle egg salad, 12-hour braised beef brisket, and Italian subs. “The food scene in Denver has blown up, and that neighborhood’s blown up,” Brunson says. “I feel like we’ve become a lot better of a food city, and I hope people think we helped to do that. I’m really proud of where Denver’s food scene is.”
While Brunson says his desire to focus on River Bear is the main reason behind the closures, the coronavirus didn’t help. “You can’t take a 60-day dry-aged ribeye to go in a box,” he says. “I wouldn’t want that. And do people really want to spend that kind of money to eat in a parking lot?”
With River Bear’s business revving up, Brunson decided to focus solely on the meat-making at that venture, including—full-circle alert—making salami in his brand-new, temperature- and humidity-controlled salumi room. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I have with River Bear,” he says. “It’s truly my passion; I love the meat business.”
One of Brunson’s closest friends and former Old Major chef Amos Watts will take over the space. Formerly the executive chef at Boulder’s Corrida, Watts bought everything in the restaurant and took over the lease. He declined to discuss his plans for the new spot just yet, but we hope to have more details next week.
“I love Amos Watts. He is one of the best chefs in Colorado. I can’t wait to see what he’s doing in that space,” Brunson says. “If you’re going to hand your baby to somebody, it might as well be somebody you love. It’s bittersweet, for sure. We cooked some badass food in that restaurant, we really did.”