“[Architecture’s] a mix of form and function. It’s really fun to figure out how to make functional things beautiful,” says Kevin Nguyen, owner of Denver-based Regular Architecture, the company that has designed some of Denver’s chicest restaurants—Beckon, Hop Alley, Point Easy, just to name a few—since its establishment in 2015. 

Regular Architecture prioritizes projects in the food and beverage sectors, with Nguyen operating 95 percent of the design firm independently, performing tasks from high-level planning to helping select the silverware. “I tell all of my clients that I need to eat their food before we move forward,” Nguyen says jokingly. “I want to know that I can support it.” 

Nguyen’s motivational through line for supporting these businesses has always been developing a sense of community. His Mexican and Vietnamese upbringing in Aurora means that he associates food with family, not fancy restaurants. “It was how we communicated—barbecues, get-togethers,” he says.” Whenever any family was together, it was food.”  

Nguyen also values accessibility in his architecture, which for restaurants can literally mean breaking down the walls between chefs and the guests. He says that his work on LoDo’s Brutø and RiNo’s Beckon, both open-kitchen chef’s counters, involved “early discussions about how to make a commercial kitchen feel like you were sitting at your friend’s house, catching up across the island as they cooked for the party.” Nguyen posits that by embracing the casual connection and conversation generated by customers witnessing the cooking process, many modern restaurants achieve a heightened level of hospitality unseen by more traditional establishments.

Brutø’s open kitchen. Photo by Jeff Fierberg

Nguyen adds a caveat that some new establishments are opting against open kitchens because of the rise and fall of celebrity chef culture, which has recalibrated the attention back to the food. He explains, “We’re meeting a lot more chefs who are more heads down and just want to work. They don’t necessarily want to be on show.” Other eateries attempt to strike a balance, like recently opened Sắp Sửa on East Colfax Avenue, where Nguyen added a window between the kitchen and the dining area for “this little peek into the home.

Sắp Sửa’s kitchen window. Photo by Casey Wilson

[Read more about Sắp Sửa.]

The architect has also noticed certain design needs that are unique to Denver. For example, the city’s active and health-conscious business culture calls for brighter, louder, more energetic lunch spots, which Nguyen believes restaurants struggle to meet when striving to achieve a darker, more romantic ambiance in the evening. To address this problem, he advises owners to take advantage of adjustable lighting and swappable decor. 

Chef-owner Kelly Whitaker teaches a class at Dry Storage. Photo by Jeff Fierberg

As a step further, for Dry Storage in Boulder, Nguyen designed a large center table that acts as an eye-catching pastry case and point of sale station by day and a community dinner table at night, perfect for wine dinners or special events. Similarly, to help Berkeley’s Hey Kiddo transition from its evening dinner to late-night bar service, he installed a sliding door that closes off the kitchen by around 9 p.m. “It signifies that the kitchen is closed for normal service,” Nguyen says,  “but it also allows the whole restaurant to stay open as a bar. They can still create small plates from the kitchen… but it changes the vibe.”

Hey Kiddo’s kitchen door. Photo by Jeff Fierberg

Amid his ongoing success, Nguyen expresses gratitude for his early clients: Tommy Lee, chef-owner of Hop Alley; Alex Figura and Spencer White, chef-owners of Dio Mio; and Kelly Whitaker, the chef-owner behind IE Hospitality Concepts who consulted on Beckon. He believes they gave him “a lot more leeway than they should have.” “My early clients were able to learn with me. They were at a similar point of takeoff in their career that they were willing to take that extra time [on lesser-known aspects of building a restaurant like equipment and layout],” Nguyen says. “There’s this human connection that comes from the hospitality industry that is unmatched.”

Nowadays, Nguyen engages with the community as much as possible to find bold flavors and ambitious talent, whether on social media, at festivals and events, or dropping by local spots for dinner. His adventures usually come full circle, like how his recent work with Sắp Sửa has inspired him to personally revisit a Vietnamese dish, thịt kho, a comforting meal of braised pork his father used to make for him when he was young. He  says that, despite his kitchen skills, his four attempts to “elevate” thịt kho in his home kitchen still could not outdo the original. 

Nguyen at work at Point Easy in Whittier. Photo by Andy Bruch

While he tackles current projects like the highly anticipated X3, a three-restaurant partnership among Pho King Rapidos, Yuan Wonton, and Sweets & Sourdough in a Park Hill shared space, and Bakery Four’s new venture, Rich Spirit Bagels (set to open in Gold’s Marketplace in Wheat Ridge), Nguyen’s goal for the future of Regular Architecture is thoughtful expansion. He imagines a five-person firm with colleagues and mentees, “where you still get a lot of that relationship and intimacy, and everyone’s involved in some way on every project.” As far as future collaborators, he smiles and says, “I’m hunting for the next person coming to Colorado to cook good food.”

Chris Marhevka
Chris Marhevka
Chris Marhevka is a freelance writer and a graduate of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Follow him at @chrismarhevka on Instagram.