With the HEROES Act stalled in Congress and no federal relief coming for the country’s independent restaurants, Denver operators are beginning to make hard decisions about staying open—or not. In recent weeks, Westword reported that Earnest Hall, the Way Back, and Route 40 Tavern are each closing in the hopes of reopening in spring 2021. And as of September 26, beloved Bonnie Brae neighborhood joint Brightmarten also ceased in-house dining until next year. 

Co-owner and general manager Jared Riggs and partners had to make the difficult choice to close Brightmarten late last month, even though the staff was excited to participate in EatDenver’s Harvest Week and there were reservations on the books. On Instagram, its closing post read:

We are sad to announce that we are closing for full service for the winter. We will be offering to-go Thurs-Sat and occasional special events. Please stay posted as we try to navigate the winter months ahead. If all goes according to plan we hope to open up in Spring. We hope everyone stays safe and sane this winter and we look forward to seeing everyone for our to-go and events. 

Riggs says that the cost of running full-service dining at Brightmarten was simply too expensive to maintain throughout the winter without welcoming guests inside at full capacity, which is, of course, out of the question in the coming months. “We need a certain number of people to walk through our doors,” Riggs says. “It’s just not sustainable to prepare a full menu and staff it until people feel more comfortable dining out. We called it a few days before Saturday [September 26], and the next day was cold. It felt ominous. It’s time.”

The plan for now is to bring back staff on weekends to cook take-out-only, family-style meals; Brightmarten will do pop-up events, too, and collaborate with local industry peers. (Details below.) Riggs is holding on to that sense of community in this otherwise difficult time. “It feels lonely as a restaurant right now,” he says, when speaking about the fate of the hospitality industry as winter approaches. “Even in the spring, it won’t be business as usual. A full-service model doesn’t scale back well; I hope we can figure out a more scalable model up and down the dining spectrum.”

Kade Gianinetti, co-owner of the Way Back on Tennyson Street, is on the same page as Riggs in wanting to see a new way forward for restaurants post-pandemic. “We’re paying our staff’s health insurance through the spring, but they’re going onto unemployment,” he says. “Hopefully, after the new year—and with somebody else running this country—the government will be able to get some realistic aid out for all small businesses. The airlines may get another bailout right now, while the small business sector is left worrying about paying back loans or trying to get their PPP forgiven. I hope we can adjust that and figure out a plan to allow small businesses to pay their people this winter and still have a runway to survive to the spring.” 

Given the Way Back’s long, narrow space on Tennyson Street, Gianinetti says that there isn’t the physical room to make its staff and guests feel comfortable inside from now through winter. And seating a maximum of 40 people each night (as opposed to 100-plus before the coronavirus restrictions were put in place) wasn’t viable. “There’s no way to know what will happen in the spring, but closing gives us a real chance to figure out other solutions with more security, for our staff and ourselves,” he says. “This pandemic blew the screen back on how many restaurants weren’t that viable or living on less than four percent profit margins. That has to change. We have to have a conversation on how restaurants move forward in a less vulnerable place.” 

The House of Representatives approved the HEROES Act on October 1, sending the relief bill, which earmarks $120 billion for independent restaurants under the RESTAURANTS (Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive) Act, to the Senate. Unfortunately for small businesses like Brightmarten, the Way Back, and others across Colorado and the country, the bill remains at an impasse. 

Support them while you can: The Way Back is open for dinner through Friday, October 30. Brightmarten is selling family-style takeout on Friday and Saturday, October 15 and 16. On Saturday, October 17, head to Dry Dock Brewing (15120 East Hampden Ave., Aurora) to taste five courses of Brightmarten’s cooking alongside five of the brewery’s iconic beers; tickets are $100 per person. On Friday, October 23, the restaurant is hosting a Portuguese wine dinner, too.

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.