Chef Andrea Frizzi, owner of Vero Italian, right, shows off one of his pizzas as Shane Burton, general manager, left, tosses dough in the air at their new pizzeria at Denver Central Market on September 21, 2016 in Denver. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)
There’s something deeply romantic about a giant warehouse filled with food. A cavernous, gritty space brimming with fresh-baked bread, pungent fish, luscious produce and glistening truffles. Somewhere you can get a pizza, a coffee, an ice cream and a pound of raw meatballs, all under one roof.
There’s also something a little confusing about it all, too. Especially in a city that’s a little late to the game in terms of food trends, how do we classify these culinary multi-hyphenates?
We often hear the generic “food hall” term being used as a descriptor, something that could as easily apply to King Soopers or a mall food court as to a culmination of local, hyper-gourmet vendors.
The Denver Central Market clearly likes the “market” phrasing (it’s right there in the name), and that may have been DCM’s original intention, but check it out during lunch, dinner, or, well, pretty much any time, and you’ll see that the majority of people walking through its glass doors aren’t using it as a market.
Maybe Bon Appétit magazine got closest to the truth when it crowned DCM — with its 11 individually owned and operated vendors — as one of America’s 50 best new “restaurants” earlier this month. At the time, I was puzzled that the magazine had classified the Market as a restaurant, which, to me, implies a single entity. Sure, the DCM vendors all share an address, but their concepts are unique and, at the end of the day, they’re competing with each other for customers’ dollars.
“We have a pretty broad interpretation of restaurant,” Julia Kramer, Bon Appétit senior editor and co-author of the 50 best story, wrote in an email. “We’ll check out any place where they’ll let us buy food! If we overlooked food halls, we’d be missing some of the most exciting cooking happening in the country.”
The Denver Central Market’s line-up is pretty exciting: Crema makes the coffee; Culture Meat & Cheese sells what the name implies; Curio is the bar; Green Seed Market offers produce and dishes made with that produce; High Point Creamery is the stop for ice cream; Izzio Artisan Bakery makes bread and pastries; Silva’s Fish Market provides fresh seafood; SK Provisions is a rotisserie restaurant; Temper Chocolates and Confections creates sweets; The Local Butcher is the place for meat, poultry and more; and Vero is an authentic Italian restaurant.
I asked each DCM vendor what they thought about Bon Appétit classifying them as a restaurant. Sean Kelly, long-time Denver restaurant veteran and chef/owner of SK Provisions, best illuminated it for me.
“People are using it (DCM) as a restaurant, so I’m not surprised it’s being critiqued as a restaurant,” Kelly said.
Is it possible that even though we now have the ability to buy super high-quality (read: expensive) meat, cheese, seafood, produce and bread in one central market, we’d rather … not? That we’d rather spend those extra dollars on prepared, ready-to-eat foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
Or, simply put, are we more willing to spend our money in restaurants than in markets?
I, for one, have dropped 401k-contribution-worthy amounts on single dinners, yet then wailed to my husband about spending $180 on groceries that would easily feed our family of four for the week. It could be that as consumers, we’re willing to pay for the ends, but not the means.
This isn’t to say that no one is going to DCM to do their weekly grocery shopping. It doesn’t seem like any of the shops are hurting for business, and Justin Herd, owner of The Local Butcher, said his regulars stopping in for ground beef, lamb chops and the like are his bread and butter. But there do seem to be a whole lot more people sitting around the bar with cocktails and Vero pizzas than those walking away with brown, butcher paper-wrapped packages.
Zach Spott, co-owner at Green Seed, was brought in a couple months after DCM’s September 2016 opening to revamp the concept and menu.
“It was originally more of a market, but it pivoted to also focus on more prepared foods,” Spott said. “The shopping element became secondary to eating and drinking.”
And no wonder: The prepared food being sold at DCM is really, really good. The pizzas and pastas at Vero, from Milan native (and Il Posto owner) Andrea Frizzi, are outstanding. The bagel and lox at Culture Meat & Cheese (owned by Old Major and Masterpiece Deli’s Justin Brunson) was delicious. Green Seed makes great, filling salads. Of course, Sean Kelly knows what he’s doing in the kitchen at SK Provisions. I’ll happily drive out of my way to get some of High Point’s Whiskey Pistachio Brittle ice cream sandwiched into one of Izzio’s kouign-amanns. (Yep, kouign-amman ice cream sandwiches are being sold here, people!) And the Curio bar makes tasty cocktails that don’t break the bank.
“It’s evolving,” High Point Creamery co-owner Erika Thomas said. “It’s becoming more restaurant than retail.”
Her husband, co-owner Chad Stutz, added: “It will undergo multiple evolutions. What this looks like in a year is going to be different than now, and two years from now.”
That Denver’s neighborhoods are transforming at breakneck speed is, of course, very true, and there’s something to be said for a business nimble enough to change right along with them. Maybe as the residential side continues to fill out in the Ballpark and north downtown areas, DCM will become more of a neighborhood resource than a citywide destination, and it can, as our current lexicon would put it, live its truth as a market.
Regardless of name or function, DCM has an electric energy and community feel that’s hard to find in Denver. And, yes, it may be a little silly to go all starry-eyed over an old warehouse filled with good food, but the DCM is producing good food; food worthy of the major award it received.
“I feel something here that I didn’t feel in this country for a really long time,” Vero owner Frizzi said of DCM. “It’s the first time I feel something I felt in Italy. It makes me a happier person.”
Denver Central Market: 2669 Larimer St., Denver; denvercentralmarket.com
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series on Denver-area food halls and marketplaces. We also looked at the Stanley Marketplace, Avanti Food and Beverage and The Source. Read more of our food hall stories here.