Old Curtis Street Tavern becoming the Curtis Club
The Old Curtis Street Tavern was a beloved watering hole for many young artists in Denver's music and comedy scene until it closed last January. Now the space has been transformed into the Curtis Club, an old West-styled gastro-pub with a contemporary menu of locally sourced produce and plenty of vegan-friendly, gluten-free options. The place will have a soft opening on Friday, October 25 and a grand opening celebration on November 1.
Scott Bagus and Eric Johnson will open the Curtis Club on October 25.
While he's made a name for himself in the local music scene (playing in the bands Moccasin/Nightingale and Dario Rosa, among others), this will be owner Scott Bagus's first foray into having his own restaurant. He's joined by Eric Johnson, who spent eight years as the chef de cuisine at the Flagstaff House. We recently toured the renovated space, checking out the 45 singles jukebox and new wooden tables, and then grabbed Bagus and Johnson from their round-the-clock construction schedule to chat about sustainability, local music and why so many chefs are intimidated by a vegan-friendly menu.
See also: Old Curtis Street's last hurrah
Westword: Opening a restaurant is a far cry from performing rock music -- was this always a dream of yours during those years?
Scott Bagus: Not necessarily a restaurant, but I've always wanted to have a cozy little, lounge-type neighborhood bar. Something cool for Denver. For a long time I wanted to open a place called The Moss Lounge, where everything was covered in velour and there was actual moss growing on the walls.
So I always had a fantasy about it, but when we first signed the lease it wasn't going to be this big of a thing. I just thought we'd just do something small. And then I was like, if I'm going to do this, I need to just go big.
What do you mean, go big?
Bagus : Well, I was looking at this really big kitchen, and I thought it should be utilized somehow. So I found this really good chef, Eric, who'd worked at the Flagstaff House in Boulder. At first I just wanted to consult with him; Forest Room 5 has a menu consultant who plans the menus and teaches the cooks. So I wanted to do that, or find some younger chef who could come up with a creative menu. Because I'd never done anything like this before; it was all new to me.
So Eric came down and checked out the place and the neighborhood, and was like, "I could consult with you over the phone, or help you plan a menu -- or if you want me to be your chef, I could give my two weeks' notice." I didn't expect him to say that.
Eric Johnson: My brother-in-law had an old music association with Scott. And he suggested Scott get a hold of me, and I could give him some advice. I had a good job, and wasn't really looking for anything. But I got to talking to Scott and really liked his vision and concept.
And what was that concept?
Johnson: Sustainability. Scott really ascribes to the idea of not wasting things and to reusing things: buying local, working toward a low carbon footprint. That was something that is really important to me as a chef. There's so much waste in this industry, on all sides of it.
And you're also bringing in all local produce?
Johnson: Yes. Lately there are so many great farms in the Colorado area where you can get your produce locally. A lot of them have hothouses, or hoop houses, and the season when you can't get anything here is pretty brief. Some times you do have to get stuff from California.
In the summer time you can get pretty much anything you want in Colorado -- not quite everything, but pretty close. And that's something that we want to support. The most difficult part is the farm-to-table meat supply. Historically all these farmers have been feeding into these huge supply chains; so while there may have been a farmer out in eastern Colorado, you couldn't just go to him and get it, because his meat was going to this big distributor.
But lately there have been all of these systems where you can get to the source, and that's really cool to support as a chef. But they have to take on all these costs to run their own business. It's difficult for them to come to the market, instead of going to a big supply house.
So when Scott approached you with the idea of this restaurant, did he have a clear idea in mind of what the menu would look like?
Johnson: He had an idea in principle, but in practice he didn't have a way to actualize it. And that's where I came in. I took his idea and brought it to life, and it dove-tailed with what I wanted to do. We're not breaking any culinary ground here. It's very ingredient-driven, there's no super-fancy preparation. It involves classic techniques with a modern sensibility. We incorporate all different cuisines, which is really what New American cuisine is now: There are no rules. I'm not doing world cuisine, which is broader, taking different dishes from all over the world and putting them on the menu. With New American cuisine I'll use ingredients that are in that classic dish in Asia or South America, and then make a dish with my own interpretation.
In the scene where I assume you guys will have a big draw, dietary restrictions are a big part of eating out. What is your approach to requests for vegan or gluten-free options?
Johnson: Oh, yeah, the scene counts when you're dealing with a restaurant. That's just part and parcel of being successful. We're in the service industry, and we should be able to take care of people. They shouldn't feel like their needs are difficult to accommodate. Today there are so many ways to do the gluten-free thing that there's almost no reason to have flour or gluten in your kitchen. And if you want, you could flip it around and identify the things that have gluten on the menu.
Is that what you're doing?
Johnson: Essentially. We want to have the menu be really clean, so we're not going to be identifying anything. This will have more to do with server-training. You'll have no problem being gluten-free here; most people will understand it by just looking at the menu.
We're trying to incorporate a lot of organic options. And we'll have more than a token dish for vegetarians or vegans. It's such an easy thing to do, and I don't know why more chefs don't do it. They look at it as a fringe thing, and don't give it as much respect as it deserves. Vegetarians and vegans should be entitled to all the creative energy and resources that that chef has.
I think a stigma a lot of chefs have is that vegetarian food is terrible, that you can't make a strong menu with those restrictions.
Johnson: Right, so why bother? They don't want to be labeled. It's something I embrace, with one dish I left it wide open for myself and the others in the kitchen to create on the fly: The vegetarian carnival. It's like taking the best we have in the house, and making into one large sample platter; but in a nice clean way, tightly presented. It's an opportunity for us to be creative as far as what we can offer.