What: Happy hour food that goes beyond the usual.
Where: 43 West 9th Ave., Denver
Neighborhood: Golden Triangle
When: Everyday 4-6 p.m. and the last hour before close. Also available all night at the bar on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Pros: A large selection of food items make this an ideal option for the hungry happy hour enthusiast.
Cons: The drinks deals stick to the basics so don’t expect to dive into any complicated craft cocktails during this happy hour.
Though Charcoal’s atmosphere and menu are more sophisticated than a typical neighborhood bar and restaurant, that’s exactly what Charcoal is. And with lower than expected prices, it’s no surprise that, from weekend brunch to its frequent multi-course dinner options and special events, there is a steady stream of regulars at this restaurant.
This mix of classy yet comfortable is an identity that’s completely intentional, and one that owner Gary Sumihiro is proud of. And with a happy hour menu that’s packed with interesting eats for around $5 each, a visit here should be on your summer to-do list even if you’re not lucky enough to live in the neighborhood.
While many of Denver’s popular new restaurants have jumped on the shipping container trend, small spaces like those can leave diners feeling cramped – not to mention the high noise levels that often lead to conversations that must be yelled across tables. Charcoal offers the opposite of that experience. With a large open dining area separated from the long bar by a glass case filled with wine, this restaurant has plenty of room to comfortably accommodate hungry diners.
Beyond the obvious, though, this space had a couple of hidden secrets that add to the restaurant’s energy and atmosphere. The first is visible from the dining area, as the open kitchen allows for glimpses of the restaurant’s namesake tool: the bincho grill. Traditionally used in Japanese cooking, this grill uses a super-condensed charcoal (hence the restaurant’s name) that burns at such a high temperature, it result in a smokeless, steady heat that. Unlike traditional grilling, this method cooks foods evenly inside and out, resulting in tender meats that retain a smoky flavor.
Further from the kitchen – on the rooftop to be specific – lies Charcoal’s other unseen asset. That’s where Sous Chef Josh Leiby can often be found tending to his passion project, the restaurant’s rooftop garden. An admitted work in progress, this area filled with everything from herbs and snap peas to six types of peppers and broccoli rabe offers the kitchen staff here the chance to see a product go from seed to plate firsthand.
The Food & Drinks
Happy hour always starts with a beverage, right? At Charcoal, the offerings cover all the basics. House wines ($5), premium well liquors ($5) and a selection of beer ($4) will all give the requisite happy hour buzz for a good price. And while the bar can certainly mix you up a solid gin & tonic, it’s the food that is the star here.
For a true taste of what Charcoal does best, start with the Swedish meatballs ($6). With Swedish Executive Chef Patrik Landberg at the kitchen’s helm, the restaurant’s menu is filled with playful nods to Scandinavian cooking. This dish, however, is a straightforward classic. Not to worry for those of you having flashbacks to an IKEA cafeteria. These meatballs may have the same M.O. as the big blue store’s version – potatoes, gravy, lingonberries – but they are incomparable in taste. The potato puree is smooth and creamy, the ideal base for tender meatballs covered in flavorful gravy. Lingonberries balance the richness of the dish without being overly sweet while house made pickled veggies add a crisp, refreshing dose of acidity.
If you’re feeling extra hungry, the grilled spare ribs (you get 2 for $6) are cooked on the bincho grill and their fall-off-the-bone tenderness and deep, smoky flavor shows off why that cooking method is so beneficial. Coated in a dark chipotle barbecue sauce and topped with a heap of orange pickled fennel, this dish is as satisfying as many restaurant’s full sized entrees, but for around half the price. If you’re skipping the meat, try the Greek feta cheese mousse ($5) served with house made grilled ciabatta, a customer favorite for its silky texture and herbaceous kick.
The menu is rounded out with several more basics like addictive truffle fries ($4) with tangy horseradish aioli to a few more complex dishes like the grilled sausage of the day ($5) served with a rotating selection of house made mustards. But no matter what you order, all of the food items available at Charcoal consistently deliver balanced yet bold flavors that make this happy hour worthy of a regular rotation.