Art galleries and cocktail bars are two things that the River North Arts District (RiNo) does not lack. However, despite the creeping saturation of both in the area, the newest gallery seems to have found a way to pull off a first. Brothers Casey and Dustin Miller, Aaron Bodrog and head mixologist Rafael Depaz just opened the doors on their concept, Millers & Rossi. From the outside, the brick box gallery looks like any other in the area, but hidden behind a picture frame you’ll find a full-size bar tucked behind its walls. But before we get to the “speakeasy,” there’s plenty to see up front.
After deciding against a place in the Santa Fe art district, Millers & Rossi chose to establish themselves in the RiNo district. And true to the current trends of the neighborhood, Millers & Rossi married local art with a speakeasy-style bar — a combination that seemed destined when the locale they wanted already held a liquor license.
Seven Colorado artists are represented in the gallery currently. Photographs, illustrations, paintings and sculptures fill the space, offering variety in every corner. Dustin Miller, one of the owners and the curator of the exhibitions, wanted to focus on new Colorado artists but didn’t feel compelled toward a single medium. Instead of giving the feeling of an undecided theme, the gallery is split between the artists in a cohesive and complementary manner. Each section the viewer enters is separate from the others, existing as distinct worlds in a specific light.
One of the outstanding artists, who also painted the door to the speakeasy, is Kelly Gilleran. Her illustrations are created in the style of pin-ups and pop-art, carefully utilizing symbols from the consumption culture in ways that counter gender and cultural stereotypes. With bright, saccharine colors and simple layouts, she delivers her message in a punch-line-like manner. A few random titles from her display include “Hostess With the Most Tits” and “Gentlemen’s Club.”
William Rockwell is the creator of the numerous sculptures throughout the room (don’t miss the blimp floating near the front door) which are made from re-purposed metal that would normally be trashed. Screws, colanders, pieces of typewriters, gears and mutilated silverware are only a few of the fragments which are certainly steampunk.
Dustin Miller, who is an owner but also an artist, mainly displays photographs of wildlife and vast landscapes, like the Badlands, but his one painting in the back corner contradicts every photographic instinct he possesses. With brilliant primary colors and free, bold strokes, he expresses an emotional side of himself that really steps up his photographs.
The other Colorado artists currently being displayed hold as much value. David Hunter a self-taught woodcarver, displays a piece he created after working for 33 years at a power plant. Jeff Hughes presents bold pieces that represent the human anatomy in an algorithmic way, with body parts combining to create geometric patterns. André Lippard has created a series of paintings that embody a modern cubism — eyes and faces with sharp edges and a pixelated appearance, obscuring the facial expression just enough to muddy your sense of perception.
To enter the bar portion of the gallery, find the door that’s outlined with a picture frame. Even though there’s no password or secret code to enter the “speakeasy,” the vibe between the gallery and bar changes drastically. The lighting is dimmer, with orange and blue hues illuminating the copper bar and plush seats.
Like the gallery hosting a cohesive yet individualistic group of artists, the bar hosts a team of characters who each bring something unique to the art of crafting cocktails. Depaz, the head mixologist, only came to Denver in November (from Prime in Huntington, New York) but has embraced the art-bar hybrid with much gusto. “The beauty of going to a bar is that you learn the different personalities behind it, and I want to create a place where I learn your name when you order a drink and you want to come back because of that,” said Depaz. His artful crafting of cocktails comes from a deep passion for mixing flavors and making elixirs from scratch. But he insists upon consistency, stressing the fact that his recipes are strict and the bartenders are trained accordingly. His seasonal menu of cocktails ($8-12) includes takes on classics as well as concoctions made from the musings found in Depaz’s recipe notebook.
“Smell this,” said Depaz as he lifted a squeeze bottle while gently pressing it to release the aroma of his just made ginger-chili syrup. It’s the key ingredient in the Ginger Chili Margarita which is a balanced mix of Casamingos Blanco, Triple Sec, housemade sour mix and the spicy-sweet syrup. Other notable drinks are the two smoked cocktails including a Smoked Old Fashioned and a Smoked Margarita, both served inside a smoke tempered glass. But outside of the menu, Depaz said if you don’t see anything you like, he’ll be happy to make you a custom drink — his own piece of art, if you may.
Even though the speakeasy-style bar area is designed with a sense of intimacy and nostalgia, it lacks the kind of original art the front gallery is hoping to encourage. Aside from the custom-made neon sign, reading “we’re all animals,” the art in the bar could use some of the curator’s touch from the front.
As for food, the speakeasy will offer charcuterie boards from Mondo Market, until it can launch its menu of small tapa-style plates in a few months. In the meantime, if you’re craving a dose of art, in and out of a cocktail glass, Millers & Rossi has a prescription for both.
Millers & Rossi is located at 3542 Walnut Street, Denver. It is open Wednesday through Sunday with the gallery open 11 – 2 a.m. and the bar from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. On Sundays both close at 11 p.m. with the gallery opening at 11 a.m. and the bar opening at 2 p.m. Both spaces are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
All photography by Brittany Werges.