When you hear how Chad Michael George, Kade Gianinetti and Jared Schwartz started their careers as restaurateurs, it doesn’t read like the beginning of a culinary empire. For starters, their first restaurant — The Way Back — was often mistaken for a bar. In fact, most people didn’t know they served food because initially, the cocktail program was the main draw. Even then, if diners did come for a meal they were likely unaware the restaurant didn’t have a legitimate kitchen. Instead due to permitting waits and expenses, they used a retrofitted food truck to produce what later became critically acclaimed cooking. But even after they garnered some recognition for the food, George explained most people still didn’t think of them as a restaurant. At one point, chef Sam Charles describes feeling as if they “had every chip stacked against [them]” in terms of being recognized as an influential culinary team. And in some cases they did. But as of the last couple weeks, with the help of a few major changes and one big, shiny new restaurant, the minds behind The Way Back are ready to change that.

The Concept

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Located at 1610 Little Raven Street in the former Zengo space, Wayward has setup shop in one of the most prime locations in the city. Triple the size, the restaurant is expected to do four times the covers of The Way Back. A restaurant of this capacity wasn’t always a part of the plans though. In fact, Wayward only decided upon doing it this spring when the space became available. This happened to be coincidental timing since they were in the midst of deciding to move The Way Back to Tennyson street — a decision driven partially by the aforementioned issues. With all of these major changes happening in a few short months, you’d expect the Way Back team to be a bit frenzied. But after only seven weeks of renovations, the dust had already settled, and Zengo magically became Wayward. The team seemed to have fast forwarded through the months (sometimes years) of delays that plague most restaurants in the city. So when the time came for their debut, everything from the first fork to the last knife was in place — and the team appeared to be utterly calm.

“It’s day and night,” said Schwartz when comparing this opening to The Way Back. George agreed this was not the scene when they opened only a year and a half ago. That was more of  “we’re screwing chairs together moments before the doors open” type of event. This is in part because Zengo didn’t require nearly as many renovations. But it’s also because they have since grown up, and out. According to George, The Way Back didn’t start off with a huge staff and he and the other owners often filled in for major roles like general manager.

“We didn’t have a front of house team,” said George, who credits much of their current stability to the growth and loyalty of his staff. “Almost everyone from The Way Back has been here since day one,” he said.

Now, between their three concepts, which includes their Avanti outpost of American Grind, they employ 40 people and provide them all with health benefits. Creating a sustainable model to lower employee turn over and facilitate a happy and healthy work space is a big part of what the Way Back team aims to achieve. But sustainability is not just important for the staff though — it’s what dictating what happening inside the kitchen too.

“Kade says it best — We don’t want to be the next big restaurant group,” explained George. Rather their idea of an empire is one that makes responsibly sourced food economically feasible.

The Food & Drinks

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While the menus at The Way Back and Wayward will be different, they’ll share the same DNA. The Way Back, as George puts it, will be like “the geeky little brother,” to Wayward.  Spearheaded by Marcus Eng (chef Charles is moving to Iowa in hopes of opening a restaurant with his fiancée), the Way Back 2.0 will maintain its youthful attitude with innovative dishes and exotic ingredients like beef heart or powder rousong. Wayward will be a bit more approachable in hopes of catering to the neighborhood. This shift is best seen at the bar where Wayward will have Denver’s first bottomless happy hour. From 4 to 6 p.m. patrons can select from nine drink choices for $20, every Tuesday through Friday. But don’t expect the cocktails to be dumbed down. Led by Alex Flower, known for her work at Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn, you’ll find balanced selections of drinks that run the gambit. Everything from approachable cocktails like Where’s The Beach ($10) — a tropical kool aid like concoction made with Appleton rum, lemon juice to the Midnight Express ($7) a velvety dessert drink made with cashew milk, Fernet Branca, Licor 43, sweetened-condensed milk and egg white will be on the menu.

In the kitchen, chef Patrick Kelly — formerly of Panzano — will be at the helm of Wayward. He aims to translate the ethics of The Way Back to a larger scale by utilizing the connections Eng and Charles have cultivated with local purveyors to support their local sourcing. From partnering with Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe to get all their meats within 200 miles to even using local fry oil, both will aim to create a sense of place by showcasing as many local producers as possible.

On the new menu, you’ll find a smart and satisfying use of locally sourced vegetables from places like Arvada’s Micro Farms. For example, the hot carrots ($10) are a vibrant take on the dish by roasting and frying them before coating them in a spicy four chile spice. The wonderfully potent carrots are then cooled by a dill yogurt sauce made from Fruition Farms sheep skyr while little jewels of pink pickled watermelon add in an unexpected pop of refreshing brightness. Charred and smoked eggplant as well as a crostini ($8) made from Rolling Pin’s sourdough topped with Native Horns chevre round out the “bites” section. Small plates are a bit larger and from there and chef Kelly recommends the Siuchan Sweetbreads ($17) made with li ren choi (similar to bok choy), green onions and benne sauce. For the main course, you can select from a pasta and grains section filled with dishes like an agnolotti ($18) made with braised lamb, lamb tongue and sweet corn or the large plates highlighted by shareable portions of a 60 day dry aged Western Daughters steak (MP) or a lamb neck and shoulder dish ($45) served with herbed polenta.

For Kelly, the lamb is a special point of interest because he explains they will use every part of the lamb except the highest selling cut (the racks) in order to help the Western Daughters sell more of the whole animal. This in many ways defines how both The Way Back and Wayward aim to treat their relationships with their purveyors. Everyone from Charles and Eng to Kelly and George called their dedication to local producers a “discipline” that requires constant effort and dedication. This is the crux of what they aim to achieve in Denver. “Kade says it best, ‘We don’t want to be the next big restaurant group,’” explained George. Rather, their idea of an empire is one that makes responsibly sourced food economically feasible. Instead of going full speed ahead with opening restaurants, they are looking to expand to a farm or butcher shop. Only American Grind will potentially have additional outposts. “We feel strongly about creating our own food systems,” said George.

With The Way Back 2.0 in development and Wayward officially open, the bricks have been laid for what George, Gianinetti and Schwartz picture as their vision of the culinary future. It’s a tall order for one restaurant group to fill, but after seeing how quickly the team has graduated from their first opening, they have proven to be an exceptionally savvy and adaptable team. If there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s not to underestimate them and what they hope to achieve.

Wayward is located at 1610 Little Raven Street, Denver. It is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Thursdays, 4 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 5 to 10 p.m. on Sundays and closed on Mondays. Happy hour is Tuesday through Friday 4 to 6 p.m.. The Way Back is currently closed and will open at an undisclosed location on Tennyson in until early 2018.

All photography by Kacie Loura, unless otherwise noted. 

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