Black and white tile floors, unlimited cups of mediocre coffee, buttermilk pancakes, burgers, chicken fried steak and great prices — these are some of the characteristics that come to mind when we imagine the classic American diner. Chef Eric Lee and the team behind Tennyson’s newest eatery is challenging those predispositions and raising the bar.
As the former executive chef at Linger and former chef de cuisine at both The Kitchen and Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, Lee is no stranger to the Denver culinary scene. In fact, he is no stranger to the global culinary scene either. From Boulder to Chicago — this young chef has made his way into kitchens across the world.
From his time working in Lions for chef James Van Dyk, Lee went to England where he first worked in a local gastropub and then, at one of the most respected hotels in the country. And this was all at a time when English cuisine was elevating from the days of Beef Wellington and jellied eggs.
“So I was working at that little gastro pub and then I moved to a hotel called the Old Bell. It was the oldest operating hotel in all of England. We had like 200-year-old bone china plates from China, it was amazing. We were going for Michelin stars. I was 17 and the only American in the kitchen. After that, I came back to the US”
When Lee came back to the US he worked for different local favorites including Pizza Colore in Boulder and Jax Fish House before joining the team at Linger and eventually, opening Wendell’s with co-owner and founder of Avanti Food & Beverage Patrick O’Neil and co-owner of The Way Back, American Grind and owner of Method Coffee Roasters Kade Gianetti.
Wendell’s resides in the space that was previously DJ’s Berkeley Cafe — a diner that brought classic American breakfast food to locals for 12 years. And serendipitously, the team behind Wendell’s has had their sights set on opening a classic diner for awhile. So when DJ’s space became available they saw a perfect opportunity to turn that vision into a reality.
“We wanted to open a diner,” explained O’Neil. “Kade and I saw an opportunity to kind of take what DJ’s established and take it to another level. We really wanted to keep the demographics of the neighborhood in mind and we wanted to keep the classic elements of a diner in mind while also bringing in new elements — a place where you can get your chicken fried steak and also some avocado toast.”
Wendell’s is somewhat of a diner hybrid. They do not take reservations, and you can sit down on any given morning for a cup of coffee, a stack of buttermilk pancakes and a bill at the end that won’t shock you. However, you can also take a seat on their sunny patio and order a gin fizz or margarita to wash down the avocado toast with herbed ricotta and pickled beets. By honoring the dishes that diner fanatics would expect to see on a classic diner menu and adding touches of modernization and elevation to the menu, this team is attempting to make diner’s cool again and what better a place to do that than Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood?
“I’ve lived and worked in the neighborhood for years and I’m excited to bring my neighbors a new local breakfast and lunch option,” said Gianetti. “Our goal with the menu and design was to give guests a go-to diner experience with a hip, modern vibe. With the spacious patio and full-bar program, we think the space will be great for private events and special occasions as well.”
From the decor to the plate, Wendell’s is reinventing what one would expect from a diner. They’re serving a classic burger, but using local grass-fed beef, house-made aioli and a locally sourced bun. They’re making fries, but cutting them ultra thin and frying them in beef fat for added flavor. They’re even making a benedict by cutting out the middle section of a pumpernickel bagel and topping that off with Rosenberg’s smoked salmon and a citrus aioli. Everything on the menu is an elevated classic, and they’re even serving cocktails — something that most diners don’t offer.
“Cocktail-wise it started really really simply. We wanted nothing but a mimosa, a bloody and a bullshot,” explained O’Neil. “We added the extra cocktails because people love that in the sunshine and we have a great patio for sunny Denver mornings. We also added a few good staple beers. I’m a big fan of Mexican lager and IPAs with brunch.”
In recent years Denver’s culinary scene has undergone some substantial additions and changes. From welcoming new concepts like food halls to an increase in food trucks and fusions of classic cuisines — the landscape has not only grown but also morphed. And with so much change and modernization, it is refreshing to return to something as familiar as a classic American diner. While Wendell’s does offer new-age bites and modern libations to appeal to the movers and shakers, the team behind this new Berkeley spot has managed to retain the comfort and familiarity of one of our countries most treasured environments with ease. So if you find yourself yearning for a stack of pancakes and a hot black coffee or simply want to soak up the sun with a nitro-cold-brew infused milk stout, Tennyson’s newest tenant has a dish a spot for you. And it’s opening today.
Wendell’s will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (3 p.m. on the weekends) at 3838 Tennyson Street. The restaurant does not take reservations.