With the perpetual boom and bust of Denver’s dining scene, the closing of a restaurant isn’t out of the ordinary. Every week there’s an establishment that’s either thriving or dying in this increasingly competitive playing field and often it goes relatively unnoticed. That was not the case of Rebel Restaurant. The RiNo joint, located off 38th and Brighton Boulevard, served its last meal Saturday, August 4 and there was a visceral reaction from the Denver dining community. Almost every publication and TV station rushed to interview Dan Lasiy and Bo Porytko, the restaurant owners and chefs. Admittedly, the closure had a tint of topicality since the restaurant decided to shutter in part because of the debated construction on Brighton. But roadblocks and jackhammers aside — many are mourning the loss of Rebel for what it provided Denver’s culinary culture.
“We weren’t trying to do what everyone else was doing,” said Lasiy — which, in this case, may be an understatement. Rebel was known for serving offal on the regular — including chicken hearts, cow’s stomach and a legendary fried pig’s head. Like many other nose-to-tail concepts or even farm-to-table restaurants, they did this to draw people’s attention to what they’re consuming and consider the impact. But it’d be hard to argue that eating a whole animal head is less memorable and life-altering than knowing where your carrots came from. And in this sense, they committed to changing peoples minds wholeheartedly.
“We have to get to that point as a society where we’re conscious of our consumption, because we’re kind of screwing ourselves right now,” Lasiy said in an interview with 303 about offal. “I don’t think it’s right for someone to go to Whole Foods in the middle of winter and get mangoes from Argentina or a boneless, skinless chicken breast and not worry about the rest of the chicken.”
But even though it became known for its other meats, Rebel often broke its own rules. Case and point — the week Lasiy and Porytko served a purely vegetarian menu. This might not seem outrageous but for the duo known for posing with pig heads and throwing anniversary parties called “The Slaughter,” taking meat off the menu was by far the riskiest and most controversial thing they could do — and at first, not everyone loved it.
“We literally had people take the menu, and flick it at us and be like, “no meat?” and just walk out and, like, will be angry with us for trying to do something unique,” said Porytko.
But as Porytko explained, for people who were willing to open themselves up, ended up happy. (I can personally attest to that and distinctly remember equally enjoying both their giant fried broccoli and pig’s heads).
“We tried to make really, really, really unique vegetarian dishes,” said Porytko.
This risk-taking is ultimately what made Rebel so invaluable to Denver’s diners. No matter the time of year, you could walk into Rebel and expect to be tested or surprised. Did that mean every single dish that came out of the kitchen was a best seller or a home run? No. But thanks to the tireless efforts, Lasiy and Porytko always kept it interesting.
But a big part of what made Rebel work, for the amount of time that it did, wasn’t only about the food — it was about fun. The team was constantly throwing parties, or special menus that would keep diners on their toes. And not just beer pairings or anniversary parties — we’re talking custom murder mystery dinners that involved special effects, a three-week long pop-up inspired by the night markets of Asia, “Kamayan” style Filipino holiday dinners, Hawaiian New Year’s and more weird shit they could cook up.
In this, and almost every other way, Rebel really lived up to its name. This type of rule-breaking is what Denver needs more than ever right now because as competition grows there’s more immediate incentive for people to play it safe. Longtime Denver food writer, Ruth Tobias, explains:
“A new food town, like Denver, is only as good as its boundaries. If they’re not being constantly tested, if they’re not expanding, stagnation sets in prematurely,” she said.
Or as Lasiy put it: “How many fucking burger restaurants can you go to?”
As the birthplace of fast casual, Denver has an affinity for what’s quick and easy — but on the same vein, it also has a soft spot for innovation. Just look at the craft beer industry if you need any proof — who would have thought a milkshake IPA would be a thing?
Tapping into the latter is definitely harder but not unheard of. In fact, the new owners of the Rebel spot — Nocturne ( a part restaurant, part jazz club) is a prime example of making a unique concept work. Rebel wouldn’t point to their desire to innovate as their ultimate downfall either — it’s actually what made them happy and find success in its run (their average 4.9 rating on various review sites would attest to that as well). Rather, the duo looks not at the risks they took on their menu but at the lack of funds they started off with.
“We never did this get rich quick scheme and we’d never expected to make a lot of money for this space but didn’t know how much it costs to actually operate it,” said Portyko. “You need a nest egg, just in case something goes wrong… just for surviving long enough to get through a bad patch.”
Additionally, risk-taking is really only successful if you know how to market it and unfortunately Portko and Laisy agree they could have improved in that area.
“Our advertising budget is not what it should have been,” said Laisy. “Now you have to be in people’s faces. All day you’re going through Instagram, Facebook, and all you see is other people’s advertisements.”
And then, of course, the construction on Brighton didn’t help because it made it more than a pain to access that area. However, despite some of the missteps — both Lasiy and Porytko have no regrets, particularly when it comes to the food they served and the impact they made on people.
“We had this older couple — I’m talking my grandma’s age with the smock and everything and we were playing Metallica or Slayer and I thought, ‘oh they are going to fucking hate this,’ and they loved it,” said Lasiy. “And that was our goal… we wanted to connect with people and kind of change their perspective.”
If anything, Rebel was able to move the needle in what some Denver diners were willing to try. And while going from burrito bowls to brains is a giant leap — testing those boundaries allows for new growth that benefits not only diners but chefs as well. Here’s to hoping that more will follow in their steps — or that Lasiy and Porytko don’t stay strangers for too long.