The husband and wife duo behind The Hornet — a 22-year-old South Broadway staple —  envisions their most recent concept, Acova, as the new community hub for the Highlands neighborhood. Sean and Betsy Workman opened Acova in May of this year with a well-executed eclectic menu, approachable craft cocktails and extensive patio seating. But the concept is designed to be more than a destination for elevated food and drink. The idea here is to create a destination for the young family, the working professional and the neighborhood.

Sean and Betsy Workman

Sean and Betsy met each other as coworkers — working together at The Hornet more than 17 years ago. They could not have imagined they would later come to own the restaurant they met in and eventually get married, start a family and open a sister restaurant to the brand, Acova.

“This was a great opportunity and we have been looking to get into this neighborhood for many years,” said Sean.

The couple began renovations over two years ago after acquiring the property from the previous owners of Patsy’s, an Italian staple restaurant that served the city for 95 years before closings its doors. While structure and space have undergone mass renovation, the original three buildings from the old Patsy’s operation remain intact, the menu pays homage to the previous Italian tenants and the intention is to win over the neighborhood and create another 95-year-old institution at the corner of 37th and Navajo streets.

The Space

From the street, the venue demands attention. Glass garage doors and a well-lit patio welcome you and suggest dining al fresco at first sight. At the front door, guests meet a series of curious ostrich murals that emulate the “nest” theme from the foyer through the dining room. Dark wood table-tops, matching booth seating, leather upholstery and an open ceiling adorned with dangling light fixtures create a clean, modern-industrial tone. The dining room is backed by an open kitchen — visible through slatted wood paneling —  showcases the action and piques culinary interest at all angles. 

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A polished stone grey bar front fit for several dozen guests joins the patio and dining room with retracting glass paneling that in turn offer indoor diners an abundance of natural lighting and fresh air. A series of umbrellas equip the patio with a considerable amount of shelter from the weather. They have also been mounted with individual heating units for a year-round application and dining al fresco during the cold months.  The Workmans also created an outdoor play area based on Montessori style learning activities that provide unstructured play needs of children and simultaneously afford parents an opportunity to enjoy adult conversation and a cocktail at ease. Activities for the kids are designed to stimulate early sensory development and teach concepts like cause and effect and letter recognition all while encouraging creativity and open-ended play.

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Patsy’s had previously operated a bakery, a kitchen, and a garage on the property. Acova has converted the old garage and bakery buildings into two additional retail venues. The spaces are currently awaiting tenants, but are projected to offer guests additional commerce. According to the Workmans, a costume shop concept is under negotiation for one of the two buildings although an exact date for opening is not yet available. The third building was, at one point, scheduled to open as an ice creamery but due to a timing conflict, the team at Acova is still in search of a vendor to fill the demand for ice cream.

The Food

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Acova does adopt some of the gastropub characteristics from its crosstown sibling The Hornet, but the menu tips its hat to its Italian predecessors. The dinner menu offers a spread of approachable options geared to satisfy the masses. Features include soups, salad, a slew of bar-friendly appetizers 10 sandwiches choices and 10 stand-alone, composed entrees. Offerings include familiar comfort classics like the French dip sandwich ($14) and fish and chips ($16) while also aiming to satisfy a more complex palate with items like the veal osso buco ($24) and the gnocchi Michoacan ($16) that not only riff from Italian classics, but also showcase great technique and multitudes of flavor development.

“The idea is similar to The Hornet in that we want to be a true neighborhood destination. We looked at the neighborhood and we thought we could challenge ourselves with a slightly more eclectic menu,” said Sean.

For the appetizers, don’t miss the seared ahi and herbed polenta cake ($11). Togarashi spices, a Parmesan polenta cake and spicy carrot-jalapeño slaw blend together Italian, Japanese and Latin flavors to create a spicy-sweet masterpiece. Other highlights include the Fisherman’s Stew ($21) — Acova’s landlocked take on a classic bouillabaisse which combines mussels, calamari, crab, cod, onions and white beans. The bistro steak (market price) plays all the elements you expect from a steak dinner. On our visit, the chef’s cut for the evening was a flank steak plated with velvet-smooth whipped potatoes, haricot verts, mushrooms, a puckering demi glace and crispy onion strings — definitely a steak dinner we would come back for every week.

The Drink

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The offerings from the bar include a rotating local draft selection, extensive wines by the bottle and by the glass as well as a set of craft cocktails that appeal largely to the sweeter side of refreshments. Burros over Jalisco ($10) combines Tanteo jalapeño tequila, ginger beer, muddled strawberries and limes for something similar to a Moscow Mule. This variation is sweet but dangerously drinkable on the patio. To our delight, the award-winning Ah, The Old North Denver Smash + Grab ($10) made its way over from The Hornet. This Bourbon sipper combines Bulleit rye bourbon, Barrow’s ginger liqueur, balsamic simple syrup, muddled orange and basil and comes served on the rocks. Again, a sweet drink but extra approachable and unquestionably delicious.

The bar is also offering a frozen wine slush they are calling The Misty ($9). The slushie base is Live A Lot organic wine and comes in white and red variations — but we suggest a mix of the two. Although the cocktail list lacks a spirit-forward slow sipper, the menu emulates a coastal summer personality for the restaurant that fits it well considering the 90-degree weather, the open-air bar and the extensive patio seating which take center stage during this time of year.

Acova has an eclectic menu that has been dialed in during its first few opening months and a cocktail program that is easy to fall in love with. The outdoor seating at the venue is unmatched in the Highland neighborhood, and with additional vendors expected to fill the two remaining buildings on the property and a new menu anticipated for fall, we can expect more to come from this blooming community hub.

Acova is located at 3651 Navajo Street and is open for lunch and dinner Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 12 midnight; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. – midnight with a brunch service Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.

All photography by Bridget Burnett