The staff at Former Saint — the massive, ornate restaurant that occupies the Hyatt Regency downtown — love telling the story of Lou Ferrigno’s many visits to the restaurant. Back when Comic Con was still Comic Con the actor most known for his work as The Hulk would patronize the restaurant, presumably eating a meal fit for a man of his theatrical stature. His repeated visits became something of a restaurant legend, and his seal of approval has been a point of pride for everyone who had the pleasure of hosting the man.
Comic Con has since become Denver Pop Culture Con and word of Ferrigno’s visits have become more hushed and relegated to the world of fond memories — but one thing has not changed, the food. The 246 seat room continues to serve a magnificent array of seasonally inspired cuisine made from local ingredients — all fit for diners, celebrities, cosplayers, conference attendees and Denver locals who may have missed the memo. The spot opened in November 2018.
The interior is massive but has been nicely designed such that the spread maintains an unexpected intimacy. Even without eating in one of the private dining areas, customers can feel comfortable engaging in personal conversation — the distance and orientation between tables giving the illusion of greater seclusion. That’s not to say the restaurant feels any way aloof — quite the contrary. The layout invites conviviality but leaves room for as much personal space as may be desired.
The newly added sister concept Assembly Hall — which just opened in June 2019 — now serves as new lobby marketplace and lounge built for grabbing espresso on the go, a quick afternoon bite or a glass of wine and appetizers with friends. The more casual venture seats 140 and serves its own menu of snacks. If diners aren’t in a hurry, starting at Assembly then venturing over to Former Saint for the main meal can make for a delightful multi-course escapade.
Food-wise, the menu is a short and sweet listing of upscale bar snacks. Shared plates include sweet mustard glazed wings ($10) with buttermilk dip, steamed mussels ($10) in a garlic-rich hefeweizen shellfish broth and a giant pretzel ($10) with green chili queso. While the selections favor grazing, it is possible to have a filling meal. The umami mushroom banh mi ($12) comes loaded with smoked tofu, daikon carrot slaw, pickled cucumber and garlic serrano aioli. The rich vegetarian take on the ordinarily meat-heavy sandwich is surprisingly sturdy and delightful. The Assembly Hall double stack burger ($13) — probably the most robust thing on the menu — comes with two three-ounce patties, sweet and spicy pepper jam, lettuce and tomato. The 24-hour grab-and-go counter is always stocked with classic fare like Noosa parfaits ($4.75), hard-boiled eggs ($3) and a buffalo pastrami sandwich ($10) that arrives stacked with local kraut, swiss and chimichurri aioli.
If a full-fledged meal is what you are after it’s best to turn to Former Saint. The food — developed and perfected by chef Paul French — consists of sturdy yet cultivated takes on classic American cuisine. Burgers and sandwiches all get an uplift and shared plates feature an almost cheeky inclusion of crispy quail and waffles ($13) — complete with pickled fresno, graham cracker porter syrup. Vegetables receive just treatment — with a variety of salads being joined by charred cauliflower and the unmissable carrot gnocchi ($9), that comes topped with a healthy dollop of ricotta and abundant pistachio pesto. As with most everything on the menu the pasta is portioned large — the outdated notion that excellent food needs to come in small packages is noticeably absent here.
The main courses are where French really shines. The seared scallops ($24) come with cauliflower purée, warm vegetable salad, house tasso ham and almonds. The juicy mollusks have a bold flavor, but the artful presentation manages to excite nearly as much as the meal itself. The buffalo hanger steak ($24) is a healthy portion of the prairie beast joined by rosemary garlic butter, gremolata frites, ip8 vinegar aioli and hydro greens.
The Paloma Ex Santo ($13) — a winner at the 2018 Top Taco — combines tequila ocho plata, grapefruit juice, lime grapefruit soda and is garnished with a smoked sea salt rim. While nothing about the drink is outlandish, the deft mixing makes for a championship drink. The Denver Mint ($12) is Breckenridge Bourbon, mint, raspberry, lemon, cranberry juice and simple syrup. The concoction tastes like a headlong dive into a raspberry bush at full bloom.
Hyatt guests have the good fortune of being a captive audience for both Former Saint and Assembly Hall. As for the rest of Denver, the colossal space stands at ready for anyone ready to indulge.
Former Saint is located at 650 15th St., Denver. It is open everyday 6 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Assembly Hall Market is open every day from 11 a.m. – 1 a.m. with the kitchen closing at midnight. The grab-and-go counter is open 24 hours a day.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.