In what is now nearing a century, the basement beneath Fort Collins’ Armstrong Hotel has worn many hats. It has acted as storage, as the unofficial practicing area for music professor Morris Nellermore and as several iterations of nightlife locale. Named after former hotel owner and city hospitality hero Ace Gillett, the space has been operating under the eponymous title for a decade, only this year undergoing renovations that have shifted the room into the future while still maintaining the prohibition aesthetic that patrons have come to know and love. Gillett was known for smuggling liquor into town in a hollowed-out compartment in his notorious black Ford — a source of much-needed relief in a county that remained dry until 1969. The updated speakeasy acts a suitable homage to a man committed to keeping the party going — law be damned.
The renovation involved a complete makeover of all the adjoining rooms, including the addition of a vinyl DJ booth where patrons can request tracks and buy records. Food and drink options also got a facelift. The new cocktail menu was developed in partnership with Proprietors LLC – the prestigious cocktail specialists responsible for both the New York and Denver Death and Co. locations. All bartenders received training regarding both the updated list and more general techniques. Chef Gustavo Gonzalez — most recently of Sunrise Ranch — was brought aboard to curate the food, which after some tinkering landed on upscale supper club fare.
The menu is short and sweet, with generous portions of comfort food recalling supper clubs past. Gonzalez’s attention to local ingredients and fine-dining techniques breathes new life into many of the classics — with bites, shared plates, salads, supper, flatbreads and desserts all bringing to mind more nostalgic meals. The Sunrise Ranch Meatloaf ($15) — made with tender beef cheek, truffle and buttermilk mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, tomato red pepper gravy and fresh herbs — is an inspired take on the home-kitchen favorite. The Old Bay Poached Shrimp ($13) are served with a smoky mezcal cocktail sauce. On the sweeter side, the Oreo Cheesecake ($8) is topped with fruit compote, the crust acting as a masterclass in all things crunch. The intentionally unchallenging food brings a sense of tranquility and helps tie together the venue’s position as a community hub.
The drink selection properly blends well-executed classics with imaginative concoctions, all keeping the place’s reputation for high-proof beverages alive and well. The Savory F. Avery ($8) is blanco tequila, green chile, carrot and lime juice, peach and house hot sauce. The spice and earthy flavors mask much of the booze, making the colorful blend deceptively easy-drinking. The Behind the Back ($12) with rye, sweet vermouth, Marin Quina and Douglas Fir conjures Death and Co.’s penchant for the ornate. While the bar certainly received a facelift, all the joviality that has become synonymous with the Gillett name remains. “We like Japanese whiskeys to tall Cold Snacks,” grinned manager Sam Garoutte.
The interplay between the more lighthearted and welcoming cordiality and the sophisticated methods gives Gillett’s a great deal of allure. As does the history. While neither the hotel nor the speakeasy necessarily feel haunted, they are both greatly enlivened by their rich past.
Ace Gillett’s is located at 259 South College Ave., Fort Collins. It is open Sunday – Thursday 5 – 11 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. – 1 a.m.
All photography courtesy of Ryan Sheets and Ace Gillett’s.