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Now that we’ve got to bed in 2020 (shame we couldn’t choke it with a pillow) it’s time to think about brighter days. It will still be tough for the hospitality industry in 2021 as vaccination rollouts will be slow and large gatherings will likely be limited for at least the first half of the new year. But warmer weather and relaxed COVID restrictions should get Denver guests out of their hibernation caves onto the patios and dining rooms of restaurants by summer. The dining rooms that survived the pandemic.
To survive, restaurants still have to work hard and revitalize old business models on a large scale to accommodate a post-COVID economy. Meanwhile, news of limited reopening of dining rooms on Metro Denver had a better start to the year than usual. Perhaps the annual downturn in the restaurant from January to March this year doesn’t seem quite as bad.
Here are five more predictions for the Denver food and restaurant scene in 2021:
Street food will be big in 2021, including La Esquina Del Sabor in Aurora.
Street food will be huge
While many people continue to be concerned about sharing the interior space with strangers, Coloradans have shown themselves willing to dine al fresco. Last summer there was an increase in outdoor markets, pop-ups, and food truck gatherings in previously undeveloped locations, and the trend should only pick up with a sunny spring.
Last fall, newcomer Oh Golly Dumplings popped up in multiple locations, including Alley on Dairy Block, Pony Up, and Way Back, and in Aurora, food truck group added Esquina Del Sabor on the corner of Chambers Road and East Colfax Avenue adds a great variety of Latin American dishes. The night market was also a favorite as it served street food and sold locally made products at Fort Greene in Globeville and other locations.
Look for unique and innovative offerings at farmers markets, bars, suburban recreation centers, plazas, and other public spaces in 2021. Look out for stationary restaurants that cook on their terraces, add walk-in windows, and spill out onto the street.
DIY decor and convenience food will return
Unfortunately, dozens of vacant restaurant space remains unused as so many stores closed in 2020 while other vacant spaces from restaurant closings in previous years were not claimed. The result is a large inventory of available rental space, and the Denver dining scene abhors a vacuum. As the economy improves, young and energetic chefs and restaurateurs will step in, many of whom are hungry for work after months of unemployment.
But money is running out, so we may not see the shiny finishes and high-quality furniture that have marked lavish openings in recent years. Instead, look back at the great recession of 2009 and 2010 when entrepreneurs built their dreams out of reclaimed materials, beetle pine and elbow fat. And instead of indulging in fancy flights, kitchens will produce the foods that make us feel warm and safe, but not necessarily easy to replicate at home.
Will that lead to more fried chicken, pizza, and burritos? Probably, but creative thinkers will breathe new life into familiar foods – like Danger Zone Calzones, who turned a Broadway storefront into a tribute to Top Gun. The calzone specialist opened its doors today, Jan 4th, giving us fun and entertaining things to look forward to in its new location on 32 Broadway while continuing to schedule appearances with the Danger Zone food truck.
Havana Street is a great place to find new restaurants like Portico or Seoul Mandoo that are used to make these dumplings.
The international cuisine will increase
Much vacant restaurant space is in the suburbs, where rents are cheaper and where immigrant communities have settled. You can already find great food from around the world there, but more international restaurants will open in 2021 as newcomers from Southeast Asia, Africa, and China try to feed their communities while offering something new in the city at the same time.
The Portico Eritrean and Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar recently opened at 1050 South Havana in Aurora in the former home of El Jaripeo. Look for more of this in the coming months.
Chef Dave Hadley started his own samosa company in 2020, and 2021 could see expansion.
Outside employment could turn into long-term businesses
Many chefs and other professionals in or alongside the catering industry were unemployed in 2020 – but instead of giving up, they started their own company that made food from kitchens and commissioners. One of the first was Pandemic Donuts, which started as a pure donut bakery last April and is now moving into five points at Queen City Coffee Collective. KREAM Kimchi started as a project to deliver free kimchi to friends of founder Virgil Dickerson and is now a company that has grown by leaps and bounds. Chefs Eric Chiappetta and Dave Hadley started Minga Provisions and the Samosa Shop, and pasta delivery companies like Fantasioso Foods and Casa Crobu also made their debut.
Will we find some of these products on grocery store shelves in 2021? It would be great to see more locally made food alongside national brands.
Bars are the last to be restored
The state of Colorado’s color-coded COVID dial doesn’t leave much room for watering holes that don’t serve food or haven’t found a way to work with food trucks, neighboring restaurants, or other food manufacturers. Bars without any form of catering service cannot be opened under the current red or orange level restrictions, and even if we switch to yellow and blue, they cannot be opened.
Only when we reach Level Green (or Protect Our Neighbors, the lightest level of restrictions) can bars with a capacity of 50 percent be reopened. Why? “We don’t want Colorado to become a mecca of nightlife in the pandemic,” Governor Jared Polis said in June. And while some of us are perfectly content to sip whiskey sodas by ourselves in a half-empty pub, most drinking spots exist for social purposes – and socializing will be one of the final milestones in a return to normal.
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Mark Antonation is the Westword Food & Drink Editor. He began eating and writing about every restaurant on Federal Boulevard, and continues to cover the diverse international food scene on Metro Denver and the city’s rapidly changing dining landscape. Mark was named an Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association in 2018.