It’s not that chain restaurants are inherently bad; it’s more that they’re inherently uninteresting.
Their role is to be consistent, expected, predictable. But when chewing through one of life’s greatest pleasures — eating! — we need more than consistent, expected and predictable. We need a surprise.
We need to be shaken out of the familiar and tossed into new frontiers of flavor and culinary epiphanies. We need our palates challenged and sharpened. We need to read a menu and go into foodie fight or flight mode, salivating over our impending adrenaline-filled adventure, where all we have to do to join in is to bite. We need to eat and drink something new.
Call it sad, call it awesome, call it a sign of the times, but many chain restaurants have served their last Grand Slam breakfast and Bloomin’ Onion over the past few years. What’s risen from their flat-top burger-y ashes, though, is far more interesting.
A crop of surprising restaurants and bars have opened up in these vacant chains, serving up so much more than predictability. From a tiki bar in a former Longmont Outback Steakhouse to a Village Inn-turned-soul food destination to a south suburban mini-chain reimagined as a food hall, here are three spots making chains cool again.
A packed bar at Swaylo’s Tiki in Longmont. (Provided by Swaylo’s)
The tiki bar that took over Outback
When Sean and Rebecca Gafner saw a vacant Outback Steakhouse in Longmont, visions of rum and tiki torches danced through their heads. “Those Outbacks, they’re just a big square building,” Sean Gafner said. “When we saw it, we could immediately see it turning into a tiki hut.”
So the pair, who own three other restaurants in Longmont, got to work ripping out the landscaping and planting bamboo, covering the roof in thatch and stocking the bar with more than 100 rums. The result is Swaylo’s Tiki, Longmont’s first tiki bar, which opened in March.
“It looks so different now that you can’t get within a block of it and still possibly think it’s an Outback,” Gafner said.
The Outback wasn’t their first choice for the tiki hut, but other locations fell through, and they liked the idea of bringing something so different to the chain-filled southwest Longmont neighborhood — which they nicknamed Swaylo — where they live. Plus, the Outback already had a large, ready-to-cook-in kitchen and plentiful parking, two appealing selling points.
Now, instead of grabbing a steak and a martini in a fairly sterile setting, diners can sip on rum and pineapple-filled Junglebirds served out of ornate flamingo glasses and nibble on spam musubi and honey-glazed mango shrimp, all while gazing upon taxidermied blowfish and totems.
“The focus is always on downtown, so we wanted to bring something to southwest Longmont,” Gafner said. “This Tiki concept has been our heart, and this is an awesome part of Longmont. We wanted to do rum and seafood in southwest Longmont, and we are super grateful to be able to do it at this time.”
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
AURORA, CO – JUNE 1 : CoraFaye’s Cafe owner Priscilla Smith photographed at the restaurant in Aurora, Colorado on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
From soulless to soul food
CoraFaye’s Cafe isn’t new. Priscilla Smith’s soul food, Southern staple first lived on Colorado Boulevard in Park Hill for a decade before moving to a second-floor space on East Colfax Avenue that closed due to COVID in 2020.
But then it brought a fresh look and flavor to the former Village Inn at East Colfax and Chambers. And although she opened there more than a year ago, Smith said she still gets people coming in expecting to find a Village Inn.
“It’s kind of funny; they come in on autopilot not noticing the change until they sit down and look at the menu,” Smith said. “We now serve a quick breakfast on Saturday and Sunday inspired by them. Just like many of our customers, they’re slowly becoming a part of CoraFaye’s family, craving our homemade fried chicken, catfish, pork chops and frog legs.”
Smith said that CoraFaye’s previous home was nice and comfortable, but it was hard for customers to find. Then, when COVID killed indoor dining, revenues dried up, and it didn’t make sense for Smith to keep paying rent, workers and utilities, so she closed for about a year. She wasn’t specifically looking to take over a former chain restaurant when she reopened, but the old Village Inn had a lot to offer.
“It’s not easy finding a location like this with high visibility, a well-kept building, terrific parking and, a bonus, great landlords,” Smith said. “It was the size and location, plus it was a well-known restaurant destination for over 40 years. It’s true what they say: location, location, location. It’s working for us. We even have our own big, fat, beautiful marquee that’s highly visible and well-lit. Good bones, too. We can honestly say we’re enjoying the space and are blessed to have it.”
Grange Hall in Greenwood Village is the first food hall by Denver restaurateur Troy Guard and features 10 stalls and an on-site craft brewery. (Marc Piscotty, provided by Grange Hall)
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Greenwood Village needed a food hall more than it needed its C.B. & Potts. So when chef Troy Guard was asked to check out the mega-space on Arapahoe Road, he knew this would be where he opened his first food hall, Grange Hall. He kept the bar the same, but changed everything else, including adding the eight stalls that serve everything from pizza to PB&J hoagies to German affogato.
“It kind of fell into our laps,” Guard says of the C.B. & Potts space. “They did very well there, it was a great location for them. Their brand was 25, 30 years old, and they needed a change. We came in and we really loved the area and the space.”
Grange Hall opened in September 2021, and in the months since, Guard has learned both the ups and downs of taking over an older chain restaurant. “With a second-generation space like that, there are a lot of things that creep up. Every other week something breaks that we weren’t ready for. Little things here and there that are a pain in the butt. But other than that, I really like reusing the space and coming up with something different for the location.”
While frozen pipes and a broken HVAC system are downs, the history and character of the building are ups, along with having a built-in clientele who already know the space as a fun dining destination. “Almost weekly we get people coming in who are like, ‘Where did C.B. & Potts go?’” Guard says. “But we also get all the people who used to like it and want to check out what we’re doing.”
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