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David Holub

Eating, drinking in Denver, I see how standing out sells

I found myself in Denver last weekend for the Colorado Press Association’s annual conference, and when not conferencing, I navigated knots of freeways, light rails and Ubers to venture into the big city. I drew distinctions between a metro area that has about 2.8 million more humans than Durango, distinctions big and small, obvious and subtle, all making me appreciate the snarling traffic on Camino del Rio and our lone Main Avenue, but also prompting ideas about how things might be different here.

The main destination Saturday was a beer festival we happened to hear about a day before leaving Durango. The House that Beer Built, a benefit for Habitat for Humanity, invited 21 Denver breweries (about 1/1000th of all Denver breweries) to Great Divide Brewing’s bottling hall for what I assume was the first inside beer festival ever conceived. The festival attracted some breweries whose beer we see here in Durango – Great Divide, Epic, Crazy Mountain and Dry Dock – but also had what I think of as neighborhood breweries, which I think make the craft brewing explosion quite exciting: These are not big distributors and may not distribute much at all. They’re small-batch breweries, like Living the Dream down the street from my brother’s house in Littleton, tucked into neighborhood strip malls or industrial parks in the suburbs with loyal, nearby clientele. They harken to the late 1800s – the last peak of breweries in America – where, if you wanted beer, you’d go to nearby pubs that made it themselves.

Beyond Great Divide’s Roadie Grapefruit Radler, the grapefruitiest summer session ever, which I was assured would make it to Durango soon, the clear winner of the festival for me was the Lupulin ’Ohana Pineapple Juicy IPA from Fiction Beer Co., whose employees began to recognize me after I’d gone back for sixths.

The pineapple IPA did everything right – a hazy yellow-orange sunset in color, not over-hopped, the pineapple flavor definitely there to taste but not overwhelming – but it was the concept of the brewery that intrigued me. Located on Colfax by the old Stapleton Airport, Fiction Beer Co. is, as you might guess, book-themed: The bar is craftily built on stacked books, the beers categorized by genre (Classic, Adventure, Fantasy) and named with literary-themed inside jokes. The brewery also hosts book clubs.

Fiction got me thinking about how, for businesses in a big city, questions of “What makes us unique?” and “Why would someone come here instead go there?” become ever more important. Sometimes it’s location, like the neighborhood breweries, or something so niche, like Fiction.

Or sometimes, it can be through specialization and doing one or two things really well.

That was the case with Machete Tequila + Tacos, a posh, trendy restaurant near Union Station that we hit up after the beer festival. Its drink menu consisted almost entirely of tequila (about 45 different kinds) and margaritas (13). And while they had some chips and salsa-type appetizers, a few quesadillas and such on the menu, Machete’s food focused almost entirely on street-style tacos – beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish – 17 in all. And, considering all the tacos eaten by everyone in my group, Machete nailed it.

It occurred to me that in a city of millions like Denver, the impetus to specialize is greater, where in a city like Durango, where you can find burgers, tacos and pizza on just about every menu in town, the temptation to offer general, wide-ranging menus seems just as potent. Because here, especially with the influence of tourists, if you don’t have French fries on the menu and bottles of Bud Lite somewhere on hand, it might be one more reason for customers to find a place that does.

So while expansive menus with a little something for everyone are the norm in Durango, let’s be on the lookout for those places here courageous enough to step out and do something truly simple, unique and different, the places that cling to their niche and do one or two things really well. It’ll make us that much more unique.